This Sunday we find ourselves with Jesus as he concludes his 40 days in the desert.
Given the weather right now, 40 days in the desert sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
Among other things, this gospel, coming just five days into Lent, is a kind of lesson and guide: if we think these 40 days are hard on us, look at what Jesus did for 40 days—and how God’s word, and intense prayer, and sheer willpower, led Christ to conquer temptation.
I think this gospel also helps us remember that Christ had to struggle with very human needs and desires. He understands what we are going through, what battles we are waging—not just during Lent, but always.
But what exactly are we going through? What temptations are we fighting?
Last week, the people who operate the search engine Google decided to find out.
Google looked at online searches during the first week of February containing the terms “Lent” and “give up.” It then broke down the results state by state to make an educated guess about what people in different states are supposedly giving up for Lent. TIME magazine reported the results over the weekend.
The most popular item—in eight of the 50 states—is meat.
Alcohol came in second, in seven states—including, by the way, New York.
Six states are giving up sweets or sugar.
In Idaho, they’re giving up Netflix.
In Georgia, they’re giving up social media.
And in Kentucky, they are giving up fried food.
But the list is hardly exhaustive. And as we begin our journey into Lent, we might want to ask ourselves what other temptations are calling out to us.
Are we being tempted to judge others too quickly or condemn too easily?
Do we feel dark joy when others stumble or fall or fail?
Do we too easily believe the worst about others, instead of looking for the best?
Those of us who spend any time online see this often. On Facebook or social media, in the comments on blogs, in the talking heads on cable TV, people thrive on a steady diet of venom and vitriol. In this election year, it’s becoming especially brutal.
But I also see this when people online discuss matters of faith. Too many of us have forgotten that we are, as Paul said, “ambassadors of Christ.” And when using social media, too many of us openly encourage hostility and even hatred toward those we disagree with.
As a friend of mine likes to put it, “See how these Christians shove one another.”
Is that how we want to present ourselves to the world?
Lent is a good opportunity to ask ourselves, in whatever we do: are my choices, my words, my behaviors, building up the Body of Christ?
When people see me, or hear me, or read me, are they encountering Jesus?
In this year devoted to mercy, am I reflecting mercy?
Am I a worthy apostle?
The other day I read a beautiful passage by someone who was very familiar with both apostleship and a life in the desert: Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Blessed Charles was a French soldier in the late 19th century who underwent a powerful conversion experience and felt drawn to a life of solitude in the desert of northern Africa. When he was 43, he was ordained a Trappist priest. A few years later, he was granted permission to form a religious institute, the Little Brothers of Jesus. He spent the last years of his life in a hermitage among the Taureg people of Algeria. In 1916, robbers broke into his hermitage and he was shot and killed. He is considered a martyr of the faith and was beatified in 2005.
In one of his journals, he wrote:
“Charity is the foundation of our religion. It asks each Christian to love his neighbor as if he were himself. Consequently, the salvation of one’s neighbor is as important as the salvation of one’s self. Every Christian must be an apostle. That is not advice; it is a command, the command of charity. All force must be abandoned. We must banish militant ideas from ourselves. Jesus taught us to go ‘like sheep in the midst of wolves,’ not to speak with bitterness and unkindness, not with arms.”
A hundred years later, those words are as timely as ever. They speak to our divided, polarized, often hostile world.
And two thousand years later, the temptations Christ faced in the desert—especially for hunger and for power— still tempt us.
But as I mentioned earlier: Jesus understands our struggles and setbacks, our very human temptation to give in to sin. This Lent, let us never hesitate to turn to him for the strength we may lack, the willpower we may need, the fidelity and steadfastness we may require. Ask him to walk with you in the desert. We are all “Little Brothers”—and sisters!—of Jesus. He will never fail to show us the way, and guide us on the right path.
As we prepare to receive Christ in the Eucharist today, let us pray as well to receive the grace to live Lent to its fullest—to deepen our prayer lives, to open our hearts, to draw closer to the Father of mercies. As Blessed Charles reminds us: we are to be apostles. That means spreading the good news of Christ’s love to the world—and working to save the world, beginning with ourselves. That is, at bottom, what Lent aims to do: to help us in our salvation.
Because whether we’re trying to do without chocolate or alcohol or meat…whether we’re trying to give up pride or pettiness or gossip or attacks online…the sacrifice is well worth it.
What we give up during this season is nothing compared to what we can gain.
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