Fr. Victorino Cueto, the Vice-Provincial Superior of the Redemptorist Vice-Province of Manila, lights the palms during a service at the Baclaran Church on Feb. 18, 2023. The ashes from the palms will be distributed on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 22, which marks the start of Lent. PHOTO COURTESY OF BACLARAN CHURCH

By Msgr. Euly B. Belizar, Jr., SThD

February 20, 2023

At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. There he fasted for forty days and forty nights…” (Mt 4:1-2).

The desert symbolizes the fight against the seductions of evil, to learn to choose true freedom.” (Pope Francis, Homily, First Sunday of Advent, 2022).

It is remarkable how words differ even in expressing the same thing. In English it is “Lent” from the Middle Engish “lente” which means “springtime”. “Lente” itself traces its origin to the old English ‘lencten’ with etymological roots that refer to the coming of spring. But in Latin the word is ‘Quadragesima’ which means ‘fortieth’ clearly calling to mind the forty days and forty nights that Jesus spent fasting and, inevitably, praying in the desert right before his public ministry. The weight of Latin’s influence is apparent in the Spanish “Cuaresma”— which the Philippines adopted, as apparent in its own “Kwaresma”— as also in the Italian “Quaresima” and in the French “Careme”, all harking back to Jesus’ forty-day desert retreat. It occurs to me that if, as we all know, there is an Ignatian thirty-day retreat, we Catholics seem apprised by Lent that it is our own way of keeping Jesus company in his forty days and nights retreat in the desert.

It is also striking how the English ‘Lent’ takes us to the finished product, “the springtime” of renewed life in Christ while its Latin, Spanish/Filipino, Italian and French ‘counter parts’ bring up the process through which it is engendered. Our Anglo connection encourages us to see Lent through the attraction of “spring”, while our Latin mother tells us to be realistic about it. That is to say, to arrive at the “springtime” of Christian life, we must first go through the “winter” of prayer, fasting and charity (almsgiving). Such is one more of many other expressions of the beauty of the Catholic faith.

Catholicity does not only mean having followers from among the diverse races of the world but also being able to see or express our faith from equally diverse angles. Just as a rose remains the same rose when looked at from different angles, so does a facet of our faith like Lent.

1. LIFE. Life, they say, begins at 40. With Israel life in the Promised land began after 40 years of wandering and going through trials in the desert characterized by their unfaithfulness, repentance and rehabilatation in their relationship with God, the God of the Covenant (Ex 16:35; Dt 2:7). They finally reached the Promised Land. On the other hand, for 40 days Christian Catholics accompany Jesus as he walks the Way of the Cross towards Calvary and the journey culminates at Easter Vigil where Baptism is celebrated for the first time in case of children and/or adults receiving the sacrament or in renewal in the case of baptized Christians who pledge anew their Baptismal promises where life everlasting became theirs years ago. Lent celebrates God’s life being lent to unworthy sinners that we are through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ accessed by means of Baptism. Lent has no meaning outside of its Life-giving property.

2. LIGHT. Jesus’ triumph over Satan, that every believer prays and strives to share, is greatly helped by the ultimate source of light—God’s Word. Cunning that he is, Satan (formerly known as ‘Lucifer’ or ‘bringer of light’) knows this. In fact, he uses even the same Word of God to trip and trap Jesus. When he confronts Jesus, knowing how hungry he is after such a long period of fasting, Satan challenges him to show himself Son of God by turning from his spiritual need to fast to his physical need to eat. The devil tempted Jesus, and tempts us even today, to abandon spiritual needs so as to serve physical or material needs. He tempts people always to serve their bodies rather than their spirits, to abandon prayer and worship and only look for money and the glitters of this world. He starts with a condition which is not contrary to fact: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (Mt 4:3). The devil does not say, “If you are the Son of God, which you are not…” What he means is: “Since you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” He is attempting to trap Jesus into using his identity and power first for a material need and, second, for a material need that is his. In a word, Satan is tempting Jesus to take advantage of his identity and its inherent powers for selfish purposes. Is not this the same temptation people of power face today? Do you have power, why not use it to amass money and more with more money? The response of Jesus quotes the Word of God: “It is written, ‘Man does not live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Mt 4:4). This is taken from Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses explains to Israel how the hungers they experienced in the desert that the Lord answered by giving them “Manna”, the bread from heaven, only stresses their need for a better food, namely, the Word of God. Jesus denied his body physical food to show us a better food that lasts to eternal life. And that same Word even now continues to ENLIGHTEN us on this truth. That Word has become “flesh” (Jn 1:14) and has now become our “food” for as he himself says: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drinks his blood, you have no life in you..For my flesh is real food and my blood, real drink” (Jn 6:54, 56).

3. LIBERATION. The ultimate liberation, of course, is our liberation from sin and death through Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection. But even in the temptations he has already opened certain liberating doors that ushered us into the gate towards the freedom of God’s children (Rom 8:21). First, Jesus liberates us from the error of holding any creature as though it is above the Creator. In all three temptations he upholds the priority of God over creatures, such as the things of God over material needs, reputation and power. Second, Jesus liberates us from the human tendency to look for happiness outside of God. He refused to look for happiness in material things (first temptation), or in the adulation of the crowds (second temptation), and even in power over kingdoms and nations (third temptation). Third, Jesus liberates us from listening to the attractive voice of Satan and the world by always choosing to listen to God’s voice.

This is how the thrilla in the deser unfolds.

When tempted to turn stone to bread (that is, be materialistic) Jesus says: “Scripture has it: ‘ Not on bread alone does man live but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’.” (Mt 4:4; Dt 8:3)

When tempted to throw himself from the temple parapet (that is, to use his powers/gifts to gain popular approval), Jesus replies, “Scripture also has it, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’”(Mt 4:7; Dt 6:16).

When tempted to have all the world’s kingdoms in exchange for worshipping the Evil One (that is, to sacrifice his ldignity as God’s child to the glitters and pulls of power), Jesus stands strong. He rebukes the tempter: “Away with you, Satan! Scripture says: ‘You shall worship only the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Mt 4:10; Dt 6:13).

In all three, Jesus does not surrender the Best (the Creator) for any creature; nor does he look for happiness outside of God his Father; most of all, neither does he listen to the Evil One, only to God’s Word in Scriptures.

I remember the tale of a boy who sees the sign “Jesus is the Answer” and asks: “But what is the question?” I say that the question is: How do we find life, light and liberation? Lent lends the answer.


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