What does the Catechism Teach Us about Lent?
by William C. Michael
As we begin the celebration of the liturgical season of Lent, we should ask, “What does the Catechism teach us about Lent?” In this post, we’ll take a look at mentions made of Lent in the Catechism.
The first mention of Lent is found in the first part of the Catechism, in paragraph 540, where the Church teaches us of the mysteries of Christ’s life. We read:
538 The Gospels speak of a time of solitude for Jesus in the desert immediately after his baptism by John. Driven by the Spirit into the desert, Jesus remains there for forty days without eating; he lives among wild beasts, and angels minister to him. At the end of this time Satan tempts him three times, seeking to compromise his filial attitude toward God. Jesus rebuffs these attacks, which recapitulate the temptations of Adam in Paradise and of Israel in the desert, and the devil leaves him “until an opportune time”.539 The evangelists indicate the salvific meaning of this mysterious event: Jesus is the new Adam who remained faithful just where the first Adam had given in to temptation. Jesus fulfills Israel’s vocation perfectly: in contrast to those who had once provoked God during forty years in the desert, Christ reveals himself as God’s Servant, totally obedient to the divine will. In this, Jesus is the devil’s conqueror: he “binds the strong man” to take back his plunder. Jesus’ victory over the tempter in the desert anticipates victory at the Passion, the supreme act of obedience of his filial love for the Father.540 Jesus’ temptation reveals the way in which the Son of God is Messiah, contrary to the way Satan proposes to him and the way men wish to attribute to him. This is why Christ vanquished the Tempter for us: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning.” By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 538–540
Lent, therefore, is a time in which we seek the objectives of Our Lord’s time in the desert, when he, for our sakes, endured temptation and suffering, in preparation for his earthly ministry. Inasmuch as we participate in this ministry, we must also prepare ourselves for it, and we can only do so by the imitation of Christ. Lent gives us this opportunity in a special way, every year.
We should note a few things about Our Lord’s time in the desert. First, it came after his Baptism, warning us against thinking that the spiritual life is a contest within the scope of human ability. Second, it was initiated by the Holy Spirit, for our Lord was “driven into the desert by the Spirit”. Third, it was a time of solitude, in which our Lord was separated from others. Fourth, it was a time of great self-denial; Our Lord did not eat for forty days. Fifth, during this time, he received divine assistance from the ministry of the angels.
It was in the context of these graces and protections that Our Lord faced the temptations of the devil. Note that man can separate himself from the temptations of the world, and from the flesh, but not from those of the devil himself, who can find us even in the wilderness. The only to deal with the temptations of the devil is to resist them with the strength that God supplies. Jesus did not “enter into temptation” relying on the strength of his own understanding or will or body or companions. He relied on the grace of God alone. In this, Our Lord shows us how to overcome temptation and in this we must seek to imitate Him.
The forty days of Lent provide us with the opportunity to imitate Christ’s battle against the world, the flesh and the devil.
Our second encounter with teaching on Lent in the Catechism comes in paragraph 1095, in which we read of how the Holy Spirit prepares us to receive Christ, through the liturgy of the Church. We read:
1091 In the liturgy the Holy Spirit is teacher of the faith of the People of God and artisan of “God’s masterpieces,” the sacraments of the New Covenant. The desire and work of the Spirit in the heart of the Church is that we may live from the life of the risen Christ. When the Spirit encounters in us the response of faith which he has aroused in us, he brings about genuine cooperation. Through it, the liturgy becomes the common work of the Holy Spirit and the Church.1092 In this sacramental dispensation of Christ’s mystery the Holy Spirit acts in the same way as at other times in the economy of salvation: he prepares the Church to encounter her Lord; he recalls and makes Christ manifest to the faith of the assembly. By his transforming power, he makes the mystery of Christ present here and now. Finally the Spirit of communion unites the Church to the life and mission of Christ.1095 For this reason the Church, especially during Advent and Lent and above all at the Easter Vigil, re-reads and re-lives the great events of salvation history in the “today” of her liturgy. But this also demands that catechesis help the faithful to open themselves to this spiritual understanding of the economy of salvation as the Church’s liturgy reveals it and enables us to live it.Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1091–1092, 1095
Here, we are led to focus on the importance of the Liturgy in God’s work of salvation. God does not leave Christians, as individuals, to study and figure out the way of salvation by themselves. God has not only revealed the truth necessary for salvation, but presents that truth to us in an organized and formal way through the Liturgy of the Church. The teacher in the Church’s liturgy is the Holy Spirit himself, who weaves together Scripture and Tradition to present the way of salvation to the People of God.
We learn that the revelation of God’s work of salvation reaches it perfection in the Sacraments of the Church. These are the contact points between the salvation accomplished for us and our reception of it. The Holy Spirit works to prepare men to receive the sacraments that through them, they may receive “every spiritual blessing” in and through Christ. This mystery of salvation, is thus made present for us in time and space.
Lent, we read, is a special season for the Spirit’s work of preparation, and we find that this preparation comes through reading and study. We re-read the great events of salvation during the season of Lent and must seek to understand their meaning through focused study at this time of the year. This study takes place within the context of the Church’s liturgical celebration of Lent and preparation for Easter, which we participate in both publicly and privately. Lent is thus a time for us to learn the way of salvation more perfectly, while we chasten our bodies through penitential acts and make a focused effort to free ourselves from worldly distractions.
This focused effort is discussed in the last place where the Catechism speaks of Lent:
1438 The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1438
Thus, Lent is a time of “intense…penitential practice”, which are not pursued for their own sake, but for the sake of understanding more perfectly the way of salvation through study and by imitating Christ’s own “Lent” in the desert, where He modeled for us how our spiritual warfare is to be waged.
It is important to note that the Church says that in Lent, the resources that have been provided for us in the Church, throughout history, come to our assistance. We must choose for ourselves intense acts of self-denial to be practiced during Lent, but we must also make use of the resources available to us. A good example of these would be the “Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius of Loyola, though many others can be found with some searching.
In the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, we provide affordable (even free) access to quality Catholic study materials. I invite all Catholics to enroll in our online courses at no cost and use them as sources for your study during the Lenten season. Course of interest include our Sacred Scripture Courses, Summa Theological courses and Baltimore Catechism courses. Please make use of them freely and make the most of this opportunity to imitate the Lord in Lent.
William C. Michael, HeadmasterClassical Liberal Arts Academymail@classicalliberalarts.com