The first Friday of Lent is a startling way to begin the season. I fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday, have a reprieve on Thursday, and then bam, Friday is another day of abstinence. Thinking about this shock to my system, I notice how I often approach Lent as a season of derivation from normal life.
In the West, we have all have rehearsed what we are giving up and maybe we promise to have extra prayer time, but these Lenten resolutions often fall by the wayside after Lent. One Lent in undergrad, I went to daily mass and prayed before the Blessed Sacrament every single day. But as soon as Easter came and the spring semester started getting busier, that obligation-driven practice habit slowly faded from my priorities. Instead of forming a habit, my Lenten resolutions tended to form a one-time challenge. Once achieved, it could be laid aside.
Christ's Time of Prayer
This “over and done with” mentality is the opposite approach to how Christ viewed His own time of prayer and preparation. The Gospel for this year’s first Sunday in Lent is Luke’s account of Christ’s forty-day retreat into the desert for prayer and eventual temptation by Satan. We hear how Christ was led into the desert by the Spirit, prayed, and abstained from all food. Seeing the opportunity of an empty stomach, Satan tempts Christ with food, power, and pride. But, Christ rejects each temptation. Satan leaves unsuccessful, but apparently not deterred because Saint Luke says that Satan only “departed from him [Christ] for a time” (Lk 4:13).
The attitude and actions that Christ demonstrates in this opening episode to His ministry define Christ’s mission on earth: prayer, perfection, and dependence on God. We believe that every time Satan approached Christ again, He responded in a similar manner. After the Last Supper, Christ takes His disciples to the Mount of Olive to pray “as was his custom” (Lk 22:39). Much like His temptation in the desert, Christ is also tested in the garden, agonizing over the test He knows He must undergo. As He is arrested, Christ reaffirms His rejection of evil: He orders His disciples to not meet violence with violence and exhorts the guards saying “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? Day after day I was with you in the temple area, and you did not seize me; but this is your hour, the time for the power of darkness” (Lk 22:52-53). Even in this moment of distress, Christ reveals His character as dependent through prayer on the Father. Far from being a “over and done with” mentality, Christ’s period of preparation in the desert is the archetype for His ministry.
Viewed in this way, it is no surprise that some early Christians chose to follow Jesus’s example in a very literal way. The Desert Ascetics sought to reform their lives in the desert because the desert provided them a place to reorder their lives through prayer, fasting, and even almsgiving away from the many distractions of city life. Reading a small section of the Life of Saint Anthony or Sayings of the Desert Fathers shows that these disciples were focused on fostering habits of mercy towards those who they interacted with, rejection of Satan, and dependence on Christ. The desert was their training ground so they could perform the Christian mission. They saw the desert as the place to conform themselves to Christ so they could share in His grace and glory.
At the beginning of Lent, it might be worth reminding ourselves of Christ’s journey into the desert and the saintly witness of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The practices Christ displayed and that the desert ascetics tried to emulate were habits that formed their existence, virtues. Virtue, as Thomas Aquinas reminds us, is “is an operative habit, is a good habit, productive of good works” (ST I-II q.55 a.3 resp.) The specific disciplines might have varied across the desert communities and individuals, but every action was ordered to performing acts of penance, renunciation, and dependence.
These are the values Lent places before us and it is our awesome responsibility to use this season of Lent as a time to foster these Christian virtues. Lent should not be a “over and done with” season, but should be a time of forming a virtuous life in Christ. While retreating to the desert might be impractical, our Lenten observance of penance, abstinence, and almsgiving must aid us in being able to daily say Yes to Christ and No to Satan. Let us pray that God will give us the grace to renew our hearts during this season and form our habits to bring Him glory and prepare us for Everlasting life