Bible Study for March 10, 2019
1st Sunday in Lent
Reading 1: Deuteronomy 26:4-10
Reading 2: Romans 10:8-13
Gospel: Luke 4:1-13
This is just a short reflection on Lent, because the week has been far too busy for anything else, but it is also in response to a lot of questions I have seen from potential converts on another site I frequent. One of the classic arguments against Catholicism from many Protestants is that Catholicism is fraught with works and guilt-inducing activities rather than with the love and joy of Christ. Lenten activities of fasting, or almsgiving, or penances, or abstaining speaks to them of trying to buy your way into heaven.
In a strange turn of events, I find that, when new converts enter the Church, some have a tendency to become somewhat legalistic about things. They want to “get it right,” which of course is a very admirable thing, and we should all want to get things right. But the danger can be doing a thing for the thing itself without understanding why the thing is needed. We abstain for abstinence’s sake. We fast for fasting’s sake. We pray a set number of prayers because we believe we ought to. Now, don’t get me wrong, because there are times, especially when we really don’t feel like doing any of those things, that we ought to do them just for that reason. But it is not the best reason, and when we fundamentally misunderstand the whys and wherefores, then our actions become rote and imperfect due to their not being grounded in love. And isn’t that precisely what Catholics get called out for by Protestants?
We are called to fast on two days of Lent, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We are called to abstain from eating meat every Friday of Lent. (We are actually called to do penance every Friday of the year, but not much is ever said about that. The bishops in Canada, where I live, have reminded us that year-’round Friday penance is still universal and they still recommend abstinence in keeping with the traditions of our forefathers, but they have also said that, except during Lent, abstinence can be replaced by another suitable penance if we choose. Bishops have only local jurisdiction, though, so if you are in the USA or another country, please go to the website for your conference of bishops and look up what they have to say on the subject.) We are called to prayers and to the giving of alms. But why? What is the purpose of Lent? What is the purpose of denying ourselves and of penance itself?
In our first reading, Moses speaks about the purpose of the basket of first fruits brought to the altar of God. Does God need the first part of our harvest? No. Elsewhere in Scripture, God says he has no need for our sacrifices and burnt offerings. It is we who need to bring them! Everything in Israel’s religious Law from Sabbath keeping to Passover, from First Fruits to the offering of a lamb or turtle doves upon the birth of a child, served to remind Israel of God’s presence among them. These actions served to refocus Israel’s attention of the Giver of Life himself.
God is fully aware that we are assaulted every day by the world, the flesh, and the devil. He knows how easily distracted we are by the sins of others, by our own desires and needs, by the latest argument on social media, or the latest hiatus from the day offered in the form of a TV show. If left to ourselves, we would eventually give in and roll around in the muck of the earth, and if not totally forgetting about heaven, it would still be only a distant dream or memory.
And so God continually calls us back to himself. Our Gospel acclamation says that, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Our second reading says that the word is near us, on our lips and in our hearts, and that if we confess Jesus (which means we have to be familiar with him), and if we believe in him (which means that we must understand who he is and what he has done), then we can be saved. But this takes time and effort.
And so we come to Lent. Lent is not a time of beating ourselves up. Lent is a time of reorientation after a season of chasing down rabbit trails and losing our focus — again — because we do that fairly often, don’t we? At least I do. My good intentions become dreams of the past. My efforts become less-than and “good enough”. Lent calls us to make good on our past efforts. It helps us to reset our compass and reorient ourselves toward God who loves nothing more than our company. He loves to give himself to us if we would only stop forgetting about him and chasing after other lovers. Lent is a time to look at what is causing our lack of focus and to detach ourselves from it. It is time to take stock and see what has a hold on us that shouldn’t have that hold. It is a time to identify and cast off the sins which so easily encumber us, and to practice once again for the race which is set before us.
Lent is a time to be embraced and not a time to be endured. Maybe we should think about it as a time to embrace endurance, which of course is an excellent character trait. Our Gospel sees Christ preparing for the race which is set before him, which will culminate in the Cross. And Satan, being an entirely unoriginal being, quite opposite to God, tempts our Lord with the same things as he tempts us now: appetites, power, and vainglory. But we defeat Satan by keeping God’s word closely, by denying our passions and appetites, so as to be fit for the fight, by prayer and a right reliance upon God and his will alone. Lent, and to a lesser extent, Advent, is how a Catholic resets his compass so that it is pointing due north again, towards our heavenly home. Lent allows us to become much closer to God, which in turn brings many graces and blessings to us, to the God who loves us so dearly!
So I say to you, Happy Lent!