First Sunday of Lent (A) | Br Samuel Burke surveys our battleplan for Lent.
Lent can be thought of as battle! It’s a time when we engage in a kind of assault against spiritual evils in order to ebb away at those things that come between us and God. Perhaps that might sound a little swashbuckling? But for good reason, many prayers and writings in the Christian tradition talk about spiritual warfare and describe Lent especially in militaristic terms. This idiom is appropriate in that a good Lent calls for nothing less than a concerted and consistent effort. For just as a war is won over the course of several battles, our striving to follow Christ is a long road, which includes many trials. In Lent especially, we survey that road and resolve to make some progress in the spiritual life, by the grace of God.
Like any military operation, we need maps and a good battle-plan, which guide and details our strategy. We need to adopt an approach in which we focus on some concrete objectives and anticipate weaknesses. Then there’s the weaponry. The traditional armoury for the Lent campaign consists in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. To this might be added what old tomes of chivalry refer to as the sword of truth and the shield of virtue. Extending the analogy even further, we might like to think of some cavalry, besides: self-denial, penance, spiritual exercises, and active works of charity. But whilst plans and equipment are essential, they are useless without a certain resolve, without a certain faith. The enemy of such determination is fear. Fear can take many forms. A common fear is the fear of failure. One can even wonder despondently whether victory is even possible. To this debilitating malaise, this Sunday’s readings offer some important things to say to us.
First, Jesus asks nothing of us that he hasn’t, in some sense, undertaken himself. Shortly after his Baptism, Jesus ventures into the wilderness, east of Jerusalem, for a time of prayer and fasting to prepare for his public ministry, and to reckon with his destiny. Lent is our attempt to emulate this preparation, and to reckon with our own destiny. For Jesus that meant a clear-eyed view not only of his mission but his sacrificial death on the cross, looming distantly on the horizon, some three years off in Jerusalem. Similarly for us, we began Lent a few days ago with a reminder of our own death, and like Jesus, we can be sure to face our own cross beforehand. We learn to carry — to embrace even — our cross, to view our little sufferings not as being in vain but strive to offer them up and somehow to unite them mystically to Christ’s, and in Lent especially.
Secondly, we live in a fallen world and a world in which we will fall but God is ever-merciful. Jesus stands as the new Adam, tempted by the devil not in the garden, the beautiful paradise of Eden of which we read in the First Reading, but in the bitter unremitting wilderness, in the vast wasteland, which resulted from Adam’s sin and which represents the sins of a fallen world. The enemy was the same for Adam, Jesus and us: the devil. We are no more immune from his advances than Adam. What’s more: we live with the effects of original sin. St. Paul writes to the Romans: “death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned”. But Paul continues to observe that though “after one single fall came judgement with a verdict of condemnation, now after many falls comes grace with its verdict of acquittal”. The grace, the medicine to the contagion in the ranks is God’s mercy, offered to us through the sacrament of Confession, and in Lent especially.
Thirdly, and most importantly: our battles are part of a war that He, Jesus, has already won. In Lent, we wage war on our own sins, but the same cannot be said of Jesus because he had none. Although free from sin, nevertheless Jesus fully shared our human nature. As a consequence, he faced the hardships of fasting and isolation much as we might. In humility, he endured the vulnerabilities of the human condition. And in his moment of apparent weakness, he is confronted by that spoiler-in-chief, the devil. The devil aimed to seduce Jesus, as he aims to seduce us, with his empty promises. The devil’s assault consists in appeals to pride, appetite, and greed – subtle at first, then increasingly brazen. All of these wiles drive towards one end: disobedience. Unassailed, Jesus maintains his humility and obedience. Of course, Jesus knows all too well what this path will cost him: an agonising death. He also understands his radical freedom to avoid such a path. But, unlike Adam, Jesus remains faithful, and resists the snares of the evil one. And, significantly, he does resist as man, i.e. in a human way. He uses no special powers from his divine nature. As St Thomas Aquinas says, Jesus conquers “by righteousness, not by power.” So, he uses only the means — the weapons, if you will — that are also available to you and me, in life, and in Lent especially.
So the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, like the arc of salvation history, show us that though we may be weak and mired in sin, defeat is not inevitable; though there may be setbacks, God is merciful; and though progress may be slow and come at great price with hardships and sufferings, we must persevere to the end. We don’t have to worry about being the best warrior, only a faithful one. For victory is promised and eternal redemption assured to anyone who would fight sin, carry their cross, and follow Jesus. That’s a resolution for life, and for Lent especially!
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a detail from the choir stalls at St Dominic’s Basilica in Bologna.