Lent is a journey of the Spirit. Scripture tells us that following Jesus’ baptism, “The Spirit sent him out toward the desert. He stayed in the wasteland forty days, put to the test there by Satan” (Mk 1:12-31).
Matthew wrote, “Then Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil” (4:1).
Luke’s Gospel says, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, then returned from the Jordan and was conducted by the Spirit into the desert for forty days where he was tempted by the devil” (4:1- 2).
In each account the Spirit is mentioned first, and yet for many Christians, Jesus being tempted by Satan becomes the primary focus. This may account in part for the negative feeling that Lent conjures up for many people.
Over the centuries, Christians notoriously beat their breasts, resolving to give up anything that would be pleasing to the senses. But if that’s the effect that Lent evokes, it’s no wonder celebrations like Mardi Gras and “Fat Tuesday” entice observants to enjoy a last fling before they begin their Lenten journey.
If receiving ashes on the first day of Lent reminds us only of our mortality, we are approaching the season with a glass-half-empty mindset. This season is serious, but it should not be one of doom and gloom because, as Christians, we believe that death is not the end. When in imitation of Jesus, we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us through the desert, and we emerge with a heart that is purified, strengthened and more Christlike.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are three hallmarks associated with Lent. However, if we view them as works that we accomplish, Lenten resolutions seem burdensome. When we allow the Spirit to guide us, the quality of our actions becomes the focus rather than the quantity. Recall that Jesus cautioned against multiplying prayers, rattling on the way the pagans do.
Prayer is about relationship, intimacy and deepening our love for God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We do our part by setting aside quality time, minimizing distractions and believing that feeling God’s presence is less important than believing that the enfolding, nurturing and transforming love of God is happening deep within our soul.
It’s not about the length of our prayer time, but about the level of faith and surrender we bring to prayer, resisting the temptation to make it “my prayer.”
One way we can do this is through prayerful participation at Mass, even if it’s only through livestream. Much emphasis is placed on listening to the Scripture readings, but every word that is prayed deserves careful attention.
One of my favorite lines in the Mass is the priest’s petition to the Father to send down the Spirit like dewfall from heaven. The image of dew glistening in the early morning fills me with hope because dew is visible everywhere, though we never actually see it descend.
Morning dew dissipates gradually, but the effects of moisture seeping into the earth are not lost. So it is with the grace that comes to us through the Holy Spirit. We don’t see it come to us from heaven, but it’s at work deep within our souls, inviting us to see that God is present everywhere for those who have eyes to see.
More than the central act of our worship, the Mass is Jesus’ perfect act of surrender to his Father, which we are called to emulate. The more we are drawn to imitate Jesus’ perfect self-offering to the Father, the more we will be inclined to suffer in union with the heart of Jesus, making fasting and almsgiving a natural outpouring of our prayer life.
St. Teresa of Avila wisely cautioned that a life of prayer cannot exist in the presence of a life of self-indulgence. When performed with love, every act of self-denial becomes a prayer.
Self-indulgence can take many forms, which is why Scripture reminds us that a pure and contrite heart is what pleases God most. Purity of heart requires fasting not as much from food as it does from the human tendency to judge others, lose patience or consider only people we like or with whom we agree as my neighbor. To love my neighbor as myself is to give freely and unconditionally because everything we have is a gift from God.
Clearly, there’s no better way to show gratitude for the privilege of journeying with Jesus than to enter Lent with a joyful heart, inviting the Spirit to lead us to the Resurrection of our Lord.