We entered into the great and holy season of Lent with the excitement of Ash Wednesday last week. In my last parish, priests would mark the foreheads of more than 6,000 people with ashes, among them many non-Catholics. It seemed an endless line of people, queuing up to be told that they were no more than dust, and to confess their sinfulness. The collect prayer for Ash Wednesday expresses the season with particularly precision:
“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.”
It is just this kind of desert warfare that Christ enters into on the First Sunday of Lent. The Spirit drives him into the desert, like the great St. Anthony of Egypt, to meet the enemy at close quarters. Christ does not wait for the enemy to engage him; rather, Christ quickly moves into Satan’s own territory to make the first strike. He takes with him only the weapons of self-restraint; He talks to no one, he sleeps on the ground, and most importantly, he refuses food and drink. On the fortieth day the Bible tells us, with typical Semitic understatement, Jesus was “hungry.”
The Purity that comes only through Fasting
Satan moves in to test Jesus’ mettle. He dares Jesus to deal with his hunger by turning a heap of stones into savory loaves. Jesus replies with perfect self-restraint. “My food is to do the will of my Father,” as he will say later in the Gospel. He replies not only to Satan, but to our own base hungers for food, drink, and sex. Don’t settle for food that fails to satisfy.
Christ’s fast points to our idolization of food. There is hardly a moment when we are not thinking about our next meal. Where can I get a snack? A cup of sugary coffee? Where is the nearest Starbucks? Quick, let me Google it. There’s got to be an In-N-Out in this town somewhere. But it isn’t only food. Christ’s fast inspires us to break dependence on any and all sensual pleasures. A friend of mine, who has seven children, gave up relations with his wife one Lent. Larissa, their 7 year-old daughter, asked her mother what she was giving up for Lent. Mom replied, after some hesitation, “well, dear, I’m giving up your father.” To which Larissa replied, “Mommy, you’re supposed to give up something you like!”
Only by restraining our appetites for God’s gifts do we discover how we have come to depend on the consolations of God rather than the God of consolations. To be effective, our fasting must be constant and methodical warfare. I may have managed to deny myself desert at lunch, but I will have another firefight at dinner. Meal by meal, we gain ground, breaking our dependence on earthly satisfactions. Fasting trains us to depend on the Will and the Word of God above all. Some saints have subsisted many years only on the Blessed Eucharist, the Word made flesh. With Christ in the desert, they show us that “Man lives not on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Fasting terrifies most of us. We can’t imagine life without the consolations food, and drink, spousal intimacy, and all the sensual comforts God provides. Lent is a time for warfare, desert warfare, not so much with the devil as with ourselves. Soldiers must exercise discipline and self-denial to reach their objectives. Let us take heart from Holy Mother Mary, 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.