As Roman Catholics, the observance of Lent is something that just is. The period before Easter, it always seems to come up too fast – forty days of fasting and trying to remember not to eat meat on Fridays. But as much as it may be discussed in homilies on Ash Wednesday, how many of us really take the time to think about why the Church established it in the first place? Why forty days? Why all the sacrifice? What’s really the point, and does it actually have any meaning more that just being something to endure until celebrating at Easter?
To understand any of this, we need to go back to where it all started. The easy answer to why forty days is because that’s how long Jesus fasted in the desert before being tempted by the Devil. However, dig deeper and there is a whole lot more meaning. Firstly, we need to understand that Jesus was Jewish, and so much of what He did had to do with Hebrew Scripture and fulfilling it. And in Hebrew Scripture, numbers are never just numbers; they have meanings. The number forty had a few meanings. It could represent a time of trial, probation, and chastisement, and it could also represent transitioning between two periods of time, or epochs. In the story of Noah’s Ark, how long did it rain? Forty Days. Before going up to get the Ten Commandments, Moses fasted for forty days. Those are just two examples. The latter, however, is connected to Lent. Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days because Moses did. Now whether either of those periods was actually forty days, or just represented a really long time, doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the forty days connects us to the journey that Jesus went on.
And what an interesting journey it was, the start of which was fairly odd if you think about it. Jesus had just gotten baptized by John, and while it was happening, a voice was heard from Heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Hear Him”. And yet, after this dramatic announcement, did Jesus immediately start preaching? No he did not! Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit drove Him out into the wilderness. Why did Jesus need this? Well, because He was human like us, and this was the transition between the fairly normal life He had led up until then and His life as a preacher, fulfilling His ministry. Now I don’t know how long Jesus knew what His fate would be. I think it would be cruel to have that knowledge as a child, so I can’t imagine He knew His whole life. Perhaps the Divine revelations came to Him during His time fasting. But regardless, He had to know that this was the beginning of the end. After this period, His journey would lead Him straight to the cross.
Have any of us really ever thought about what it would have been like for Him? Think about it. These days, there is so much to do, that to be without any kind of activity would drive us insane fairly quickly. How long could you go without your phone? TV? Books? Talking to other people, listening to music? Anything at all. One day, two? Jesus went out, all alone. Not eating, not seeing or talking to anyone, just drinking water and contemplating nature for forty days. What do you think He was thinking? God, I’m hungry. I’m so bored. What am I doing? What am I doing? What. Am I. Doing? Forty days with nothing to think about but being driven out of towns, hated by Pharisees, betrayed by His friends, enduring torture, and then dying in a horrifically painful and humiliating way. It can’t have been particularly fun contemplation. On an empty stomach, getting weaker and weaker as time went on. It’s not something I would want to think about going through, none of us would. I’m sure Jesus felt the same; after all, He was just like us.
And at the end of all that – tired, weak, beyond hungry, perhaps somewhat heartsick and resigned – that is when the Devil slid in. Isn’t it always? Tempting Jesus three times – to use His power to make food, to throw Himself off a cliff and test God, to worship Satan in order to gain all He could ever want. Doubly meaningful. All things that might seem particularly tempting after what Jesus lived for the last forty days, but also a symbolic redemption for three ways the Jewish people had failed God according to Hebrew Scripture. And Jesus rebuffed the Devil all three times. Because the time had not been wasted. As hard as it might have been to come to terms with the path Jesus would have to walk, I can only imaging that this time is also when He found the strength to walk it.
There is an old Chinese proverb that says, “To hear is to forget, to see is to remember, to do is to understand.” Jesus needed this forty day period of fasting and prayer to prepare Himself. That is why the Holy Spirit drove Him out. He was not ready beforehand. And just like Jesus, we need this time to prepare ourselves for the journey we need to walk. The instructions He left us were simple, but not easy. I just heard a saying recently that stuck with me, that Jesus came to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. This rang true to me. The purpose of Lent is to remind us of Jesus’ challenge to us, take us out of our comfort zones. We need to do the same thing Jesus did in order to help us understand why and how He did it. And because we are practicing Catholics (not perfect), and only human, we need this reminder at least once a year. Because we fail, and we fail again.
This is where I need to make a confession. Despite being well into Lent, I am struggling with my sacrifice this year. By which I mean, I have not yet firmly decided on one. In the past few years especially I have come to realize that the rote sacrifices I have made in the past (food and whatnot) are not really cutting it. Not to say that there is anything wrong with those, they are popular for a reason, after all. However, for me, they just weren’t getting it done. As I get older, I have realized that I want my Lenten sacrifices to have real meaning. But more than that, I want them to help make me a better human being, a better follower of Christ. A lofty goal, and perhaps that is why I am struggling so hard this year. The last two years, my sacrifices did not get the result I wanted, and last year in particular, I found myself not really doing what I had decided on. As unflattering as it is to say, I have learned that it is much easier for me to keep myself from doing something (eating a particular thing, reading fanfiction [confession number two]) than to actively do something I find difficult. Time slips by and I find that I just keep putting that thing off, or forgetting, as was the case last year. And so my struggle this year has been to find something that will challenge me, but not to set myself up to fail. A realistic goal, that will have a chance of changing me for the better. I am still undecided. My coworker has resolved to be nicer to the difficult people in our office (not easy in some cases). And so I have decided to follow her lead, although I don’t struggle with it as much as she does for various reasons.
And maybe that’s enough for this year. Baby steps. Because our actions toward others matter. We can’t be Christians in a vacuum. How many times did Jesus say that to be His follower, we had to worship Him? That’s right, none. What He said was that if we wanted to be His disciples, we had to follow His commands. Do things. (To do is to understand) And those things always involved our treatment of others. Because what Jesus knew is that how we treat others matters. Actions snowball. The day starting off on the wrong foot can put us in a bad mood for the rest of the day. And then maybe we don’t hold that door, which annoys that person, who then passes it on. Conversely, we have all had that experience of one nice thing being done for us, no matter how small, on an otherwise awful day that reminds us that not everything is awful, and can turn our whole mood around. Imagine how different the world would be if everyone that considered themselves Christians actually treated others the way Jesus said to. With kindness and compassion. The way we ourselves would want to be treated. It’s a staggering thought.
Pope Francis had the same idea. He said,
Do you want to fast this Lent?
- Fast from hurting words and say kind words
- Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude
- Fast from anger and be filled with patience
- Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope
- Fast from worries and trust in God
- Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity
- Fast from pressures and be prayerful
- Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy
- Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others
- Fast from grudges and be reconciled
- Fast from words and be silent so you can listen
So maybe for now being more mindful of how I speak to and of others is enough. Because it isn’t all or nothing. If I come up with an idea tomorrow and start right away, it won’t cheapen my Lenten journey. If I try, and fail, that doesn’t mean I have to give up, it just means I have to recommit myself and try again, no matter how many times I fail. Because that is all Jesus asks of us. To walk the path He walked, to do the things He told us to do, and to pick ourselves up when we fall. And Lent is the perfect time do do it.