In this first week of Lent, the Gospel in Matthew tells of the temptation of Jesus in the desert as He prepared Himself for His public ministry. "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. . ." (Matt 4: 1)
He was tempted three times, and each time he rejected what was put before him; He was the victor, unencumbered by materialism, free of the world's empty lure. As we are "led by the Spirit" during Lent to go deeper with the Lord into the desert over these 40 days, it is a certainty that we, too, will be tempted. However, each time we overcome these tests, we grow stronger, and gain freedom.
On Ash Wednesday, we were marked with the Sign of the Cross on our foreheads. This is a reminder of the spiritual mark that seals us as Christians in baptism. At the Vigil of Easter we renew our baptismal promises, and the time in between is meant for us to think about what it means to be a Christian follower—our death to the world and our life in Him. For many of us, Lent is a helpful re-acquaintance with the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that should characterize our daily lives, but so often become neglected in day-to-day living.
In prayer and meditation, we set apart time to think about his passion, and to relate it to our own lives. We read the Scriptures, especially the passion accounts, and place ourselves within the scenes, considering, "When am I Peter, denying, or lying; when I am following the mob; when am I a torturer, when am I Mary, His suffering, helpless mother?" We are all of these characters, at one time or another. And in our meditations we cannot help but focus on Mary's faithfulness and her sorrow, no matter who we are. A non-Catholic friend recently said to me that since in her own role as a mom, she has been thinking much more, lately, about Mary as Jesus' mother, and with a new appreciation. Her motherhood has given her a whole new perspective on Mary.
Many years ago in Bible study, our leader gave us an acronym: ACTS, which stands for adore, confess, thanksgiving, and supplication. That is what prayer should be. So often when I pray, I regrettably go straight to the asking part. Once I read something about prayer that stuck with me, "Am I reaching out for His face, or am I reaching for His hand?" Yes, it made me think; more and more to think about. Meditation seems to come naturally in Lent, and is a good way to pray.
The fasting of Lent, while penitential, is not to impress God, but to help us. If we are a little hungry, we are reminded more often throughout the day of what the Lord did for us, and how he understands us. In Matthew 4:4, Jesus answered (the devil), "It is written: man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."
Isaiah 58:7 tells us what a true fast is. "...is it not to share your food with the hungry, and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"
For most of us, fasting is really a luxurious option. For so many others in the world, it is a way of life. Our fasting should make us mindful of those who don't have a pantry, or a refrigerator full of food. If we are able, especially in these difficult economic times, we can give to our local food shelf. I have volunteered with a group from my church at Feed My Starving Children, a program started here in Minnesota. We volunteer with others from many different faith groups, businesses, and other organizations, to prepare nutritious food packets for starving people throughout the world. Before we begin to work, we are told stories about those we're helping. There are people so hungry in our world that they will eat pebbles to fill their stomachs. There are mothers making mud biscuits for their children, to stop the hunger pains so their little ones can sleep. Knowing this can put Lenten fasting in a whole new light, and perhaps inspire us to help feed the hungry.
Lent is an opportunity for new growth in our faith life—a chance to develop some new habits to draw us closer to the Lord. Last year at the end of Lent, I decided to continue a few of the practices I had begun in that season, and they are now a part of my daily faith life.
Conversion is not just a one-time decision, but a living process, an active, growing life with God. If every morning we begin with a prayer of surrender, telling the Lord to take our day and all it brings, we can make our day a "living prayer" offering everything to Him for His purposes.
The disciplines of Lent are meant to help us learn that most difficult of lessons.