We have entered into the great and holy season of Lent. The collect for Ash Wednesday portrays Lent as armed conflict: “Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.” Christian service is military service, and we have entered a military campaign armed with weapons of “self-restraint” against spiritual enemies. The enemy opposing us is, in fact, the enemy we face every morning in the mirror: our own disordered passions and insecurities. Only self-restraint, discipline at times harshly administered, can gain victory in these contests.
Before we enter this conflict, the first reading from Genesis lays out our situation. First, we hear that God created us from “the clay of the earth,” as Ash Wednesday reminds us: “Remember O man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” We are body-soul composites: not angels, and not brutes, but a little of both. Next we hear that God planted us in his garden of delights, right among the blossoming fruit trees and a variety of animals. He gave us free will and commanded us to exercise careful stewardship of this garden. Then God drove a stake in the ground, called the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and said: I am God. You are not God. I alone have full knowledge and I set the moral law. Dominion is yours in many things, but you must obey the natural law. Finally, we hear how our first parents challenged God’s authority and violated the natural law, committing the Original Sin. This is our situation as we enter the war of Lent. Obedience to God is our freedom; we have lost it, but we are freedom-fighters working to regain it.
The Gospel then puts us into the desert with Jesus, because Lent is desert warfare. The Spirit drives him into the wastes to meet the enemy at close quarters. Jesus takes with him only the weapons of self-restraint—the very weapons Adam and Eve surrendered in the Garden on that fateful day. He talks to no one, sleeps on the ground, and refuses food and drink. On the fortieth day the Bible tells us, with typical Semitic understatement, Jesus was “hungry.” The serpent had left Adam in the garden, and now he returns to the new Adam in the desert. Satan tests Christ three times.
Test Number One: Satan suggests that Jesus turn a heap of stones into savory loaves. The Son of God replies with perfect self-restraint that his food is to do the will of his Father. Christ’s fast reveals how much we idolize food. There is hardly a moment when we are not thinking about our next meal. And not only food—we idolize every gift God bestows upon us, and then we pretend the Giver doesn’t exist. Fasting is house-to-house warfare designed to take out these idols. Meal by meal, we gain ground, breaking our dependence on earthly gifts. “Man lives not on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Test Number Two: Satan commands Jesus to test God by throwing himself off the temple parapet. Jesus responds simply that man does not test God. It is God who tests man. He trusts his Father enough not to test him. Jesus’ simple trust reveals humanity’s fundamental doubt. Skeptics all, we do not trust what we do not see. Only with misgivings and much bellyaching do we manage to trust God when he tests us. We would rather test him first, to see that he is real. When bad things happen to good people, how many of us pass the test? And so Christ’s second victory reverses Adam’s Original failure. Jesus shows us that we can trust God to be God, and that perfect happiness consists in perfect obedience to the author of all that is good.
Test number three: Satan takes Jesus to the top of the US Bank Tower in downtown LA—the tallest building west of the Mississippi—and offers him unlimited control over the Great City. Jesus replies with perfect humility that he will not attempt to rival God’s authority. The devil lost heaven by planting his feet before God and declaring Non Serviam. Jesus bows his head and declares Serviam. I will serve. Jesus’ refusal of worldly dominion reveals our own dependency on human recognition. We obsess over politicians, sports stars, economic magnates, and entertainment celebrities. We must use severe means to break our worldly fixations. “You shall worship God and him alone shall you serve.”
Lent is a time for war, desert warfare, not so much with the devil as with ourselves. Saints battle the devil; sinners battle themselves. War requires discipline and self-denial to reach our objective. Let us ask our Holy Mother, who trained her will from the moment she made her Fiat to the angel Gabriel, to enter this campaign of Christian service joyfully, armed with the weapons of self-restraint.