If you would like to follow me, take up your cross


The 40 days of Lent recall the 40 days of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness (Mt 4:1-11Mk 1:12-13Lk 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.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus, led by the Spirit into the desert, prayed, fasted, and overcame the temptations of the devil. It is in the wake of this desert experience that he begins his public ministry. The same is true for us. Throughout the season of Lent, the Spirit calls us to face the devil’s influence in our lives and to turn away from sin. The temptations that Jesus faces in the desert are those that many of us struggle with every day: materialism, ego, and power.

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.”

For Reflection

  • What are the “things” in my life that keep me from giving my whole self – body, mind, and spirit – to God?
  • What value do I place on material goods?
  • Is it difficult for me to share what I have been given with people who are less fortunate?

Give Alms

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.”

This temptation gets to the heart of who Jesus is as Messiah. He did not come to have power over the kingdoms of the earth even though, because of his divinity, he could assume it. Jesus does not set out to rule the world or gather power for himself. Rather, he comes to serve his flock through preaching, teaching, and healing. And Jesus knows that he must suffer. When he asks his apostles in Mk 8:29, “Who do you say that I am?” — Peter replies that Jesus is the Messiah. Then, Jesus begins to teach them that the Son of Man must be rejected and killed, but Peter cannot believe this notion of messiah. So Jesus rebukes him with the words, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” In essence, Peter is limiting Jesus’ role as Messiah to a powerful leader, while Jesus understands that he must endure great suffering in sacrifice for all.

Pray Daily

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.

Lent is a time to devote ourselves to prayer in a more intentional way. Set aside time every day to pray. Remember to pray for the gift of life, for all of the catechumens who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil and for the humility to serve others as Jesus did.

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.

Throughout the Gospels, we read of Jesus’ healings; he even raises Lazarus from the dead! But in not one of these instances do we read that Jesus healed a single person out of pride or ego. He is simply carrying out his mission on earth — to fulfill the coming of the reign of God. Jesus approaches his many miracles with great humility. In Mk 5:24-34, a woman with a hemorrhage reaches out and touches his cloak and is he healed immediately. The Gospel says that Jesus begins to look around for who touched his cloak “because he felt the power was drained out of him.” When the woman comes forward, Jesus actually gives her the responsibility for her own healing. He says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

For Reflection

  • Am I overly concerned with how other people view me, longing for fame and recognition of my gifts and talents?
  • Do I put myself and my own needs in front of others?
  • Does my love of self get in the way of my love of God?

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 help us overcome the temptations to selfishness that can come from an oversized ego.

Fasting and Abstinence

  • Fasting, means eating only one normal-sized meal and two small meals, with no snacks.
  • Abstinence means eating no meat. Milk-, eggs, and fish are fine.
  • Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of both abstinence and fasting.
  • Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence.
  • Those older than 14 are required to abstain from meat.
  • Those 22-59 are required to fast. Those with special medical conditions that prevent fasting are excluded.
  • Ash Wednesday is 46 days before Easter, but Lent is considered 40 days long, because Sundays are not counted as days of Lent. The reason? Fasting was considered inappropriate on Sunday, the day commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus.

Final Thoughts

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.