Lent 2022 kicks off this Wednesday, when together we will begin another 40-day pilgrimage to Easter. It’s about this time every year that we start giving some thought to what our Lenten discipline will be, that is, what we plan to give up for Lent. Traditionally, Catholics are called upon to do three things during the Lenten season: 1) prayer, 2) fasting, 3) almsgiving. These three disciplines come to us from Christ, who speaks of them during the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:1-18). The three disciplines are not just randomly chosen. They are specific remedies to specific struggles that all of us have as human beings who suffer the effects of Original Sin.
If we look back to the Book of Genesis and the story of the serpent’s temptation of Adam and Eve, we read: “The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So, she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Gen 3:6). Notice the three highlighted phrases. They correspond to three ancient roots of temptation within us – lust (which affects all desires of the flesh, including food and drink), greed, and pride.
The Lenten disciplines help us to recognize and address our spiritual ailments. It’s not unlike a situation where one suffers with a bad back. If real health is desired, it is necessary to do the hard work of physical therapy, which involves doing exercises that strengthen core muscles. The exercises can be hard, even unpleasant, but if one is faithful to them they can bring great relief and the ability to move again with greater freedom. When it comes to the struggle with temptation and habitual sin, fasting is the discipline that strengthens us against lust, almsgiving is the discipline that fights greed, and prayer helps us to fight against pride. Although Christ, being God, could not sin, we see how the Devil tries to tempt Him in these three ways (Lk 3:1-13). First, Satan tempts Jesus to end His fast by changing stones into loaves of bread to lustfully satisfy His hunger. Second, Satan tempts Jesus to greedily seize possession of the splendor of all worldly kingdoms. Third, Satan tempts Jesus to throw Himself down from the top of the Temple and be caught by angels, a prideful manifestation of power intended to captivate the attention and impress onlookers. Our Lord rejects these temptations as part of His mission to set things right after the failings of our first parents. Christ remains steadfast in the face of temptation, whereas Adam and Eve gave in.
As we consider what to give up this Lent, we shouldn’t think of it as an opportunity to lose weight and save money by eating and spending less. We should keep in mind that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are remedies for our real spiritual and moral struggles. The specific disciplines we choose need not be severe or extreme, but they should affect our daily habits so that we discover the reality of our weakness and our need for God’s grace and mercy. And if we live our Lent well, it will have the effect of increasing our desire for the arrival of Easter, a season of feasting in commemoration of Christ’s victory over death; a season lived in anticipation of the eternal banquet that we hope for when our years of holy pilgrimage on earth come to an end.