This first Sunday of the Lenten season, the Church offers us the image of Christ tempted by the devil. Though Jesus did not have anything disordered within Himself, and so could not be tempted from within as we are each day, still, the devil tested Him from the outside. Knowing the needs of Jesus’ human flesh, and not understanding that Christ was truly God, the devil offers to the Lord things that would tempt any human nature: delights of the flesh, wealth and power, and that which is extraordinary and miraculous. We know, of course, that Jesus who is perfect, and who is the living God incarnate, will not give in to any temptation, even in his physically weakened state. But given that Christ is all-powerful, and that nothing happens without His allowing it, why does He chose to undergo temptation?
The answer, of course, as with everything else in the Life of Christ, is for our salvation. He chooses to suffer those forty days of fasting and to face the lies and temptations of the devil, not because He needs to for Himself, but for our sake. He does so first to teach us how to overcome temptation ourselves, but also to show us how committed He is to sharing our burdens, as well as to offer Himself already for our salvation. He teaches us to choose God Himself over the good things of the flesh, to choose the Father’s power and glory over our own advancement, and to trust in His providence and presence, even when it is not extraordinary or obvious. He demonstrates that even though He has full right and power to live how He pleases, even though He could obtain any comfort, honor, or power in an instant, that He chooses instead to remain weak, to remain hungry, to remain obscure and powerless, and to remain unremarkable, in true and total solidarity with us. He undergoes great suffering, years before He would sacrifice Himself definitively on the Cross, as an offering of love ahead of His years in public ministry for our sake. His temptation is entirely for us, for our instruction, our comfort, and our healing.
What, then, does all of this tell us about our Lenten fasting? The Church reminds us that Christ’s fast of forty days is the pattern of our own Lent, and so we must look for similarities here. Of course, since we are sinners where Christ was not, we have an extra purpose. Our Lenten penance is first and foremost to turn us away from sin. We follow the instruction the Lord gave us during His fasting and use spiritual weapons to drive out the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and pride of life from our hearts, leaving them focused on the Lord alone, prepared to receive His love.
But this is not the only purpose of our fasting. Like Christ’s, our actions during Lent should serve to instruct and build up our neighbor, show our solidarity with those who suffer, and serve as sacrifice for the salvation of others. Because we are baptized, Christ is living in us, and when we fast, He joins our fasting within us, with the same constant desire to love the Father and save souls. Whatever it is we do during Lent, it is not just for our own sake. Every loving act of self-denial, every choice to spend time with God alone rather than in worldly pastimes, every act of generosity with our neighbors, serves the work of salvation in that same threefold pattern: through teaching, solidarity, and redeeming sacrifice. With this in mind, we should build up our hearts in courage and devotion, and ask the Lord for the strength necessary to make a good Lent, not just so we are prepared to receive Him well at Easter, but for the sake of the salvation of all.