Prayer in Lent

Prayer is one of the three things that we are encouraged by the Church to do during the season of Lent. Along with fasting and almsgiving, we are encouraged to spend more time in prayer. Prayer is recollected quiet time, talking and listening to our Lord.

I think the readings today can help us think about what that conversation with our Lord during Lent might be about. For Lent is a time of preparation to receive the gift of salvation from God through the sacrifice of his son on the Cross and his resurrection at Easter. So the question to ponder during Lent might be, “Why do we need salvation?”

The readings today point us toward the answer. From the reading from Genesis, we get the important details about us, about what makes us unique in God’s creation. It says “the Lord blew into his nostrils — that’s Adam — blew into his nostrils the breath of life.” The breath of life is sanctifying grace. It’s everlasting life for our everlasting soul. It’s what makes us different from everything else that God created. Our everlasting soul filled with sanctifying grace is what makes us special.

In the story from Genesis, we then meet the Devil. He is driven by resentful pride. He is a liar, and a crafty liar. He lives with half-truths and rarely declares the straight truth or the full truth. He tells Eve that she won’t die after she eats the forbidden fruit. And she discovers that she is still alive after she has done what God told her not to do. But the devil was talking about physical life. When he said that she would not die, he was only saying that she would not lose her physical life. Eve — along with Adam who also ate the forbidden fruit — lost the life of grace. Adam and Eve after eating the fruit were spiritually dead. That’s why their nakedness was suddenly shameful.

A primary temptation of the Devil is to invite us to be God instead of his creature. The human person is the greatest creature, unlike any other because we are made in God’s image and likeness. But even though we are the greatest creature ever made, we are still creatures. Adam and Eve are promised by the Devil that they will know what God knows, that they can be gods like God. Wouldn’t it be so great to be a god and get to do the things that gods do? Deciding is a big thing God does. He decides what is good and what is bad. He writes the moral law. Creatures do not. He decides what is true and what is false. Creatures do not. He decides who lives and who dies. Truth, goodness, and life itself; these come from God alone.

Now let’s turn to the temptation of Christ in the desert, which was our gospel reading today. This is a contest between the ruler of this world, the father of lies, against the ruler of heaven, the only begotten son. Jesus proclaimed himself to be the truth, the way, and the life. So, Truth is being tempted by lies. The author of life is being tempted by the author of death.

The devil first tries pleasure. It is not good to be hungry, and Jesus was truly hungry. But the truth, the way, and the life, knows that even starvation is better than mocking the holy power of God by using his divine power to get earthly goods. At the end of the day, it’s better to go hungry than to be presumptuous towards the God who created us. Jesus is the obedient Son, and he refuses the temptation of disobedience offered by the Devil.

The scene at the top of the temple is more of the same: the Devil tries to tempt Jesus to stop trusting his heavenly Father, and Jesus knows that is the first step towards losing our eternal souls. Jesus is, of course, truly God, so much of what he did during his earthly ministry was to show us how to be. We live amid the temptations of the Devil, and the story of the temptation of Jesus by the Devil in the Gospels is for our instruction. We are on a regular basis tempted to stop trusting our heavenly Father, and the story of Jesus at the parapet of the temple is a story to help us remain strong in the face of similar temptation. The devil tries to lure Jesus with earthly power in the third temptation. All Jesus has to do is abandon God. But Jesus will not forsake his Father.

Our Lenten prayer time can be fruitful if we ponder these interactions and conversations between Jesus and the Devil to see more clearly how the Devil seeks to separate us from our heavenly Father. The pattern is obvious: first we receive a little bit of uncertainty, or even doubt. Remember that the first words from the Devil to Eve are just a question. He asks innocently enough, “Did God really say…?” The next step is to offer a lie: some variation on “Don’t believe God.” The Devil told Eve that God was lying to her about death. And being a crafty liar, the Devil can come back to Eve — he can come back to us — and argue that he didn’t really lie because she didn’t really die. Of course the important death that all Christians should be concerned about is spiritual death rather than earthly death. And the Devil knows this. But he wants to distract us so he can tempt us and win our souls for himself. The third step is some kind of offer. The Devil says something along the lines of, “Turn away from God and serve me.” It’s rarely put that directly, of course. Mostly we hear offers for wealth or power or fame; all these are variations on the same false God, and all are profoundly tempting for most of us.

So on a regular basis during these six weeks of Lent, we might spend some time alone with God and just review the day or the week to ask ourselves these questions:

How did the devil hunt me today? What were the ways in which I felt temptation; temptation for more pleasure, temptation to distrust God, or temptation for more earthly recognition and power and money? 

Using the pattern that we see from the book of Genesis and from the gospel today, we have some tools to recognize the behavior of the Devil despite his constant efforts to hide himself as he pursues us. The Devil is a master of letting the good become the enemy of the best. And that is why we need salvation. We are suckers for the Devil unless we cling to the Cross. If we do not keep our eyes on the gift of salvation, which is Jesus on the Cross, we can be easily converted to a gift of pleasure or power or fame, none of which has any lasting value.

We need Jesus. We need to know him, and we need to love him. If we know him well, then we know how much he loves us. So if we don’t feel much love from God, Lent is a great time to get to know him better. We have been given the Holy Scriptures as a way to know God and the love that he has for his children. Let’s read our Bibles. It is God’s love letter to us.

If we do know him and still do not feel love for him, then we need to spend time in prayer focused on the gift of salvation that we receive through the Cross. We are in a few minutes going to participate in the liturgy of the Eucharist, which is primarily a re-presentation of that gift of sacrifice on the Cross at Calvary. Our Mass is a memorial of God’s love for us. Lent is a beautiful time to meditate on how much God loves us, and how much we love him back. He gave us everything, restoring us with sanctifying grace to eternal life — a thing we gave up for nothing in the Garden of Eden to the father of lies.

The Heavenly Father has sent his son to give us a new beginning because he loves us. Let us spend Lent thinking about that gift of love.

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