First Sunday of Lent

In today’s Gospel, we hear that Our Lord spent forty days in the desert; while there, He fasted and was tempted.  Our Lord’s fast of forty days is where the Church derived the idea of Lent.  In imitation of Our Lord, we too spend forty days denying ourselves.  As Our Lord was tempted while He was in the desert and yet did not sin; our goal in denying ourselves things during these forty days is to help us to overcome temptation.

We do not give things up merely for the sake of giving things up.  We deny ourselves things that we could ordinarily legitimately enjoy in order to imitate Christ and strengthen our wills.  Jesus said that if we want to follow Him we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him.  Self-denial helps us put inordinate self-love to death.  In other words, we need to die to ourselves before we can really put God first in our hearts as Jesus commanded us to do.  When we give things up for Lent, our self-denial shows that we love God more than the good things of this world.

Furthermore, fasting and self-denial ought to help us to grow in self-mastery; through denying ourselves, we are enabled to gain more control over our passions and desires.  If we can say “no” to the things that we have given up, we will hopefully be able to say “no” to temptation that much more easily.  Again, the real goal in giving things up for Lent is to help us to resist temptation and rid our hearts of sin, so that our hearts can more completely be filled with love for God and others.

In order to overcome temptation, it is helpful to know how it works.  Traditionally, it has been understood that temptation comes from three sources: the devil, the flesh and the world.  In the Gospel, there are two ways that the world is talked about: one is positive and one is negative.  On the one hand, the Gospel says that God so loved the world that He sent His Son to die in order to save it.  On the other hand, Jesus says that if the world hates you, realize that it first hated Him.  It is in the second sense of this word that the world is a source of temptation.  We live in a society that does not share our Christian values in fact it resents them.  There are many things on the television, on the radio, and on the internet that are offensive to what we believe.  The best way to overcome those types of temptations is simply not to watch the shows, or networks that put those temptations before us.

Dealing with temptations of the flesh can be a little more difficult.  We can block inappropriate material from our televisions and from our computers, but we cannot get away from ourselves.  Temptation tends to start as a thought.  If we catch ourselves thinking about something that we ought not to be thinking about, it is important to reject the thought immediately.  Remember that sin always involves consent of our will.  If we realize that we have an inappropriate thought that we did not want to have, we have not sinned: we are simply being tempted.  If we reject an inappropriate thought as soon as we are aware of it, we have acted virtuously.  Only if we consent to the inappropriate thought do we fall into sin.

The reason that it is so urgent to reject bad thoughts as soon as we are aware of them is because if we allow ourselves to dwell on them, they become harder to get rid of.  Once a thought gains momentum through consent, it becomes hard to stop it from stirring up our emotions.  Once our emotions are engaged, it becomes harder to resist temptation and avoid sin.

Once a sin is committed, it is easier to commit the same sin again.  Any action that we repeat again and again can become a habit.  Sinful habits can be very difficult to break.  Sin enslaves the sinner.  In order to break out of a sinful habit we need God’s grace.  God will give us the grace to break free from sin if we ask for it, but we have to really want it.  If the sinful habit is a long-standing sinful habit, it will require much grace and effort.  Overcoming sinful habits is not easy, but nothing is impossible with God’s grace.  It is possible to overcome any temptation; but we have to be willing to do what it takes to conquer it.

One of the things that can help us prevail over temptation is to call to mind often the fact that temptation is always a lie: the lie is that if we give in to sin, we will be happy.  Sin never makes us happy; sin damages our relationship with God and apart from God we can never be truly happy.  Let us use these forty days of Lent to pray for the grace to overcome temptation and root sin out of our hearts; and let us do all that we can to cooperate with the grace that God offers.  May our observance of this holy season deepen our love for God and help us to conform our hearts, ever more perfectly, to the Heart of Christ.  Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, make our hearts like unto Thine.  Amen.