Christ in the Desert by Kramskoy

Christ in the Desert by Kramskoy

In the Gospel of Sunday of the First Week of Lent, we are given a lesson of what it takes for us to attain salvation through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

“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. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry” (Luke 4:1-2).

Immediately following the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where he fasted for 40 days. When he was sufficiently weakened in the flesh, He contended with the devil who tempted Him. This models the life each of us who believe and are baptized are to live.

Time in the Wilderness is Essential for those Baptized in Christ

St. Ambrose reflects on this truth when he writes:

“There are three things which united together conduce to the salvation of man; The Sacrament, The Wilderness, Fasting. No one who has not rightly contended receives a crown, but no one is admitted to the contest of virtue, except first being washed from the stains of all his sins, he is consecrated with the gift of heavenly grace” (St. Ambrose; Catena Aurea by St. Thomas Aquinas, Luke 4).

Through faith and the grace conferred by Baptism, we are welcomed to the life of grace and communion with God, sharing in the Divine life. But, that is not the end of our salvation experience; it is simply our new beginning. Satan will continue to tempt us, so we must be ready to persevere in grace deepening our conversion as we continually turn from sin and to God.

Our reliance is not on ourselves, but on God, so like an athlete preparing for his contest, Christians need to prepare for the life of faith. In order to practice the virtues in daily life, we are in need of spending time in the desert – or wilderness – to become strong through weakness and surrender to the Lord. Let’s look again to Christ’s example.

To prepare for his public ministry, Jesus submitted to be baptized, even though he had no need to do so; for He was without sin. We begin our life in Christ through the Christian sacrament of Baptism, the work of God by which we receive Sanctifying Grace and become justified. Unlike Christ, we are in need of baptism which cleanses us from all sin, original and actual.

We read that the Spirit then led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  In overcoming these temptations, Jesus recapitulated the life of Israel and accomplished what God’s Chosen People had failed to do.  The grace of Jesus Christ makes it possible for Christians to do the same.

Denying the Body Strengthens the Soul

But here is what I want you to see – before Jesus was tempted, he fasted for 40 days. To prepare for these temptations of the will, Jesus weakened the desires of the body.  The bible tells us that after fasting, Jesus was hungry… then he was tempted. What he shows us is that the hunger that we experience after denying the body its “wants” no longer has the same power over our appetites that it did before. Jesus was and is incapable of sin, but we are, so our following His example equips us, by His grace, to resist temptations. So we too should fast in order to prepare for our public ministry, our Christian life. Fasting, the practice of self-denial by grace, does not lead us to more greatly desire that which we have given up; it trains us to control our disordered appetites.

Key Lessons to Remember

The lessons taught by our Lord through the example of His time in the wilderness include:

  • We enter the life of grace through faith and the Sacrament of Baptism.
  • We must deepen this life of grace by spending time periodically in the wilderness.
  • Fasting and other acts of self-denial, through faith and by grace, performed out of Love of God, strengthen us to grow in faith and charity.
  • Through surrender of our will to the Lord, we are able to more deeply advance in prayer and communion.
  • Thus equipped, we are able to resist temptations and avoid sin and perform the good works of mercy God has prepared for us.

The Catholic Disciplinary Laws of Fast and Abstinence

In these modern times, we don’t seem to hear much about fasting and abstinence anymore.  That’s a shame because, as Jesus taught by example, the doctrine of self-denial is crucial to our becoming fully satisfied. Many of today’s Catholics associate fasting and abstinence only with the season of Lent and that’s a shame too. Let’s review the Church’s disciplinary law regarding Fasting and Abstinence:

  • Fasting During Lent – The Church requires its members to fast on two days each year – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The US Bishops have defined the minimum requirement of the fast for US Catholics to be one full (but not excessive) meal plus other food not to exceed the full meal which may be taken in part at breakfast, noon or evening, depending on when one decides to take the “one full meal”. This law applies to Catholics between the age of 18 and 59.
  • Abstinence From Meat on Fridays – The Church requires its members to abstain from eating meat on Fridays as an act of penitence.  In the United States, Catholics are permitted to substitute another form of penance on Fridays outside the season of Lent. This law applies to all Catholics who are over the age of 14.
  • The Holy Communion Fast – Catholics must also fast for a minimum of one hour before receiving Holy Communion.

The entire season of Lent is a penitential time and our attitude and behavior during this season should be marked by some sort of self-denial.  The season of Advent is also a penitential season, but of less severity, and we should also mark this season with some form of self-denial, even if it is less than that practiced during Lent.

These are only minimums. With prudence, we should each seek to live simply and practice self-denial throughout the year.

That’s it!  And so many of us complain and wait for the clock to tick down to midnight so we can have a ham sandwich. We need to turn our thinking around, because out of control appetites only become more hungry and insatiable. That is why there are so many miracle diets and weight loss programs on the market that promise results without effort. Well, there is only one source of miracles and that is God.  He has already provided us the ultimate diet program for our spiritual lives if we will but listen to Him.

Into the Deep…

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Into the Deep by Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is a regular feature of the The Integrated Catholic Life™ and usually appears each Sunday.

Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplains to the St. Peter Chanel Business Association and co-founder of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

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