In the popular imagination Lent is frequently caricatured as a drab season, a time for restraint and self denial. Whilst this is undoubtedly true of certain aspects of Lent, it is far from the complete picture. Lent must be, above all else, a positive preparation to share the fullness of Christ’s death and Resurrection at Easter. It responds to the deepest of human needs: the longing to begin again, to leave behind all that has died within us, to embrace everything that leads to life.
This call to new life is particularly significant during this graced Year of Faith. True faith is not simply an intellectual knowledge of Christ’s death and Resurrection. It is the surrender of all that we are and hope to become to the death and Resurrection of Jesus. This is the new beginning for which we long, the faith professed by St Paul. “If your lips confess that Jesus is Lord and if you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved.”
Lent offers the prayerful reflection and discernment that enables us to respond to Paul’s proclamation. Every new beginning, if it is to be something more than a scarcely articulated regret for the past, must be a positive commitment to the future. This will, of course, involve humble repentance for the past. Things don’t simply happen: we play our part and, however complex our lives, repentance must begin as the humble acceptance of sin’s destructive power in our own lives, and its consequences for those close to us. There can be no firmer foundation for our Lenten resolutions.
The Readings for the first Sunday of Lent echo the history of God’s people, a history which, like our own lives, brought challenge and the need for renewed commitment. One such moment came at the end of Israel’s 40 years wandering in the wilderness. This had been a period both of uncertainty and infidelity. As they stood on the threshold of a new life in the land promised as their lasting security, Moses spelled out the commitment that would safeguard their future. They were to remember the love that had accompanied their wandering, that had looked with compassion on the sufferings of their enslavement in Egypt, that had enabled them enjoy the blessings of the land. Through the ritual offering of the first-fruits, they were called to live out the generous love that they had received.
At the beginning of Lent let us acknowledge that we are pilgrims, at times lost in a wilderness of our own making. For us the promised land is a life lived in Christ. Our renewed commitment is a deeply personal faith that surrenders itself to Paul’s promise. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
The example of Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness prepares us for the journey of Lent. It was a time of struggle, a time when Jesus positively embraced a life lived in communion with his Father’s will.
The Devil played on the very human longings that Jesus shared with us. His physical hunger reflected the many unsatisfied hungers that drive our lives. Jesus refused to allow need, however deeply felt, to master his life. “Many does not live on bread alone.” During Lent we are called to recognise that the longing for satisfaction can lead either to self indulgence, or, with Jesus, to a life surrendered to God.
We, no less than Jesus, are tempted by the power promised by status and influence. We cannot bow down to our own self-importance, any more than Jesus could worship his tempter.
Let us not underestimate the inner struggle that Lent represents. We do so in the strength of him who was tempted as we are tempted, and in the strength of him who remained faithful to the will of the Father.