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Lent Season Puts Priorities in Order

March 25, 2000|Samuel P. Scheibler

The season of Lent has been set aside by the church since its earliest days to remind the Christian of his unworthiness before the holiness of almighty God and the magnitude of his grace. For 40 days the church meditates upon the results of the fall, the price of man's salvation, and the sacrifice of Christ on behalf of a dying world.

The penitential season of Lent began March 8 with Ash Wednesday. Ashes are a biblical symbol of contrition, and it is appropriate that the church enters into its season of reflection, prayer and humility with this ancient sign of repentance.

The historical significance of the 40 days can be traced to the Old Covenant. From the time of Moses, the people of God fasted for 40 days in recognition of their dependence upon almighty God and in repentance for their sins.

After his baptism our Lord immediately undertook a fast of 40 days in the desert, where he conquered all the temptations put forward by Satan. In these temptations the savior faced the same enticements that still confront the Christian during Lent--and throughout the year.

Satan launched his first attack through our Lord's very human need for food. Jesus had undertaken a very strenuous fast. He was naturally hungry. When Satan asked him to make bread out of stones, it was much more than a temptation to display power--it was undoubtedly a very real temptation of the flesh. Jesus placed obligation to almighty God in proper perspective to human desire by answering Satan's temptation with the words "It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4).

When we take upon ourselves a commitment to fasting or sacrifice during Lent we are not imposing an artificial standard of holiness or seeking to gain merit in the eyes of God. We are seeking to put things in their proper perspective following the example of our savior.

No physical desire is greater than our obligation to obey the commandments of almighty God. By fasting and giving up physical pleasures during Lent we are reminded of the correct way of prioritizing the demands of the flesh and the responsibilities of the soul.

After being rebuffed by Jesus on issues of the flesh, Satan tried to induce our Lord to prove himself by a show of divine authority. As normal human beings, having our abilities, position or due authority questioned justifiably hurts our feelings. We want to prove ourselves--to defend our dignity and pride. If having our position or authority questioned hurts our pride, imagine being God incarnate and having someone challenge your power.

Jesus, however, answered this temptation by responding: "It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God" (Matthew 4:7).

The savior recognized that in his humanity he was completely dependent upon God the father. His power, authority and abilities were not given for exploitation, but rather to accomplish the will of God.

During Lent we "bridle" ourselves a little more tightly than during the rest of the year. We pull in the reins and remind ourselves that we are not ultimately in charge. We submit to acts of obedience and sacrifice to underscore the submission of our pride to the greater purposes of almighty God.

In the final temptation Satan offers Jesus the whole world in exchange for a single act of worship. It seems like a small compromise for so great a prize. Jesus had been raised as a carpenter's son in a small provincial town. Satan was offering him earthly success on an almost unimaginable scale.

As a man trained in the law of God this temptation must have presented a particular dilemma. Jesus knew what wealth and influence could mean. He also knew that his Father could forgive even the greatest transgressions. A single act of worship in exchange for all the good he could do as a man with the riches of the world at his feet could surely have been forgiven as a conflict of situational ethics. His response to this temptation, however, was the sharpest. He said to the tempter: "Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve" (Matthew 4:10).

Lenten disciplines are acts of worship--service rendered to God out of love and sacrifice. In the scheme of our lives they are usually very small things--a meal skipped, a pleasure set aside, a habit suppressed. But, when Lent is taken in its proper perspective and in accordance with its true meaning, these small acts are things offered to God. Making and breaking Lenten obligations are personal decisions made before almighty God.

While God has granted forgiveness for even the greatest sins through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is an abrogation of true worship to please ourselves with things that have been offered to him.

The Rev. Dr. Samuel P. Scheibler is rector of the Church of the Resurrection in Brea.

On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor Jack Robinson.

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