A. Lenten logic
1. There is a logic to the progression of the Lenten gospels. On the First Sunday in Lent, the gospel was Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness. Jesus is revealed as the one who has the power to conquer evil. On the Second Sunday in Lent, the gospel was Jesus freeing the daughter of the Woman of Canaan from demonic harassment. This illustrates how Jesus exercises his power to free us from evil. Today’s gospel is about the spiritual vacuum created by the exorcism. It is not enough to be freed from evil. The departing evil must be replaced with good or else some greater evil will replace it. Next week’s gospel is the feeding of the five thousand, which points to Jesus as the bread of life. Jesus is the good that fills the void created by the departure of the evil.
2. On third Sunday in Lent, we need to remind ourselves that this is the purpose of Lent. Lent is about the power of Christ to free us from evil through confession and the practice of fasting; and it is about replacing the evil with the good, with Christ, with new gifts and graces from the Spirit that he gives us.
B. Lenten fatigue
1. We need to remind ourselves because the Third Sunday in Lent is about when Lent begins to become a drag. We are in the “no man’s land” of the season. We’ve been at it a few weeks and are not even half way there yet. The initial enthusiasm and heroic resolve begin to give way to fatigue. The spoiled child of our appetites acts up and demands satisfaction. We’ve probably had, or will soon have, our first bouts with failure.
2. This is exactly how it should be. Spiritual growth takes place precisely when we reach the point of discomfort. We follow Jesus into the Lenten wilderness in order to find out what is really going on within us. When all of our “stuff” is out in the open, we are in a place to begin to face it and make progress. Lent provides an emptiness that will be filled in new ways by Christ. If it weren’t Lent, we would fill it with other things and not make progress.
C. Lenten dangers
1. There are seasonal dangers to watch for. There is the inner Pharisee. He wants us to compare our fast with someone else’s and fall into pride. Having chosen to abstain from significant things, we feel superior to those who are not abstaining in the same heroic way. As the Pharisee of the parable prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:11-12).
2. There are two things we need to take to heart about fasting. First, the things you have given up are to aid you in your spiritual struggle. They have nothing to do with what someone else is wrestling with. You may want to develop self-control in an area where another never had a problem. The only helpful comparison in the spiritual life is where you are now compared to where you have been; and where you are now compared to Christ, the ultimate goal. The comparison to our old self encourages us with a sense of progress. Comparing ourselves to Christ keeps us humble and dependent on his grace. The minute fasting causes us to compare ourselves to another, it becomes prideful and demonic.
Second, self control is a gift; if you have gained some strength by grace, the proper response is thanksgiving. When we add thanksgiving to graces received, we double the blessing. However, if our old gluttony is replaced with new pride, we’ve experienced something of the one for seven exchange that Jesus spoke of in the gospel. The spiritual sins of pride and envy, born of comparison, are far more serious than bodily sins of lust, gluttony or laziness.
3. We can err in the other direction. If we resolved to fast from something and slipped, we may feel as though we’ve failed. This is to misunderstand the way fasting works. Fasting is spiritual exercise. If you plan a workout consisting of 4 sets of ten repetitions, the workout is not a failure if you are only able to complete three sets plus five repetitions. You have simply discovered that you are not yet strong enough to do four full sets. The answer is not to stop exercising or feel horrible; the answer is to try four sets again next time. Likewise, if we fall in the fast, we simply get up and start again the next day. The fall is part of our progress. It revealed the weakness we need to work on.
D. Grace as the foundation for Lent
1. Human nature always tempts us to turn the Christian religion from grace to merit, from what God is doing in us to what we are doing for God—and then compare it to what another is doing! Lent is not about our heroism in spiritual things. Lent is about creating space in our lives for God to do new things. In fact, Lent is a privilege made possible by grace. It is only because we have been made children of God through baptism and faith in Jesus Christ that we are able to grow from childhood to maturity.
2. Any spiritual discipline we adopt is merely a way to make additional room in our lives for grace. Spiritual disciplines are not meritorious acts that earn favor with God. Consider our basic rule of prayer: Sunday Eucharist, daily offices and personal prayer. When we take our place with the church each week as she offers herself to God at the altar and receives the grace of the Sacrament; when we read Morning and/or Evening Prayer each day and make time to talk to God and listen to him, we open up our lives to grace. We make room for God to speak to us and work in us. But our Lord isn’t sitting on his throne, checking off boxes on a grading sheet, saying, “hmm she went to church and said her offices and prayers, what a good girl! I give her a B+”
3. Grace is, likewise, the foundation for fasting. When we abstain from things in order to turn from self to God, this is a way of combating our idolatry by grace. When we willingly become hungry or deny some other desire and turn to God in prayer—and do it for an extended season—grace from God fills the empty space and we develop new strength. But God does not look down from his throne and say, “Look he’s not having chocolate or wine, what a very good boy he is!”
4. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you are doing; it matters what God is doing in you. Or, what you are doing only matters in the ways it facilitates God’s work. The more we focus on what we are doing, the more prideful we become. The more we focus on what God is doing, the more humble and thankful we become.
5. Today’s gospel reminds us that the evil we would remove by prayer and fasting leaves a void that will be filled by something; if it is not Christ, then it will be pride or despair, which is simply another version of pride. So, if you have experienced success and progress in the fast, give thanks to God for his grace; and if you have stumbled, give thanks to God for what you have learned about yourself and move on in the disciplines of grace. It is not about you, it is about “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).