Today's gospel reading from Luke relates Christ's temptation in the wilderness. It's a familiar story to Christians. Jesus enters the desert to fast for forty days, and while there Satan tempts him. He encourages Christ (who is fasting) to turn a stone into bread. Jesus rebukes him, saying, "Man does not live by bread alone." Satan then offers to make all the kingdoms of the world Christ's if he will give him worship, and Jesus again refuses, because he will only give worship to God. Lastly Satan tells Christ that if he really is the Son of God he should leap off the highest parapet of the temple and let God's angels protect him. Christ refuses and says we should not tempt God.
As I said, it is a familiar account to most Christians, and a perfect reflection to begin our Lenten journey of forty days of fasting. Jesus was able to resist the temptations offered him by the devil because he placed his faith and trust in God first. We can, like Christ, do the same when faced with our own temptations.
But there is a sentence in this gospel passage that especially strikes me. I don't want it to go by without notice. It says, simply, "He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry."
The story of Jesus' forty days in the desert has two components. One is that he was able to resist all the temptations Satan had to offer, from a single loaf of bread, to all the kingdoms of the world. The other is that he was able to deny himself a basic good -- food. His denial of Satan is the fruit of a disciplined will and trust in God. His denial of his own hunger is the spiritual exercise that strengthens that will in the first place.
Let us not lose sight of this in our own Lenten observance. Every year around the beginning of this season I hear people encouraging others to take a different approach to what they give up for Lent. These well meaning folks say instead of giving up chocolate, or coffee, we should try giving up gossip, or anger, or jealousy, or lust, or selfishness. These things, they say, would make a true and pleasing sacrifice to the Lord. That is what the Lord truly wants of us, for us to become better, more holy people after his own heart.
And to a certain extent I agree. We should give up gossip and jealousy and selfishness and those things, to the extent that we struggle with them. We should give them up, however, because they are sinful. Giving up sinful things is something a Christian should strive to do all year round. Lent is a season of repentance and penance, yes. And if the graces of this season encourage you to let go of some of these sinful inclinations then that is a wonderful thing. But that's not quite the point of the Lenten fast.
Why did Jesus give up food for forty days? Is food sinful? Is it bad to eat? No, quite the contrary. Food is necessary for life. It is a good. That's why the abuse of food (gluttony) is a sin. And that's why giving it up can be a worthy sacrifice. After all, in order to be a true sacrifice, the thing we sacrifice must be good. Think of the ancient Israelites making animal sacrifices to God. It was an unblemished lamb that was offered, not the runt of the litter, not the lame and the sick lambs. They offered their best as a sacrifice.
Likewise, when a priest makes his vow of celibacy it is not because marriage is bad. On the contrary, it is only because marriage is such a great good that freely giving it up can be such a noble sacrifice on the part of the priest.
My wife and I, before Lent, were having a dinner table conversation with our children about what they were each going to try to give up this year. My wife reminded them, "It should be something that you will be happy to have back again at Easter." That's a good way of thinking about it. For it to be a true sacrifice for us, it ought to be something good we will miss. It should be a little hard for us to let it go. What we do when we make this kind of Lenten fast is to both offer something good to the Lord, and also discipline our own will. If we can tell ourselves "no" in small matters, then we will be able more easily to tell Satan "no" when he tempts us in greater things.
If you have decided to give up something sinful during Lent, I am not saying don't bother! That's a worthy goal and I encourage you in it. Seek out the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) and pray for God's assistance in conquering that sin. But I also encourage you to think of something good that you can also offer to God this year. By denying yourself a good thing, you will strengthen your spirit and build the discipline necessary to continue resisting the temptation to sin long after Lent is over.