Lent is almost upon us. Those fortunate enough to attend the Extraordinary Form have been blessed with Mother Church’s wise, gradual approach to the season of sacrifice. Beginning two weeks ago with Septuagesima Sunday (the seventieth day before Easter), the Gloria and Alleluia were dropped and the priests vested in violet. Those faithful, at least, were alerted to Lent’s approach.
But most of us, lacking that liturgical warning track, run into Lent at full tilt. Ash Wednesday arrives and we rush out the door with half-baked Lenten resolutions (usually the same as last year. . .and the year before. . .and. . .) and a vague idea of what it’s about. Which is all to say that, since Ash Wednesday is this week, we should take today and the next few days to prepare for Lent.
Lent’s forty days are of course inspired by our Lord’s forty days in the desert. We are meant to accompany Him in that time of trial. In this regard, notice that Jesus went into the desert to be tempted by the Devil. (Lk 4:2) It was not that He went out for a “desert experience” (as bubblegum spirituality would say), a nice, quiet, peaceful retreat, only to have the evil one ruin it for Him. Rather, He went out precisely to face temptations, to do battle with the tempter – and to triumph. So also for us: Lent is a time of entering into combat, to “take up battle against spiritual evils.” (Collect for Ash Wednesday).
The account of the temptation in the desert (which we will hear next Sunday) describes three approaches the Devil makes against Jesus and, by extension, against us. But we get perhaps a better sense of the battle by considering the broader picture, what the Devil is all about. The Devil’s error was, out of pride, to reject God’s invitation to a higher life, to beatitude. As Dominican father Serge-Thomas Bonino puts it, the Devil “preferred to cling to what he controlled rather than to be open to the divine call to ‘put out into the deep.’” Preferring greatness on his own terms, he refused God’s call. This is one theological point Milton got right: Satan does prefer “to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven.”
Punished for assuming divine prerogatives, Satan is ever fated to ape the One he rejected. Just as God wants to conform us to Himself, so the evil one wants to reproduce his error in us. He desires that we cling to whatever natural goodness we have and reject God’s invitation; that we jealously control our lives rather than surrender them for beatitude. The Devil seeks to get even Jesus Himself to settle, to turn Him away from the Sacrifice that makes Him “highly exalted.” (Phil 2:9)
Failing in that, he now seeks to turn us away from supernatural beatitude and toward pure naturalism. That is, he entices us to remain on the merely natural level – content to be God’s creatures rather than His children. Again Bonino: “there is something demonic in the naturalism that promotes man’s fulfillment at the purely human level” – and, one can add, at the cost of beatitude.
During Lent, we battle against this naturalism that keeps us from responding to God’s invitation or seeking greater holiness. We assault precisely those things that shackle us to our worldly, natural complacency. We use the weapons of self-denial – prayer, fasting, almsgiving – to surrender control and respond to His call.
This requires an adjustment of thinking for many of us. For we often treat even our Lenten observances as occasions for mere human improvement. They become just another way of being in control. Thus there is the stoic view of Lenten resolutions as something to be borne with a stiff upper lip. Worse still, many of us treat Lent as the spiritual equivalent of a breath-holding contest. We keep it together until Easter and then – breathing a sigh of relief – resume our former life, no better for those forty days.
No, our Lenten resolutions are the means by which we relinquish control, sever what constrains us, fight against the tempter, and respond to God’s call.
Prayer. By better and deeper (not necessarily more) prayer we surrender first of all our time, perhaps our most prized possession. More importantly, prayer launches us into trusting God’s call. It ultimately requires being vulnerable before God, relying not on our ability to pray but on His invitation.
Fasting. There is the literal fasting that drags “brother ass” into the great adventure of trusting God. We deliberately set aside what satisfies, sustains, and settles us precisely so that we can know our deeper hunger. . .and know Him Who alone satisfies. Then there is the “giving something up for Lent,” as we commonly say. Our sacrifice should be simple, deliberate, and constant. The purpose is not to see if we can go the distance, but to experience the lack of what we think we need.
Almsgiving. We give alms not only because others need assistance (they do!), but also because we need to jettison portions of what makes us feel self-sufficient and settled. Most important is that our giving be deliberate. It should pinch us a bit, to remind us of our ultimate poverty and what makes for true wealth.
Put out into the deep, we hear in today’s Gospel. (Lk 5:4) It is the invitation rejected by the evil one. Responding to that call required Peter to surrender control and trust this carpenter from Nazareth. (What did He know about fishing, anyway?) Put out into the deep. It is an apt phrase for launching into Lent. He asks us to take Him aboard, weigh anchor, and push out – that is, to relinquish control, battle our complacency, and respond to His call.