If you’ve chosen to give up something for Lent, then right about now you’re really starting to feel the loss. If you’ve given up a favorite food, your mind may be telling you that just a tiny bite won’t hurt anything…and that Jesus will forgive you. And that’s probably right. Knowing Jesus as we do, he most likely would forgive us for taking just a tiny bite of that thing we love so much. But Jesus’ willingness to forgive is not what Lenten disciplines are about; becoming reconciled to God is. Whatever we chose to do in observance of Lent is meant to bring us closer to God – to reconcile us to God. We aren’t just giving up something until Easter (and, perhaps, beyond) just to be giving it up. We are denying ourselves, experiencing sacrifice, in order to yoke our wills more tightly to Christ’s. We don’t take that bite because denying ourselves is something we have promised Christ. We made the promise out of our love for him; we keep the promise as a way of deepening our love for him.
At the third week of Lent, we reach the point where life tests us to see how well we are doing, and the test is to float the idea in our minds that it’s all right to go back on the pledge we made.
If it’s any comfort, the same thing happened to Jesus. Having just heard that he is God’s “beloved son,” he is led by the the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be alone with himself and with God, to fast and pray, to deny himself creature comforts, and to prepare himself for the work ahead. Time passes. Hunger sets in; he’s beginning to feel the effects of denial. So along comes temptation. “Jesus,” temptation says, “you’re hungry. Look around you: see those stones? Go ahead…turn one into bread. No one will know….and you’ve done nothing wrong. It’s just bread….” And the voice isn’t wrong: no one (except God the Father and Jesus and the Holy Spirit) would know. Sound familiar? Isn't that what we tell ourselves when we're about to cheat?
But then, what happens? After the hunger subsides, guilt creeps in. “I shouldn’t have eaten that bread…that candy…that cake,” we think. “God knows I ate it…How can I now face God?” We end up like Adam and Eve, cowering in the shrubbery when the Creator comes looking for us in the cool of the afternoon, seeking the company of people made in the divine image, in infinite love. And in our hearts we hear, so to speak, the voice of God asking, “Where are you?” because we are no longer close; our actions have driven us apart from God.
So don’t give in to that little voice. As St. Peter says, resist it, firm in your faith. (See below for the full quotation). The discomfort of denial is not too hard for us to bear; human beings are equipped to handle pain just as we handle pleasure. We are more than what we eat or drink (see Mt. 6:25 – “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”). The experience of denial now enables us to stand with Jesus later, when the events of Holy Week come, and the stakes are every so much higher.
Verses to meditate upon
“Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” (1 Peter5:8-9a)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. … Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (Jn 15:1-2)
“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire.” (Mt. 18:8)