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First Sunday of Lent

Lenten Question

There is a striking set of three pictures, a kind of strip-cartoon really, although at present I cannot remember where. It goes something like this. In the first picture, a man stands in front of an abstract painting and asks 'What does this represent?' and laughs. In the second picture, the painting develops an outstretched arm which points to the man with a finger. In the third picture, the startled man is asked by the painting, 'And what do you represent?' Lent is that part of the year when we look at Christ, particularly on the cross, and ask ourselves the same kind of question. We are given the opportunity to take stock of ourselves, and to ask precisely this: what do I represent? What does my life add up to?

To pray fervently, to be generous in giving to the poor, and to fast are the traditional ways of feeling the pressure of basic but perhaps unasked questions. How do I stand with God? (prayer). How do I relate to others, especially those most in need? (almsgiving). How do I treat myself? (fasting).

We are unfinished beings, and in time we make or unmake ourselves. In time come opportunities and risks, and who we are is yet to be disclosed in a fixed and unchanging way. In one sense, every temptation is a possibility to be decided on. So we can say that someone is tempted to give up her job to do something else or that someone is tempted to abandon his wish to get married to take vows as a religious. Here the choice could well be between one good and another good.

But by a temptation is usually meant an invitation to do wrong, to sin, and the invitation can come from within or from outside a person. Given the fragility of goodness and the inadequacy of relying on our own strength, temptations should be avoided or resisted with God's grace. Jesus taught us to pray not to be led into temptation.

The temptations of Christ in today's Gospel question him deeply and with cunning. They tempt him to agree to alternative accounts of who he was and what his mission was to be. The traditional Lenten practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting are not an obstacle course. They are not temptations to sin. Just the opposite. They are searching ways not just of asking who we are, what we represent, but of being brought closer to a Christian answer.

Christ's temptations were demonic invitations to accept false accounts of who he was and what his life represented. Our Lenten practices are reliable invitations to accept Christian accounts of who we are and what our lives represent.

The three Lenten practices are demanding and yet, under grace, they also intensify and fulfil our Christian desire to be closer to God, to our neighbour and to our true selves. These traditional practices interrelate, and they represent the Christian.

Undertaken together, prayer and almsgiving and fasting mutually correct the ways we might misunderstand them and ourselves. Prayer is less likely to degenerate into selfish escapism if combined with almsgiving and fasting; almsgiving is less likely to be an alternative to love of God and self-scrutiny if combined with prayer and fasting; fasting is less likely to be narcissistic if combined with prayer and almsgiving.

Temptations to sin may well come our way, as happened dramatically to Jesus in today's Gospel. The season of Lent is not a time deliberately to increase or encourage temptations. Lent is a time to reconsider who we are and what we represent by looking at and sharing the love and truth of Christ.

It is not by setting up temptations as hurdles that we grow. It is far better and more fruitful in Lent to pray, to give alms and to fast so as to see how we stand with God, our neighbour and our deepest selves. This way, we can let ourselves be made into more authentic representations of the Christian.

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