The 40 days of Lent recall the 40 days of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness (Mt 4:1-11, Mk 1:12-13, Lk 4:1-13). The story of Jesus’ time in the desert is always read on the first Sunday of Lent as a reminder that we are each called to explore our own temptations and the deserts within us that allow them to flourish.
Living the 40 Days as Catholics
The First Temptation: MATERIALISM
The Gospel of Luke tells us that it is at the end of his 40 days of fasting in the desert that the devil approaches him: What is the real temptation here? Jesus is hungry and clearly has the power to work this miracle. But bread represents earthly goods, and Jesus knows that his hunger can be satisfied by God alone. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus does not condemn the material goods that we need to survive and thrive as human persons; rather, he challenges us to give up those “things” that keep us from being faithful to God. We are children of God, and in God is the fullness of our identity. When the rich official approaches Jesus in Lk 18:18, Jesus tells him everything that he must do inherit eternal life. When Jesus reminds him to keep the commandments, the man insists that he has done so for his entire life. But what Jesus knows about this man is that his heart is set on something other than God. So Jesus tells him, “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The Gospels tell us that the rich official, clearly dismayed by this advice, “went away sad.”
The three traditional pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The giving of alms can be traced back to before the time of Jesus. In the parable of the poor widow, Jesus uses the tradition of almsgiving to teach us about generosity. He says that it is the widow who gives the better share because she gives out of her daily living expenses, out of her poverty, while the rich give simply from their surplus (Lk 211-4). This Gospel passage reminds us that sharing our blessings is not optional for Catholic Christians. Works of charity and the promotion of justice are integral to the Christian way of life.
The Second Temptation: POWER
Next, the devil brings Jesus up and shows him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The tempter promises that Jesus will be the ruler of everything in everything the land, if he would only prostrate himself in worship. Jesus replies, “It is written: You shall worship the Lord, your God and him alone shall you serve.”
The second pillar of Lenten practice is prayer. The act of praying, especially the prayer Jesus taught us, expresses our humility and dependence on God. Jesus shows us how to pray in the Gospels when he hands on the words of the Lord’s Prayer. He encourages us to address God as Father — literally, Abba, or “Dad.” Jesus welcomes us into a relationship with God; in order to sustain this relationship, he gives us words to communicate with the Divine. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we acknowledge our own struggle with striving to be powerful and are reminded that even our “daily bread” comes from the true source of power, God.
The Third Temptation: EGO
Finally, the Gospel of Luke goes on to tell us that Jesus is brought to Jerusalem, made to stand on the parapet of the temple, and taunted to “throw himself down” to prove that he is the Son of God. Jesus tells the tempter that the Lord God is not to be put to the test. In other words, Jesus does not have to prove who he is or why he is on earth through miraculous shows of strength or dazzling deeds. He has no need to puff up his own ego. Jesus does not need fame.
The Practice of Fasting
Fasting is more than simply developing self-control around food. Spiritual fasting reminds us of our hunger for God. The Lenten pillar of fasting is one of the most ancient practices in Lent. The early Church celebrated the Paschal fast — abstaining food for two days before the Easter Vigil. The Second Vatican Council Vigil us to renew the observance of this tradition:
Fasting and Abstinence
Lent is a season of soul-searching and repentance, a season for reflection and taking stock of the patterns of sin in our lives. Lent is also a time of preparation. We journey into the desert for forty days to face our temptations and prepare our hearts for a new way of being. Through the penitential practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we ready ourselves to celebrate God’s marvelous redemption at Easter, and the resurrected life that we live, and hope for, as Christians.