Lent isn't just about fast and abstinence and penance

St. Matthew School students take turns to bless themselves with holy water as they exit St. Matthew Church in Allouez, Wis., following a Feb. 18 Ash Wednesday Mass. (CNS/The Compass/Sam Lucero)
St. Matthew School students take turns to bless themselves with holy water as they exit St. Matthew Church in Allouez, Wis., following a Feb. 18 Ash Wednesday Mass. (CNS/The Compass/Sam Lucero)

by Thomas Gumbleton

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I’m sure that all of us are aware that since last Wednesday, we have begun a new season in the church’s year. We had been celebrating what we call the ordinary Sundays of the year, and had completed six weeks. But now there’s this break, and we have a new season beginning, and most of us think of it as the 40 days of Lent. But actually, it’s 90 days, this season, not just 40.

First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 9:8-15
Psalms 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 Peter 3:18-22
Matthew 4:4b
Mark 1:12-15
Full text of the readings


But it isn’t all [about] fast and abstinence and penance. In fact, the most important part is what happens after the 40 days, at Easter, when Jesus is raised from the dead and then shares with us his new life. And then it goes on for seven weeks as we prepare for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. And so really, this season now is the season of Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

And so as we enter into the season, I think it’s very important not just to think of it as this time of penance. That’s very important, but that’s only a means to an end. See, what’s really important, and what we’re preparing for, is a renewal of our baptism. Maybe some of you noticed when you came into church and dipped your hand in the baptismal font in the back, there’s no water there; it’s dry. See, we’re preparing now to bless new water at Easter, the new water that gives us the life of Christ.

And so during this season of Lent, we are preparing for a renewal on the part of every one of us — a renewal of our covenant with God that was made for most of us at the time we were infants. But now we have the opportunity to make it very much personal, real, for me, for myself, that I enter into this covenant with God through the renewal of my baptismal promises.

On Holy Saturday night, those who have been preparing for baptism catechumens receive that sacrament that night. And all of us then, at that time and on Easter Sunday, have the opportunity to renew our own baptismal promises, and what happens at baptism is something that is very important for us to be aware of. In the first letter, or the only letter Paul wrote to the church of Rome, Paul tells them, “Don’t you know that in baptism, which unites us to Christ, we are all baptized and plunged into his death.” Plunged into his death — we have to undergo death with Jesus.

“By this baptism in his death, we were buried with Christ, and as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God, so we begin to live a new life. If we have been joined to Jesus by dying a death like his, so we shall be by a resurrection like his brought to new life.” See, and that’s what we’re preparing for during this season of Lent.

These six weeks are a time when we try to be united with Jesus, who, as we heard in the Gospel, was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit to spend those six weeks in prayer, in quiet communion with God, in penance. Very austere life, of course, in the desert. And we try now for these six weeks to be deeply joined with him.

And perhaps what gives us an idea of what we have to do to reform and change our lives so that we’re ready to make a new covenant with God through the renewal of our baptism at Easter, but we have to look at what Jesus did, and what happened to him in the desert. St. Mark, in the Gospel today, merely mentions how the devil tempted him during those six weeks.

But all of us, I’m sure, remember the account in Luke, and especially in Matthew, of the time in the desert — the temptations. Remember the first temptation? The devil tells Jesus, pointing to some stones, “Turn those stones into bread. Now, if you are the son of God, you could have whatever you want. Change the stones to bread.” Remember what Jesus said? He said, “No one lives by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

See, material things are important, of course. We need them; part of our human life. But we don’t live by bread alone. It’s not just our material things and material wealth that gives us life. No, it’s by every word that comes from the mouth of God — try to discover who God is, what God says, how God is revealed to us, especially in Jesus.

And so during this time of Lent, we try to moderate by fasting and penance our use of material goods, our enjoyment of them to some extent, so that we become more deeply aware. It’s not money, wealth, the things of the earth that are going to give us fullness of life, but it’s the word of God, and so we try to listen deeply to that word of God, especially in prayer. And that’s one of the important things we do during Lent is try to be more faithful to our daily prayer, and not in the sense that we’re asking God for this or that. Yes, we need many blessings, but more that we’re trying to listen to God during this time of Lent.

And so we refrain from some of the normal activities of Lent and we try to spend more time in prayer. But then Jesus was also tempted, you remember: “Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple, because in the Book of Wisdom, it said God will raise you up, protect you.” What the devil was trying to get Jesus to do was to be sort of an exhibitionist, to try to be a wonder worker to draw people to follow him by the marvelous things he would do.

But that wasn’t the way of Jesus, and so he said, “No,” to Satan. He refused to become just a wonder worker. His work, his role in the world, and his role for each of us, is much more important than that. Not that we follow him just because he’s a wonder worker, a miracle worker. We try to follow him because we get to know who he really is, and what he’s asking of us.

Then, you remember the third temptation. The devil says, “If you’re really the son of God, then I will give you all the kingdoms of the earth, make you powerful, strong, dominating everything.” And it’s at that point that Jesus simply says, “Begone, Satan! Leave!” Jesus would have nothing to do with that because, and this is a very hard thing we have to learn, Jesus came into the world to show us that we don’t change the world, we don’t transform the world into the reign of God, by power or might or violence, but only through love. Only through love can we transform the world.

And so Jesus is asking us during this time of Lent to give more time to prayer, to be more sincere and authentic. See, not just to be one who gets attention by doing extraordinary things. And finally, to try to follow, or model, our lives on his, where he gave up power and might and domination in order simply to love. Pour forth upon all of us, upon all of creation, the love of God, and it’s that that will transform the world.

And that’s the message that I think in the time in which we live it seems we need to hear more deeply than anything else, because there is so much violence in our world, so much use of power and domination, military might, thinking we can change the world somehow through the use of that kind of power. And Jesus shows us it’s only by love that we really change the world.

In John’s Gospel, at one point Jesus says, “I, when I am lifted up,” and he meant when I’m lifted up on the cross, “I will draw all to myself,” and that’s what love can do. That’s how love will transform each of us individually, our families, our communities, our world. We draw through love. And so during this season of Lent, I hope we will understand that this is a time of preparation.

It’s a time of undergoing change through penance and alms-giving and prayer in order that we can really be renewed through the celebration of Easter and renew our baptismal covenant. Be plunged once more into that death of Jesus so that we will rise to new life, and then be inspired with the Holy Spirit to go out and transform our world into the reign of God, and the way of life that Jesus shows us.

[Homily given at St. Philomena Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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