Lent, prayer, and penitence
There are two signs of old age. One is you forget things. I can’t remember what the other is! With all the activity of Christmas and New Year, I had forgotten that I am supposed to write a column for The Interim each month. But a few days ago I called into the Campaign Life office and met David Curtin, the editor of The Interim. His first question was, “Do you have your article for February?” I had to admit that I had forgotten about it. He said that he would need it the next week. I said, “What shall I write about?” and David said, “What about an article on Lent? As far as I know, most of the readers of the Interim are Christian and Lent is a Christian period of prayer and penitence, so I decided it was a good idea.
I believe that the English word “Lent” comes from an old English word, which refers to the “lengthening” of the days preparing for the summer. And, spiritually speaking, the period of Lent is a preparation for the great feast of Easter, which is the greatest feast of the Christian year. St. Paul says, “If Christ is not risen, our Faith is in vain.” If the Gospel had concluded with the words, “Then they closed the tomb and all withdrew,” Jesus Christ might be a footnote in the pages of history. But the removal of “The Stone” was the stamp of God the Father’s approval of everything Jesus said and everything He did.
The Latin word for Lent is “Quadragesima” which means “forty.” If you subtract the Sundays, there are exactly 40 days in Lent. But why 40? Why not 25 or 50, which are more often used in common parlance? I believe the reason is that 40 is a very important number in the Bible. Before the Flood, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. The Chosen People spent 40 years in the desert on their journey to the Promised Land. Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai, waiting for the Ten Commandments. And Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting and praying in the desert before beginning His public life. I believe it is this last episode which prompted the Church to decide on 40 days for Lent. Jesus did not need to do penance, for He is God. But He wanted to give us an example, as we certainly need to do penance for our sins and those of the world.
Why did Satan tempt Jesus? There are different opinions, but some Scripture scholars think that Satan was not certain whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. Satan does not know everything! So, he wanted to test Him to see if there was a weakness, which would prove that He was not the Son of God.
It is interesting to note that the temptations with which he tried Jesus are, in principle, the foundations of most of our sins and imperfections. Jesus was very hungry after 40 days of fasting, so Satan suggests that He turn the stones into bread to relieve His bodily hunger. In other words, he appeals to the desires of the body. Jesus could have turned the stones into bread but He will not succumb to the temptation of Satan. So He reminds him and us of a very important fact, “Not on bread alone (that is, bodily needs) does man live.”
The second temptation is to human vanity. If Jesus had floated down from the top of the temple, what an impression He would have made on the people of Jerusalem! (This was in the days before helicopters and parachutes, remember). But Jesus reminds Satan that we do not challenge God to change the laws of nature to satisfy our vanity. “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”
The Devil then tempts Our Lord with the most insidious of all temptations – the temptation to seek power. He took Him to a great height and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world. He offered Him power over all these kingdoms – “if falling down you will adore me.”
Politicians take note! The desire for unlimited power is probably the greatest of all temptations. Some politicians will sell their souls for power. Jesus gives Satan the only appropriate answer to this temptation, “The Lord thy God thou shalt adore and Him only shalt thou serve.” In Catholic parishes this story (Matt. 4: 1-11) is the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent, and as such it is very appropriate. The Catechism lists the Seven Deadly Sins – the foundations of our temptations – as follows: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Each of these can be put under one or other of the temptations of Christ.
Lent is a time for taking stock of our values and how we live our daily lives. We are living in a very secular and materialistic age. Technology has developed more during this century than it did from the beginning of time. I believe it is true to say that the grandparents of anybody who has reached the age of seventy years never saw a motor car, an aeroplane, a radio, or a television. And they certainly never heard of the Internet. Today our lives are to a great extent governed by these technological wonders. There has always been sin in the world since Adam fell. But today we are inundated by the world and its values as never before. Hence, it is not easy to dwell on the real meaning of life, the evil of sin, the reality of death, and the importance of salvation. So Lent is a time when the Church urges us to at least mentally withdraw from the world and its false values and concentrate on the true meaning of life as taught to us by Christ, given to us by the Church, and based on the teaching of the Gospels.
What would I suggest as the most appropriate approach to Lent? While, of course, attendance at Church is vital, I believe that private or personal prayer has a value all its own. By personal prayer I do not mean just reciting prayers by heart but making personal contact with God, talking to Him and listening to Him in our hearts.
Dwelling on Scripture
Reading a passage of Scripture and dwelling on it can be very helpful in our approach to God. One great value of this kind of prayer is that we take it with us into the world of work and play. It helps us to take a good practical look at how we are treating other people at home, at work or in our social relations.
Our Lord said to us, “Love one another as I have loved you.” And remember that He loved us unto death on the Cross. He also said, “As long as you did it to one of my least brethren you did it unto me.” And that means both the good and the bad. Without daily contact with Our Lord, we cannot live up to these standards. On the other hand, those who really pray with attention will see Christ in the people who cross their path during the day.
Another thing daily prayer will help us to do is to carry our daily crosses, and there are many – physical, psychological, and spiritual. Our Lord told us, “Take up your daily cross and follow Me.” Our physical crosses are the normal sufferings of the body – headaches, arthritis, ingrown toenails, etc. Our psychological ones include our relations with family, friends, and co-workers, in addition to personal depression and other daily problems. Our spiritual crosses are our temptations to sin, not living up to our responsibilities, forgetting what life is all about in the spiritual sense. How should we react to these temptations? Prayer will tell us!
What about penance?
And what about Lenten penance? When I was young and before Vatican II, the Lenten penances were spelled out for us at Church on Sundays. Now, apart from fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we are left on our own. And it is not always easy to decide, “What shall I do for Lent?” But I think each of us can do some penances – a little less food, doing without sugar in our coffee or tea, giving up smoking if we smoke and giving up “drink” if we drink.
I think that the controlling of our tongue is of vital importance. St. James in his letter (chapter 3) speaks eloquently about the tongue and its power for good or evil. Lent is a time when we should try to “tame our tongues,” with the help of grace and use them to help rather than to hinder other people. To quote St. James, “But if a person never makes a mistake in what he says, he is perfect and is able to control his whole being.” It’s worth trying during this Lent.
I shall conclude with a verse, which I have printed more than once but which is certainly worth learning by heart. It is an examination of conscience before we close our eyes in sleep.