Lent and Temptation

How the three penitential practices of Lent correspond to three types of temptation experienced by Eve in the garden and by Jesus in the desert: Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

“Christ in the Desert” (Ivan Kramskoi, 1872)
“Christ in the Desert” (Ivan Kramskoi, 1872) (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

Last week’s Sunday’s Gospel from the Sermon on the Mount ended with Jesus’ ringing exhortation to “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This week’s Sunday readings, on the first Sunday of Lent, are all about sin and temptation and penance.

“Be perfect”? The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life. Welcome to Lent!

Every year, on Ash Wednesday, the Church proclaims Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount on the three penitential practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (or giving money or other goods to the poor).

And every year on this first Sunday of Lent we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and his temptation by the devil.

And during the 40 days of Lent, which of course echo Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, the Church calls us in a particular way to those three penitential practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.


Three Types of Temptation

Let’s consider how each of these three penitential practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving corresponds in a way to three types of temptation: both to the three temptations of Jesus in this Gospel and also to the three temptations felt by Eve in the first reading from Genesis, when she saw that the forbidden fruit was a) good for food, b) pleasing to the eye, and c) desirable for gaining wisdom.

These three types of temptation are described by our patron, St. John, in his first letter, where he writes:

For all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life — is not of the Father but is of the world. (1 John 2:16)

“Lust of the flesh”; “lust of the eyes”; “pride of life.”

Eve saw that the forbidden fruit was good for food — “lust of the flesh,” the appeal to appetite. (“Lust” in this sense can be any appetite, not just sexual appetite.)

Eve also saw that the fruit was pleasing to the eye — “lust of the eye,” the appeal to the senses. This is the root of avarice and covetousness, of needing to have what we find attractive.

Third, Eve saw that it was desirable to make one wise — “pride of life,” the appeal to ego, the temptation to glorify oneself.

“Lust of the flesh”; “lust of the eyes”; “pride of life.”


Lust of the Flesh and Fasting

If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.

Jesus went into the desert to fast — one of the three penitential practices, along with prayer and almsgiving. He’s not here to eat! But he has become hungry.

Just like with Eve, the devil first tries to attack Jesus through appetite — “lust of the flesh.”

Why the desert? Why did Jesus go to the desert for 40 days? Why did John the Baptist go to the desert? Why do prophets and holy men and women seek out solitude and isolation?

If you want to hear the voice of God more clearly, sometimes you need to get away from noise and distraction and the commotion of daily life.

That’s part of what these 40 days of Lent are all about. We should all be trying in some way to follow Jesus into the desert. What are the distractions in our lives that we can reduce or eliminate for six weeks?

Some people sign off of social media. Others make a special effort to attend daily Mass, or to spend time in adoration before the Lord.

If you can’t do those things, maybe you could set your alarm clock 15 to 30 minutes earlier and spend some time in the morning in silent prayer and devotional reading.

What about fasting? Why go without food?

That’s a question with many answers! But one answer it is that, just like any other distraction, sometimes we need to stop listening to the body in order to hear the voice of God more clearly. So Jesus answers the devil:

It is written, Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

The thing about fasting is that more your body gets regular meals, the more it expects them. Notice that Jesus fasted for 40 days, and afterward was hungry. Once you get used to it, you can fast more than you think and not be hungry.


Fasting and Abstinence

Many of us could benefit from fasting much more than the law of the Church requires today. Until the 1950s the Eucharistic fast started at midnight! Then it was reduced to three hours, which is probably very reasonable for most of us, and finally to one hour, which, honestly, for many of us, is barely a fast at all.

Could you observe a three-hour Eucharistic fast on Sunday morning? Could you maybe skip Sunday breakfast altogether and fast from midnight, like in the old days? You don’t have to, but many do, and for those who can, it can be a beneficial thing.

Then there’s abstinence from meat, which used to be for all of Lent, every day, not just Fridays, and all the Fridays of the year, not just the Fridays of Lent.

Many Catholics have never heard that when the U.S. bishops made meatless Fridays non-binding for American Catholics in 1966, they said they hoped and expected that Catholics would ordinarily continue to abstain from meat every Friday voluntarily, not just in Lent.

Could you abstain from meat every Friday? Could you do more? Could you fast on Fridays? Perhaps eat just one meal? Whatever you do, do something to observe every Friday as a day of penance, just as every Sunday is a day of joy. Every Sunday is a mini-Easter; every Friday is a mini–Good Friday.


Pride of Life and Prayer

So next the devil takes Jesus to the edge of the roof of the temple and says to him, in effect,

You want to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God? God’s word says: He will command his angels concerning you, and, with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone. So…if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.

This temptation sounds initially like the first — “If you are the Son of God…” — but it’s fundamentally different. At first the devil proposed that Jesus use his divine power was a means to an end: Do it for the food. Here his power is the point: Do it to prove that you can. Show how special you are. Make a show of your greatness.

The forbidden fruit was “desirable to make one wise”: the appeal to ego, “pride of life,” the temptation to glorify oneself. This, of course, is directly contrary to the spirit of prayer, since, as the Catechism says, the foundation of prayer is humility (CCC 2559).

We hear a lot about prayer, so I won’t focus on it here, except to say that prayer is everything — not fasting, not almsgiving. “Pray without ceasing,” St. Paul says. He doesn’t say fast or give alms without ceasing (cf. CCC 2742)! Whatever we may be “giving up” for Lent … if our self-denial isn’t joined to prayer, we’re not growing closer to God.


Lust of the Eyes and Almsgiving

Last of all, the devil takes the Lord to a mountaintop and shows him all the splendor of all the world’s kingdoms, if Jesus will just worship him.

The forbidden fruit was pleasing to the eye, and the devil tries to dazzle Jesus with the attractiveness of worldly glory. “Lust of the eye,” the appeal to the senses, the root of avarice and covetousness.

This is the temptation directly opposed to the penitential practice of almsgiving — of sharing what we have to those who need it more, putting our neighbor’s needs above our own wants.

Almsgiving reminds us that holiness is not a purely personal project. We can’t just sit in our room and fast and pray all by ourselves and forget about the world outside our doors and the needs of people all around us.

“What good is it,” St. James asks, “if a brother or sister needs clothing and food, and you say to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body?” (cf. James 2:14–16)

“The one with two shirts must share with someone who has none,” says John the Baptist. St. Basil said that if we keep clothing in our closets that could clothe the naked, we’re essentially stealing!

Do we have clothes in our closets that we haven’t worn in months or years that we could donate to those who are less well off than we are — which is to say, to their rightful owners? Now’s the time to look.


The Challenge of the Desert

Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. How far should we take these penitential practices? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but here’s a question worth considering: Can we do at least a little more than we did last year? Even if we stumble sometimes — and, if we do, we should be merciful with ourselves. God is.

The Lenten journey should challenge us. Following Jesus into the desert shouldn’t be too easy. The gate is narrow and the way is hard.

Welcome to Lent.

Note: This is an edited version of a homily I preached on the First Sunday of Lent at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Orange, New Jersey.