First Week of Lent

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Forty Days = Your Entire Life

First Sunday of Lent (Year A)

At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. Matthew 4:1–2

“Forty” is a significant number. In Scripture, it is used more than 145 different times. For example, the rain during the Great Flood lasted forty days and forty nights. Each time Moses went up Mount Sinai, he remained there for forty days and nights. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples for forty days before ascending into Heaven. And there are many other uses of “forty” throughout the Bible. Interestingly, forty is even significant within human nature, in that we develop within our mother’s womb for forty weeks before being born.

The “forty” that we commemorate today is the forty days and forty nights that our Lord spent in the desert being tempted by the devil while He fasted and prayed. Forty is used to symbolize a time of testing, purification, trial or probation. For that reason, it should also be seen as a symbol of your entire life here on earth. In Saint Matthew’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, He specifically uses the wording “forty days and forty nights.” Saint Bede, in commenting upon this, points out that this period of time not only symbolizes our entire lives, but the “days” represent the many graces and blessings we receive, while the “nights” represent the crosses we endure.

As we begin our Lenten journey, it is important to once again apply the lessons of Jesus’ time in the desert to our entire lives. Let’s consider two lessons we can take from the passage quoted above. First, we see that Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” This teaches us that Jesus not only endured temptation, He confronted it. He was not afraid of the devil and did not fear his attacks. Instead, He willingly faced those temptations, being led by the Spirit, so as to not only overcome them in His life but also to enable us to confront, in our lives, every temptation by the power and initiative of the Holy Spirit. We must never be afraid to confront temptations directly and confidently when the Holy Spirit is in the lead.

A second important lesson is that Jesus voluntarily fasted during this time in the desert. This illustrates the importance of the virtue of temperance in life. If we see this period of forty as a symbol of our whole lives, then we will understand that temperance must always be part of our lives. When we experience the joys and blessings of life (the forty days), we must certainly celebrate them. But we must always do so with a certain self-denial, in that we must never allow the passing things of this world to become the primary satisfaction we seek. Saint John of the Cross teaches that we can even become overly attached to spiritual consolations. Conversely, when we experience the crosses of life (the forty nights), we must also practice a certain self-denial, in that we must not allow the difficulties we endure to discourage us or to distract us from seeking out and fulfilling the will of God. Fasting, meaning our acquisition of the virtue of temperance, must lead us always through the ups and downs of life, helping us to keep our eyes on the truths God has revealed to us and rejecting the lies of the devil.

Reflect, today, upon the importance of embracing the virtue of temperance with courage throughout life. Throughout life’s many ups and downs, joys and sorrows, blessings and crosses, we must allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit, confronting every circumstance with courage and self-control. Reflect upon any ways that you struggle with the crosses you endure or excessively cling to the consolations of life. Seek to embrace the road of virtue this Lent in imitation of Jesus’ forty days and nights in the desert.

My temperate and courageous Lord, You confronted all temptation with courage and strength. You fasted throughout the forty days and forty nights so as to teach us how to navigate the ups and downs of life. Please give me the virtues of temperance and courage, and bestow the Holy Spirit upon me so that I may follow You into the desert of my own life. Jesus, I trust in You.

The Ministry of Angels

First Sunday of Lent (Year B)

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.  Mark 1:12–13

What an amazing event we reflect upon today. Jesus, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity humbled Himself in two ways in the passage quoted above. First, He allowed Himself to endure the temptations of satan. Second, He permitted His very own creation, the good angels, to minister to Him in His human form.

First of all, recall that satan is a fallen angel. He was created by God and was created good. But the Book of Revelation (12:4) indicates that one-third of the created angels were cast out of Heaven to roam the earth. These demons act under the direction of the highest fallen angel, satan. Thus, according to the passage above, it was satan himself who tempted Jesus in the desert. Additionally, Jesus permitted the good angels to minister to Him in His human nature. These acts reveal the perfection of the virtue of humility within the humanity of our Lord.

According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, angels were created for three primary reasons. The first is for the purpose of worship. Worship of God brings about communion with God and enables perfect love to flow back and forth from God to each angelic being. Second, angels enact the will of God in all things. This includes the implementation of the laws of nature and the imparting of the grace that Christ won on the Cross. Third, God uses angels as messengers. Scripture records various ways that the angels spoke to the prophets, to our Blessed Mother, to Saint Joseph and to others. Saint Thomas Aquinas also believed that each of us is given a particular guardian angel whose role is not only to protect us but also to communicate the will of God to us.

As God, Jesus was the Creator of all angelic beings with the Father and the Holy Spirit. As man, Jesus was the recipient of both the ministry of the good angels and the attacks of the fallen angels. By humbly subjecting Himself to the natural powers of these angelic creatures, Jesus was also teaching us that we must do the same.

One of the primary natural powers of both the good and bad angels is the power of influence and suggestive thought. Angelic beings have the ability to put before your imagination ideas meant to either influence you for the good (the good angels) or to deceive you and lead you into sin (the bad angels). These communications are real, and we should be aware of them. In his book, The Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius of Loyola devotes much time and energy to the ministry of angels. He teaches how to distinguish the lies and deceptions of the fallen angels from the consoling direction communicated by the good angels. In many ways, our Gospel passage today, by which Jesus submitted Himself to the temptations and ministry of the angels, lends much support to the importance of trying to understand how these angelic creatures influence us. For more on this, see the book Probing the Depths: Ignatian Lessons and Meditations Arranged According to the Liturgical Year.

Reflect, today, upon the amazing truth that both angels and demons are constantly active in your life, seeking to influence you. As you ponder their spiritual role in your life, consider the various ways you can learn more about them. Speak to your guardian angel. Ask for the intercession of the highest of angels. Try to join them in their divine worship. Pray for their protection. Ask them to communicate to you the highest of truths from God. Seek to be attentive to these holy angels so that as you learn to discern their voices, you will be ready to follow the direction they give to you from God.

My Lord and Creator of All, You created the angelic order for the glorious purpose of love and worship. You also give them the mission of enacting Your holy will and communicating to us on earth. Please help me to be more aware of the deceptions of the fallen angels and the direction of the good angels. Angels of God, pray for me, protect me and guide me into God’s perfect will. Jesus, I trust in You.

Going on the Offensive

First Sunday of Lent (Year C)

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. Luke 4:1–2

If someone is attacked or feels threatened, it is common to be defensive. For example, if soldiers suddenly find themselves under attack from an enemy, they will most likely take up a defensive position. Similarly, when we feel personally attacked by another or are tempted by the devil, we will often try to defend ourselves. However, within the worlds of games, sports and military activity, there is a common adage that says, “the best defense is a good offense.” In other words, the best way to keep the opponent from winning is to go on the offensive rather than to sit back and take up a defensive position.

In many ways, this is what Jesus did when He entered the desert. He was aware that the evil one wanted to destroy Him. Therefore, when Jesus entered the desert for 40 days to pray and fast, He did so in a sort of offensive attack upon the devil. Jesus’ temptations in the desert were not primarily difficulties He had to endure and resist. Rather, they were first and foremost ineffective attacks from the evil one, because Jesus had already embraced the opposite virtues.

What temptations and sins are among your greatest struggles? In what ways do you find yourself experiencing defeat? In what ways have you taken up a defensive position to try to overcome your struggles? Too often we approach temptations in the wrong way. We see them as attacks from the evil one that we must resist and defend ourselves against. And though that is true, it is not the full truth. The full truth is that the best way to overcome the struggles we face is to confront them directly in a vigorous and offensive way by choosing the opposite virtue.

Consider the three temptations Jesus overcame in the desert: gluttony, vainglory and greed. Jesus’ entrance into the desert for those 40 days was the way by which He destroyed these temptations before they were even presented to Him. By voluntarily choosing to fast from food for those 40 days, Jesus rendered the temptation toward gluttony ineffective. By choosing the humility of entering into the solitude of the desert to be alone with His Father, Jesus robbed the temptation toward vainglory of its power. By choosing a life of poverty and simplicity, He overcame any temptation toward earthly wealth, even before it was offered to Him.

As we begin this forty-day Lenten journey, reflect, today, upon the sins and temptations in your life that need to be overcome. If you find yourself in an ongoing defensive position toward certain struggles, especially if you find yourself losing the battle at times, it’s time to change your strategy. Embrace the opposite virtue of the sins you are most tempted with this Lent. Embrace those virtues in an offensive manner. Choose kindness if you struggle with anger. Choose fasting if you struggle with gluttony. Choose generosity if you struggle with greed. Whatever your struggle, turn to the virtue you need the most and make it your focus this Lent so that you, too, will be well-prepared to reject the evil one and his lies when temptation comes your way.

My tempted Lord, You resisted all temptation in Your life by choosing every good virtue and living them to perfection. Please help me to see the virtues I need the most right now and give me the strength I need to run toward them this Lent with all my heart. Jesus, I trust in You.

The Least Deserving

Monday of the First Week of Lent

Jesus said to his disciples: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Matthew 25:31–32

What an image to ponder! Try to imagine this scene. At one definitive moment in the future, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, now also in human form as the “Son of Man,” will return to earth in glory surrounded by all the angels of Heaven and will sit upon His new and glorious throne. In front of that throne, every person of every nation ever to exist will be gathered together, and each person will be judged according to their deeds. Those who served our Lord and treated the least of His brothers and sisters with mercy and compassion will hear Jesus say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Those who did not serve Christ and did not treat the least ones with mercy will be sent off to eternal punishment as Jesus says to them, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.” On that day, only one thing will matter, because eternity will be determined with permanence. All that will matter is whether you will be placed on our Lord’s right so as to inherit eternal life, or on His left and sent into the eternal fires.

Sometimes, as we journey through life, we can lose sight of this glorious day. When we think of God and Heaven, it is easy to fall into the presumption that Heaven is guaranteed to us. God is kind and merciful, and He loves us. Therefore, we presume that Heaven is for certain and only the most horrible people will end in hell. But this is not how Jesus depicts the Day of Judgment.

Jesus explains that at the time of judgment, the righteous will be astonished by the fact that caring for those who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, ill, or imprisoned was the same as showing love for God. Likewise, those who neglected the same people will be astonished that they failed to love God by failing to love the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Do not take this teaching lightly. Jesus does not mince His words. He is abundantly clear and definitive.

In your life, who are these “least ones” of which Jesus is speaking? The hungry and thirsty are not only those with physical needs but also those who have spiritual longings that need to be satisfied. They are those lost or confused in life who need to be given direction. The stranger might be anyone who is lonely and easily ignored. The naked might be those who cannot manage to care for their needs. The ill could be those who are elderly or suffering in various ways. And the imprisoned could include those bound by sin who need help to be set free. Do not fail to seek out our Lord as He is present in those all around you.

Reflect, today, upon those in your life who seem most lost and most in need of your compassion. Those to whom we do not feel like reaching out are those who most often need our compassion and mercy. The “least ones” are often those we judge, condemn or ignore. Call to mind the person who seems least deserving of your love and know that Jesus is living within them, waiting for you to love Him by loving them.

Most merciful Lord, Your compassion is great and Your judgment is real. Help me to always keep my mind upon that final and glorious day on which You will return in all Your splendor and glory to judge the living and the dead. May I truly heed Your words and prepare for that day by loving You in all people, especially in those most in need. Jesus, I trust in You.

Praying the Our Father

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

Jesus said to his disciples: “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Matthew 6:7–8

Recall that Jesus used to go off by Himself at times and spend the whole night in prayer. Thus, it’s clear that Jesus is in favor of long and sincere times of prayer, since He gave us His own example as a lesson. But there is clearly a difference between that which our Lord did all night and that which He criticized the pagans for doing when they “babble” with many words. After this criticism of the prayer of the pagans, Jesus gives us the “Our Father” prayer as a model for our personal prayer.

The Our Father prayer begins by addressing God in a deeply personal way. That is, God is not just an all-powerful cosmic being. He is personal, familial—He is our Father. Jesus continues the prayer by instructing us to honor our Father by proclaiming His holiness, His hallowedness. God and God alone is the Holy One from which all holiness of life derives. As we acknowledge the holiness of the Father, we must also acknowledge Him as King and seek His Kingship for our lives and for the world. This is accomplished only when His perfect will is done “on earth as it is in Heaven.” This perfect prayer concludes by acknowledging that God is the source of all of our daily needs, including the forgiveness of our sins and protection from all evil.

Upon the completion of this prayer of perfection, Jesus provides a context in which this and every prayer must be prayed. He says, “If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” Prayer will only be effective if we allow it to change us and make us more like the Father in Heaven. Therefore, if we want our prayer of forgiveness to be effective, then we must live what we pray for. We must also forgive others so that God will forgive us.

Reflect, today, upon this perfect prayer, the Our Father. One temptation is that we can become so familiar with this prayer that we gloss over its true meaning. If that happens, then we will find that we are praying it more like the pagans who simply babble the words. But if we humbly and sincerely understand and mean every word, then we can be certain that our prayer will become more like that of our Lord’s. Saint Ignatius of Loyola recommends pondering every word of that prayer very slowly, one word at a time. Try to pray this way, today, and allow the Our Father to move from babbling to authentic communication with the Father in Heaven.

Our Father, Who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.  Jesus, I trust in You.

The One True Sign of the Cross

Wednesday of the First Week of Lent

While still more people gathered in the crowd, Jesus said to them, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” Luke 11:29

The crowd seemed to be a mixed bunch. First, there were those who wholeheartedly believed in Jesus. The Twelve, for example, left everything behind to follow Him. His mother and various other holy women believed in Him and were His faithful followers. But within the growing crowd, it appeared that there were many who questioned Jesus and wanted some form of proof of Who He was. Thus, they wanted a sign from Heaven.

A sign from Heaven would have been some externally manifest proof of Who Jesus was. Granted, Jesus had already performed numerous miracles. But it seems that this was not enough. They wanted more—and that desire is a clear indication of a stubbornness of heart and a lack of faith. So Jesus could not and would not give them the sign they wanted.

Instead, Jesus says that the only sign they will receive is the sign of Jonah. Recall that the sign of Jonah was not very appealing. He was thrown over the side of a boat and swallowed by a whale, where he remained for three days before being spit up on the shores of Nineveh.

Jesus’ sign would be similar. He would suffer at the hands of the religious leaders and civil authorities, be killed and be placed in a tomb. And then, three days later, He would rise. But His Resurrection was not one in which He came forth with rays of light for all to see; rather, His post-Resurrection appearances were to those who already manifested faith and already believed.

The lesson for us is that God will not convince us of the matters of faith through powerful and Hollywood-like public manifestations of God’s greatness. Instead, the “sign” we are offered is an invitation to die with Christ so that we can personally begin to experience the new life of the Resurrection. This gift of faith is interior, not publicly exterior. Our death to sin is something we personally and interiorly do, and the new life we receive can only be seen by others by the witness of our lives that are changed.

Reflect, today, upon the true sign God has given you. If you are one who seems to be waiting for some manifest sign from our Lord, wait no longer. Look at the crucifix, see Jesus’ suffering and death, and choose to follow Him in a death to all sin and selfishness. Die with Him, enter the tomb with Him and allow Him to bring you forth interiorly renewed this Lent, so that you can be transformed by this one and only sign from Heaven.

My crucified Lord, I gaze upon the crucifix and see in Your death the greatest act of love ever known. Give me the grace I need to follow You to the tomb so that Your death will triumph over my sins. Free me, dear Lord, during the Lenten journey so that I will be able to fully share in Your new life of the Resurrection. Jesus, I trust in You.

Praying for the Will of God

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

“Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asked for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asked for a fish?” Matthew 7:9–10

Clearly this is a rhetorical question by Jesus. No parent would hand their son or daughter a stone or a snake if they asked for food. But that of course is the point. Jesus goes on to say, “…how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”

When you pray with deep faith, will our Lord give you whatever you ask? Certainly not. Jesus did say, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” But this statement must be carefully read within the whole context of Jesus’ teaching here. The fact of the matter is that when we sincerely ask in faith for “good things,” meaning that which our good God wants to bestow upon us, He will not disappoint. Of course, this does not mean that if we beg Jesus for anything whatsoever that He will give it to us.

What are those “good things” that our Lord will most certainly give to us? First and foremost, it is the forgiveness of our sins. We can be absolutely certain that if we humble ourselves before our good God, especially within the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we will be granted the freely given and transforming gift of forgiveness.

In addition to the forgiveness of our sins, there are many other things we need in life, and there are many other things that our good God wants to bestow upon us. For example, God will always want to give to us the strength we need to overcome temptations in life. He will always want to provide for our most basic needs. He will always want to help us grow in every virtue. And He most certainly wants to bring us to Heaven. It is these things that we must especially pray for every day.

But what about other things, such as a new job, more money, a better house, acceptance into a certain school, a physical healing, etc.? Our prayers for these and other similar things in life should be prayed for but with a caveat. The “caveat” is that we pray that God’s will be done. Not ours. We must humbly acknowledge that we do not see the big picture in life and do not always know what will give God the greatest glory in all things. Therefore, it may be better that you not get that new job, or be accepted at this school, or even that this illness not end in healing. But we can be certain that God always will bestow upon us that which is best for us and that which enables us to give God the greatest glory in life. The crucifixion of our Lord is a perfect example. He prayed that that cup be taken from Him, “but not my will but Yours be done.” And, of course, the Father saw the great eternal value in the death of His Son on the Cross and answered that prayer of His accordingly.

Reflect, today, upon how you pray. Do you pray with detachment from the outcome, knowing that our Lord knows best? Do you humbly admit that only God knows what is truly good for you? Trust this to be the case and pray with complete confidence that God’s will be done in all things and you can be certain that He will answer that prayer.

Dear Lord of infinite wisdom and knowledge, help me to always place my trust in Your goodness and care for me. Help me to daily turn to You in my need and to trust that You will answer my prayer according to Your perfect will. I place my life into Your hands, dear Lord. Do with me as you wish. Jesus, I trust in You.

Beyond Forgiveness

Friday of the First Week of Lent

“Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” Matthew 5:26

Was our Lord here giving legal advice regarding a criminal or civil case and how to avoid prosecution? Certainly not. He was presenting us with an image of Himself as the just Judge. And He was exhorting us to show mercy to anyone and everyone who could be seen as our “opponent.”

Forgiveness of another is essential. It can never be withheld. But forgiveness is actually not even enough. The ultimate goal must be reconciliation, which goes much further. In this Gospel above, Jesus exhorts us to “settle” with our opponents, therein implying reconciliation. The RSV version of the Bible says it this way, “Make friends quickly with your accuser…” Working to foster a “friendship” with one who has accused you, especially if it is a false accusation, goes far beyond simply forgiving them.

To reconcile with another and to reestablish a true friendship means that you not only forgive but also do all you can to ensure that you reestablish a relationship of love with that person. It means that you both put your grievance behind you and start anew. Of course, that takes both people to cooperate in love; but, for your part, it means that you work hard to establish this reconciliation.

Think about someone who has hurt you, and, as a result, your relationship with them has been damaged. Have you prayerfully forgiven that person before God? Have you prayed for that person and asked God to forgive them? If so, then you are now ready for the next step of reaching out to them in love to mend your relationship. This takes great humility, especially if the other person was the cause of the hurt and especially if they have not spoken words of sorrow to you, asking for your forgiveness. Don’t wait for them to do so. Look for ways to show that person that you love them and want to heal the hurt. Don’t hold their sin before them or hold on to a grudge. Seek only love and mercy.

Jesus concludes this exhortation with strong words. Essentially, if you fail to do all you can to reconcile and reestablish your relationship, you will be held accountable for it. Though this may seem unfair at first, it is clearly not, because this is the depth of mercy that our Lord offers us every day. We will never be adequately sorry for our sin, but God forgives and reconciles with us anyway. What a grace! But if we fail to offer this same mercy to others, we essentially limit God’s ability to offer this mercy to us, and we will be required to pay back “the last penny” of our own debt to God.

Reflect, today, upon the person who comes to mind with whom you need to fully reconcile and rekindle a relationship of love. Pray for this grace, commit yourself to it and look for opportunities to do so. Do it without reserve and you will never regret your decision.

My most merciful Lord, I thank You for forgiving me and for loving me with such perfection and totality. Thank You for reconciling with me despite my imperfect contrition. Give me a heart, dear Lord, that always seeks to love the sinner in my life. Help me to offer mercy to the fullest extent in imitation of Your divine mercy. Jesus, I trust in You.

The Perfection of Love

Saturday of the First Week of Lent

“But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” Matthew 5:44–45

Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus saying, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is a high calling! And it is clear that part of the perfection to which you are called requires a generous and total love even for those you may consider your “enemies” and those who “persecute” you.

When faced with this high calling, one immediate reaction could be that of discouragement. When faced with such a challenging command, it is understandable that you may feel incapable of such a love, especially when the hurt caused by another is ongoing. But there is another reaction that is entirely possible and one for which we should aim. And that reaction is deep gratitude.

The gratitude we should allow ourselves to experience is on account of the fact that our Lord wants us to share in His life of perfection. And the fact that He commands us to live this life also tells us that it is entirely possible. What a gift! What an honor it is to be invited by our Lord to love with His very heart and to love to the extent that He loves all people. The fact that we are all called to this level of love should result in our hearts giving deep thanks to our Lord.

If discouragement, however, is your immediate reaction to this calling from Jesus, try to look at others from a new perspective. Try to suspend judgment toward them, especially against those who have and continue to hurt you the most. It’s not your place to judge; it’s your place only to love and to see others as the children of God who they are. If you dwell upon another’s hurtful actions, angry feelings will inevitably arise. But if you strive only to see them as children of God whom you are called to love without reserve, then even feelings of love will more easily arise within you, helping you to fulfill this glorious command.

Reflect, today, upon this high calling of love and work to foster gratitude within your heart. The Lord wants to give you an incredible gift by loving all people with His heart, including those who tempt you to anger. Love them, see them as God’s children and allow God to draw you into the heights of perfection to which you are called.

My most perfect Lord, I thank You for loving me despite my many sins. I thank You for also calling me to share in the depths of Your love for others. Give me the eyes to see all people as You see them and to love them as You love them. I do love You, Lord. Help me to love You and others more. Jesus, I trust in You.

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