Fr. Kevin Grove, C.S.C.
Parochial Vicar, Christ the King Parish, South Bend, IN
“Grandma. I hate Lent,” her teenage grandson said. “We have fish sticks for lunch at school; any extra coins from lunch go into our “Operation Ricebowl” box which my little brother doesn’t have to give anything to; and Dad and Mom are making us go to Stations of the Cross every Wednesday. My teacher said that fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are supposedly conforming [dripping with sarcasm] me to Christ.” I have come to the conclusion that if this is being conformed to Christ, then we are being conformed to be…kinda grouchy and miserable.”
His grandmother smiled—one of those wise and wrinkled smiles that only grandmothers somehow can give—and told her grandson to sit down and, first of all, to relax. She sat down next to her teenage grandson and said, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you. Because like you I never really got the point of all of this Lenten stuff, until I learned my own story. Now today I am going to tell you yours.” She closed her eyes, as if drawing something up from the creation of time, and then began.
“The ancients knew of three things that plagued every human heart. Each civilization called them different names, but the ancient Hebrew people knew them as the three desires. The first one was what they called the desire of the eyes. We look around at nice things, at beautiful things, and they stir in us the desire to own them, to possess them. The second one was the desire of the flesh, which was the need for bodily pleasure. You know, food or drink or sex. And the third desire was called “pride of life.” And it is the pride of the human heart in our very existence and our importance here. The ancients knew us well, didn’t they?” the grandma gently said.
“They knew us so well, that they were inspired to write this into the story of the first man and the first woman. Remember, before the first woman ever took a bite of the forbidden fruit in the garden, she noticed something about that fruit. She thought to herself, “the fruit was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.” Think about it, my dear, the fruit was good for food—the desire of the flesh. It was pleasing to the eyes—the desire of the eyes to possess something. And it was desirable for gaining wisdom—one way to pride in one’s life. The first woman and the first man had those three desires in them…and what were good desires they let go too far…and overindulged them in the forbidden fruit.”
“And after them, generations and nations and you and I have been struggling with the limits [slower] of these very same desires. We want more than our fair share, we do to ourselves whatever feels good rather than what is good, and our lives can become all about us. The ancients could get depressed about this; some had no hope, no joy, that they could live their desires in a healthy way. They were always flopping back and forth between complete self rejection and total self indulgence.”
“But then came one man who was led by the Spirit. And before he ever ministered or taught anyone, he went out into a place to be alone. He went out to face his own human desires. He went to the desert and he stayed forty days. And I’m not sure he knew if he could do it. Because while he was out there, a tempter came and asked him to make stones into bread because he was hungry—to feed the desires of his flesh. But he didn’t do it. It’s not that food was bad, but that it could not be stronger than his desire for God. Then the tempter told him to throw himself off of the high parapet of the temple and to let God save him—to have so much pride in his life that he would make God serve his own pride. But again, he didn’t do it. And the tempter took the man finally up onto a very high mountain and showed him every kingdom on earth—every desire the eye could wish to control. And a third time, he didn’t accept the offer of the tempter, for he would have to put his possessions before God his Father.”
“That man changed the human story that day; he changed the outcome of your story and mine. That one man went into the desert and gave you and me real hope for the first time since the first man and woman in the garden. He overcame the desires that no one else could. And he didn’t do it by condemning the things we own, or the food we eat, or the good pride we have. He put them all in their right place, reflecting God’s glory.”
And with that, the Grandmother paused a moment, and focused again on her grandson’s eyes. She sighed, and said, “I know that you have already figured it out that the man was Jesus.” But there is a little more. When we fast, we remember the overwhelmingness of our own desire of the flesh. When we give alms, we remember how powerful is the desire of our eyes to have things for ourselves rather than give to those in need. And most of all, when we pray, we remember how quickly our pride swells up inside us. And if we just get stuck at this point, having remembered these things, then our fasting, almsgiving, and prayer can make us hungry, poor, and grouchy.
But Jesus changed us and our three desires that day in the desert. And right now, every day, Christ re-orders those three desires in us. Every time we pray, and fast, and give alms, we are going back to that desert because Jesus Christ is there changing us…every day. And this makes our time of Lent, then, joyful…because Christ is helping us to write the end of our stories in a way we couldn’t do alone. So, Happy Lent, my son! And she smiled that grandmotherly smile that showed she really meant it.