While plenty of folks give up beer for Lent, there is also a long history of specific beers being particularly consumed during this season as well. What we should do about beer (or any of the good things of God's Creation) during Lent is not obvious one way or the other, and should be prayerfully considered based on individual circumstance and the state of our spiritual life. On this first Sunday of Lent, I take a small break from the series on drinking to share this quick guide to our practice of Lent (I wrote this up for my Parish). I hope it proves beneficial in deciding how you approach beer--and penance in general--during this Holy Season. Many blessings this Lent!
We begin Lent this week, the 40 days of preparation before the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Why 40 days? Beyond the number being symbolic to the Hebrew people (remember that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights in the time of Noah, connecting this season to a time of great cleansing in Salvation History), our Gospel reading puts it very plainly for us. “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.” Through this act, Jesus shows that he not only became a human being like one of us, but faced the temptations of human life that we face every day. In thanksgiving for this great gift of solidarity, we join Jesus for 40 days in a spiritual desert, hoping that, in the end, we too may be ministered by angels.
In St. Matthew (4:1-11) and St. Luke’s (4:1-13) account of the temptation of Christ in the desert, we are given more detail about Satan’s attempts to try Our Lord. First, he tempts the hungry Jesus to turn rocks into bread. Second, he tempts Jesus with endless political power if Christ would only bow down to him. Finally, he tries to persuade Jesus himself to do the tempting, suggesting that Our Lord throw himself from the Temple, quoting scripture that God would send angels to catch him “lest he dash his foot on a stone” (Psalm 91). Jesus responds to each in kind, that we do not live by bread alone, that we will worship God alone, and that we will not put God to the test.
In looking through this sequence, Our Lord gives us an important guide in accessing our Lenten practice. The three temptations (bread, power, testing God) correspond to what Catholic tradition defines as the three principle temptations we will face in life (the flesh, the world, and the devil). When we are hungry (and we can be “hungry” for many different things, not just food), our bodies are tempting us to hold the passing things of this world higher than our souls. When we yearn for power (and political power is not the only power we seek to have), we puff ourselves up with pride, thinking we hold our own fate in our hands. Finally, when we are tempted to put God to the test, the Devil himself is rehashing his oldest tricks—remember what he told Eve in the garden? These temptations are especially difficult to fight, because the devil is crafty. Notice that in each case (the garden and the temple mount), what the devil says is “technically” true: Eve and Adam did not immediately die, God did send Angels to minister to Jesus, etc. The devil himself knows scripture well! When we see ourselves twisting the word of God to our favor, we know the devil is involved.
So knowing that we would face these three temptations, Christ willingly faced them representatively in the three temptations of the Devil. Our tradition also gives us three specific practices during Lent to counter these temptations. First, we are to fast in order to counter the flesh. Second, we are to give alms in order to counter the world. Finally, we are to intensify our prayer in order to counter the Devil.
Each of these practices will help us gain the virtue necessary to counter the temptations we face in life. In fasting, we learn temperance. Temperance is not the avoiding of bad things, but the well-ordered appreciation of that which is good. We give up good things in Lent not to despise God’s creation, but to approach it in a well-ordered way. In almsgiving, we learn justice. The strong owe it to the weak to provide for them out of their abundance. In this, we imitate Christ, who though He needs nothing, came among us in order to die for our sins. Finally, in prayer, we learn courage. If we know that Christ Himself fought the same fight we did, and if we draw near to Him in prayer, then even the devil cannot frighten us. If we have so great a Savior, then 40 days in the desert is nothing to be afraid of, but an honor, that we may share it with Our Lord!