Jésus assisté par les anges, James Tissot (1836–1902), 1886–1894; Brooklyn Museum, New York

Fr Thomas’s homily at Mass on the First Sunday in Lent (Quadragesima Sunday) (21 February)

“And the angels ministered to him.”

There are, at least, a couple of misunderstandings of what Lent is all about. For some, it’s some sort of endurance test — that we’re supposed to turn into super-stoics for forty days to prove that we’re properly up for it. For others, it’s an annual health-check — a time to try and draw back on our bad habits; to lose a few unneeded pounds, or to give up smoking or drinking too much. As so often, there is some element of truth to these misunderstandings, but more fundamentally they miss the point.

Yes, Lent is supposed to be difficult, when Christ went into the wilderness it was certainly challenging for him and we should expect the same to be true for us. We do need to have endurance, we will face temptations to step away from our disciplines; and yes, it should end up building our self-control and that’s a very useful effect…but it’s not the whole issue, and certainly not the main point. Similarly, seeing fasting as a form of diet or as a way to remove our bad habits — if we do this, then yes we will see some benefits to our health…but we should really be working against our bad habits all year round, we should be trying to get rid of them because they’re bad, not because it’s Lent. But these share the same problem — they miss out God. This is the sort of Lent which could be recommended by anybody, regardless of Faith.

If we turn to today’s Gospel, and consider what Christ did — because this is the model for our own Lent. The wilderness which He went into, which we seek to go into, whilst it is a place which lacks our usual comforts — it isn’t a place which entirely devoid of life. It was for Him, and is for us, a place where God is. We can see that God is the utterly central point about Lent, and if we do not hold fast to this, then we will rapidly go astray.

Christ didn’t go into the wilderness because he needed to diet, nor because he wanted to build up his self-control — he went because he wanted to deepen the relationship with His Father before the beginning of his public ministry. He was about to go around Galilee preaching the coming kingdom of God, bringing the wholeness and healing of his presence to the sick and outcast, journeying finally to Jerusalem where he would offer true wholeness to the whole world through his death and resurrection. In short, he was about to go on the mission which the Father had given to him — so spending time with the Father was essential.

Those angels who ministered to him in the wilderness show to us that God was not absent, this was not a time of escape from God — after all we cannot escape from God. But rather it was a time of dependence on God and on God alone. By putting aside the other sources of support and comfort Christ shows us that there is no comfort which we need other than God.

Lenten discipline is not just about denying ourselves enjoyable things, it’s about opening ourselves to God. The things which we give up — even when they are things which are good in themselves — can come between us and God; and so by putting them aside for a short time we are trying to remove any barriers, anything which mean that we are less attentive to God’s voice, to God’s grace in our lives. It is to allow ourselves to be ministered to by the angels, just as Christ was.

Lent is not just a time for fasting, it’s a time to deepen our relationship with God. A time to be more intense in our prayers, to be more focused on God and what he is giving to us. The wilderness was a place without material comfort, and that lack of material comfort is precisely so that it can be a place of spiritual comfort. A place where God’s support, where the ministrations of his angels, can be ever more clear. A place where we can know, as our Tract todays puts it, that those angels have charge over us to keep us in all our ways.

This is the model of Lent which we should embrace. Putting things aside — yes. But knowing more clearly why we put them aside — putting them aside because we want to grow closer to God. Putting them aside because we know that we can find more support in God and in his grace — that as his angels minister to us, we will have more than we need to live our lives well.

And as we put those things aside, we need to make sure that we allow God in to fill the space left. If we don’t, if we could well end up even worse than before. If we don’t make this all about God, then we will simply feel the loss of the things we have given up and there won’t be anything to fill the gap in our lives, and we can easily try to fill it with all manner of distracting things. If we don’t allow God in, then the very best that Lent can be is some sort of diet — some sort of sæcular self-improvement…a path which will lead us nowhere good.

But if we do allow God in — if we do focus more clearly on him — then as we put things aside, challenging though it still will be, we will find that there is more there — because God is more than anything material. We will find that our whole beings are changed — our minds are raised up, the transitory material goods which give us comfort are seen for what they are — weak and temporary. At the same time, the spiritual goods, are seen for what they are — powerful and eternal.

So let us open ourselves to God — let us imitate Christ in seeking closeness with God. Let us take all of the opportunities which Lent offers — let us have a stronger focus on prayer, let us celebrate the Sacraments with deeper devotion (not least Confession), let us meditate on God’s holy word. If we imitate Christ in his fasting, then God will give us the same response — we will have trials and temptations, yes, I’m not about to pretend that this is easy, but through it all we will have God’s presence with us, we will have his support, and we too will have the angels ministering to us.