This week marked the beginning of what many Christians experience as Lent. Many identify this time as a Catholic tradition but many other Christian denominations, such as the Orthodox, Lutheran and other Anglican denominations acknowledge this time of spiritual growth. Sadly, many approach this time not really understanding the purpose; view it as a burden and find it senseless. I know this because I myself felt this way for many years of my life. But not anymore. I’d like to share how anyone looking to deepen their faith and their relationship with their Creator can do so by committing to “Taking a Journey into the Desert”.
The temptation of Christ is detailed in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. According to these texts, after being baptized, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judean Desert. During this time, the devil appeared to Jesus and tempted him. Jesus having refused each temptation, the devil departed and angels came and brought nourishment to Jesus. He used this time to pray and reflect on His relationship with the Father. He did this by separating Himself from all that is earthly and relying solely on His faith in God to sustain Him. Upon returning, Jesus possessed the spiritual strength He would need to carry Him through His ministry, all the way to His death on a cross.
Like Christ, we all have our crosses to carry and to have the strength to do so, we need to have faith and trust in Our Heavenly Father. That is easier said than done! Life is going 100 mph and we can get so caught up in the lives the world tell us we must live that many of us may go days, weeks, even months without prayer and reflection on God’s will for us. It’s after most of us face a struggle that we turn to God for assistance and wonder why we don’t feel He is close to us. It is because we have chosen not to seek that closeness; that intimate relationship He desires to have with us through our free will; if we only pursue it!
This time in the desert, this Lenten season, is designed to do just that for those of us that approach it with the desire to grow spiritually in relationship with God. In reality we should strive to live everyday in union with Christ but we must start somewhere; and these 40 days are a prefect time to commit to change.
Growing up, I remember that the “rules” were to give up something for 40 days as well as “not eat meat” on Fridays. I didn’t get it; made no sense to me. How would doing these things bring me closer to God. Well the fact of the matter is without the proper intentions and purpose behind the actions, it won’t. I see for many that the absence of meat on Friday is interpreted as an opportunity, not to sacrifice, but to go out and buy an even more expensive seafood dinner. I know this because I myself was guilty of this for many years. Then as far as giving something up, it would be something like chocolate, alcohol, television, etc. Not that giving these things up are not good, however, for most of us we go right back to them after 40 days and the sacrifice did nothing for us spiritually nor did we do the most important thing during this time; CHANGE!
During these days of being in the desert, we are to pray, fast and give alms! Why are prayer, fasting and almsgiving especially important during this time?
Prayer: Without prayer, fasting and almsgiving are merely actions we do out of tradition without much meaning. Prayer is our conversation with God. It is through prayer that we find the strength to fast. It is through prayer that we develop a closer, more intimate relationship with God. This relationship makes us so grateful for the blessing He has bestowed upon us, that we eagerly give to those less fortunate than us. We have been taught by Christ himself that prayer is essential to any actions we as Christians may undertake.
Fasting: Fasting is one of the most ancient actions linked to this period of growth and purity of our spirituality. Fasting rules have changed over the years but throughout history fasting has been considered sacred. The prophet Isaiah insists that fasting without changing our behavior is not pleasing to God. (Isaiah 58) Therefore, the goal of fasting is linked with prayer. The sharp attack of mental anguish we experience while fasting and hungry reminds us of our hunger for God, and prayer and fasting together brings us to what our “time in the desert” is about – a deeper conversion.
Almsgiving: It should be obvious by now, that almsgiving is simply a response by us to God, a response that we have come to through prayer and fasting. It is an expression of our gratitude for all that God has given us, and a realization that in the Body of Christ, it is never just “me and God”. Through prayer and fasting we come to a deeper understanding of the needs of ALL are the responsibility of ALL in the Body of Christ. Works of charity and the promotion of justice are integral elements of the Christian way of life we begin when we are baptized. Now it’s a matter of will we nurture this way of life through a deepening and strengthening of our relationship with Christ; learning to live for others, as Christ did.
Whether Catholic, Orthodox or any other Christian faith, I challenge you to take a moment to reflect on the true meaning of Christ’s 40 days in the desert and consider breaking away from the craziness that has become our society; let go of some things keeping you from the closeness you could be having with God; maybe begin doing something new that you haven’t been doing like reading some scripture everyday; working at a soup kitchen; anything that helps you to reach out to others and make an impact in the world. Let us work on changing the dry, desolate way of our hearts to that of charity, peace and love to our brothers and sisters in Christ! May your journey be powerful and impactful!