Once again, the season of Lent will soon be upon us. It almost seems as though we have gone from Christmas right into the penitential season of Lent. Even so, we must prepare in both body and soul as we walk with Our Lord in the desert and to Golgotha.
In the wonderful book, Meditations for Lent, (which is a collection of sermons from Jacques-Benigne Boussuet for each day of Lent) the editor begins with a discussion of Jesus and the path to salvation. It can be difficult in our busy days to remember that Lent has everything to do with our salvation. Lent has everything to do with the meaning of life, which is holiness.
The Lord tells us in Luke 13:24 to “strive to enter by the narrow door.” How should we understand these words?
We might understand him this way: “You, you give your heart to me, without reserve; this is the one thing needful. Do not allow your attention or your affections to be drawn away from my words, from my Sacred Heart. I am the Good Shepherd who will never leave you. In love, I will offer my life for you on Calvary; in love, will you offer your life for me and not count the cost? This is the proof of friendship, of love: to give all. I am the door; if you enter by me, you will be saved. You say that I am the Lord, the Messiah. Now give this belief flesh in your life. Follow me to Jerusalem.— Christopher O. Blum, Editor, Meditations for Lent, x.
It is in Lent that the Church walks the path to Calvary so that we may be fully united to Christ. It is the time the Church reminds us to give everything to Christ. The great climax will be during Holy Week, as we celebrate the Sacred Triduum. Here at the beginning of Lent, we must prepare our bodies and souls for the journey we are walking with Our Lord.
Why is Lent essential?
Lent is an inherently difficult season for all of us. Every single one of us has vices and sins we cling to no matter how many times we go to Confession and work to overcome them. Remember the words of St. Paul,
What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.— Romans 7:15
This battle with sin and weakness is lifelong. Most of us are not yet saints. In striving for holiness we must confront these weaknesses within ourselves, but under the guidance of Our Lord through the Church. Lent is the time in the liturgical calendar for our complete focus to be given over to Him through penitential and sacrificial practices. We should be striving to overcome our proclivities year round, but Lent is the perfect time to establish good habits while focusing on the undeserved, but gratuitous nature of the Paschal Mystery.
Lent begins with the Temptation in the Desert. After His Baptism, Our Lord goes out into the wilderness to contend with Satan and the sins which beguiled Israel throughout her history. The desire for worldly goods and power not only led to Israel’s unfaithfulness and idolatry, but they are the same temptations you and I fight against daily. In Our Lord’s Temptation we are shown it is possible to conquer these desires within ourselves through Him. These sins can be overcome by keeping our eyes fixed on Him and asking for the grace and strength to continue on the path. The goal for our lives is to hear: “Well done thy good and faithful servant” (Matthew 24:21) when we come before the Judgment Seat at the end of our earthly lives.
Tempering the Body
“The flesh is weak, but the spirit is willing” (Matthew 26:41). How many of us battle the flesh daily? We live in a culture that bombards us with images meant to invoke lust or overindulgence. TV, radio, Internet, all of these mediums (which are good within themselves) call us to carnal desires over temperance and holiness. We live in a super-sized, materialist, and over sexualized culture. All of these agendas impact us in one way or another. We are confronted with these temptations on a daily basis whether it be overeating, pornography, greed, or one of the many other forms these temptations take. These temptations target the flesh, but what we do to our bodies has a deep impact on our souls. For those of us who have not mastered temperance, myself included, the flesh does indeed seem weak. At times it seems insurmountable.
Our bodies are a good God has given us. We are not just spirits, we are body and soul. That reality will not change at the Resurrection at the end of time when we will be reunited with our glorified bodies. Far too many of us live as if our bodies matter little. It’s as if we are unconsciously living a heresy in denying the reality of our bodies. Lent is a time to work on conquering the flesh. It is a time to temper our bodies so that they may be rightly ordered to God.
Many people give up chocolate, sweets, or some other treat, but is this really enough? Is just giving up chocolate going to help you or me on the path to holiness? Does this particular fast get at the root of our personal vices? If we struggle with sugar, then yes, this would help with temperance. The question we really have to ask ourselves is: What are my bodily vices and sins? Vice is disordered or inordinate. Sweets are a good in themselves, as is all food. It really boils down to whether or not we control food or lust, or if they are controlling us. This is not about our culture’s worship of nutrition and the body. This is about healthy choices that are rooted in the virtues. It’s about making wise decisions about what we watch or ingest through media. Should we watch a show that invokes lust within us or is meant to invoke lust? We are called to have pure hearts, so we have to make judgments guided by our love for Christ.
My challenge for all of us is to focus this Lent on those areas where we allow the flesh to rule us. This can be tempered through giving up certain items, focusing on moderate doses, or an increase in fasting throughout the Lenten season. We can go above and beyond the fasting guidelines for our particular Rite. There are a wide variety of fasting traditions throughout the universal Church.
Strengthening the Spirit
We begin Lent remembering we are dust. This is marked on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday as a sign to us and the world. It is a much needed reminder that we will all die. This sign allows us to begin to focus on our eschatological end: Eternal life. As we walk with Our Lord in Lent, we must spend serious time with Him in prayer and in the Sacraments. If we do not pray, we cannot move forward on the path to holiness. We will stay firmly planted where we are, and if we are not praying, we need to consider why and if it is tied to the sin of sloth. If it is sloth, Lent is a good time to rid ourselves of this dangerous sin. Sloth is sorrow at the spiritual life. Mass is boring and burdensome. Prayer is too hard. Lent is so long. Sloth is to say no to God. Sloth greatly impedes our relationship with Christ and the Church. It is a deadly sin for a reason and that is because it causes us to distance ourselves from God in one way or another.
Lenten Spiritual Practices
Jesus Christ, Our Lord, the King of the Universe, took on human flesh and died a brutal, humiliating death on the Cross. He has given us the grace we need to persevere through the Sacraments and His Church. We have no excuse for denying what is rightly His: Our whole lives. Lent is the time to give everything back to God. It is a time to focus on prayer or begin praying if we haven’t been doing it. We can go to daily Mass when our schedule permits or participate in the Stations of the Cross on Friday evenings at our parishes throughout Lent. We are walking towards Calvary, with our own Crosses with Christ as our guide. Meditating on the Stations is a profound spiritual exercise which helps us to unite ourselves entirely to Our Lord.
It’s also good to remember in tempering the body, we are strengthening our spirits. We develop habits that make it easier for us to fight against temptation. Prayer reminds us to give everything up to God, especially in moments of weakness. If we do give into temptation, as we all do, then the Sacrament of Penance is always open to us. In fact, a great Lenten spiritual practice would be to go to weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly Confession. It is amazing how through frequent Confession Our Lord opens our eyes to the sins we cling to over our love of Him.
Spiritual reading is also a great addition to prayer. We are called to learn more about our Faith. The Church has 2000 years of spiritual material at our disposal, we only have to look and make the choice to read it. Meditations for Lent is a beautiful book with reflections for every day of Lent. Lent can seem long and when we fail in our penitential acts we can feel bogged down and give up. When we do fail we must pray for the grace and strength to get back up and try again. Our Lord fell three times on the way to His Crucifixion. We will fall, but Christ will help us up and point us to our ultimate home. May God bless you abundantly during this Lenten season.