March 3, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Lenten path for renewal includes prayer, almsgiving, fasting

A cellular phone that is not recharged fails us. So does the cordless vacuum cleaner. And so do we.

It is part of our human nature that the tenor of our spiritual life can diminish over time if we don’t tend to it. The Church gives us the Lenten season as an opportunity to spiritually recharge. Attendance at our Ash Wednesday Masses is a sign that many of us welcome this season of special grace.

Lent begins with the story of the temptations of Christ in the wilderness. St. Mark’s account tells us “he was with the wild beasts and the angels took care of him.” This experience must have come from the lips of Jesus himself since no one was with him in the wilderness. How else could the disciples have known of such a personal ordeal? How consoled they must have been to know that even their great teacher faced “wild beasts” in the stuff of everyday life!

The story of the temptation of Jesus is remarkable in so many ways. This retreat in the desert happened immediately after the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River—before the beginning of his great public mission. How often we are sorely tempted after a great faith experience. How often our faith is tested when we feel we need it most. And angels care for us.

It is as though before he began his public ministry Jesus wanted to get away to prepare in prayer. It was as if he wanted to decide how he was going to carry out his program for our salvation. Maybe Jesus wanted to decide how he could get our human family to turn away from sin and return to God; how could he get us truly to take him and the Father seriously? How could he lead us to real freedom from the slavery of self-centeredness?

Here is a first Lenten lesson for us, and it is easily missed. Every one of us needs to take time alone, regularly and in prayer. Like Jesus, we need to go aside to pray about where our life is going. We pass through this life only once. How can we make a difference? Do we believe God has a special plan for us? Are we resisting the call of Jesus to be the best that we can be?

The temptation story shows once and for all how Christ chose to make a difference in our world. Rather than the way of power and glory, Jesus chose and accepted the way of suffering and the cross. Rather than by power and force, he chose the selfless way of sacrificial love. As we reflect on the temptation accounts, we can’t help but note that power and control are the roots of the temptations of Jesus. So often, power is at the center of human conflicts and controversy. It is often at issue in the struggles of governments and secular societies.

Indeed, the struggle for power is even at the heart of dissent in religion. And often, the struggle for control challenges friendships of all kind, even marriages. The desire to be the one in control can smother so much love around us. It is tempting to measure life and success in terms of power. It is tempting to want to be the one in control to protect ourselves.

Obviously, Jesus was aware of the divine power at his fingertips, yet he freely chose the humble way of giving, namely generosity in suffering and sacrificial death. He denied himself as the way to win our salvation.

The humble way of Jesus does not come naturally. And so the Church proposes a path for renewal during Lent: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. They are good works that can help us to develop the discipline of sacrificial love in our lives. Let’s not allow our Ash Wednesday resolutions of these good works to go into remission. And it is not too late to decide on good works for the Lenten season ahead.

It is spiritually wholesome to choose simple practices that help develop the discipline which enables us to sacrifice in love for others: letting someone else go ahead in the grocery checkout line; allowing another to have the better parking space; picking up the litter on the sidewalk; offering each Lenten day’s prayer and work for some particular person (perhaps someone who annoys us); abstaining from a favorite food or drink; giving 10 percent of income during Lent to charity.

Of course, the true test of the fruit of our simple practices will be whether we love a little more freely.
God offers each of us a particular grace during Lent. Good works help open our minds and hearts to that grace. †


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