Make Your Hearts Firm This Lent

The Temptation of Christ, by Ary Scheffer (1854).

During Lent, the Church calls the faithful to conversion by calling to mind the image of Christ being drawn into the desert by the Spirit. There, for forty days and forty nights, Jesus prays, fasts, and is tempted by the devil. By presenting to us the temptations of Christ in the desert, the Church first provides Christ as the example of how we should live Lent, and secondarily, invites us to an interior conversion.

In the desert, Christ manifests that he is the new Adam by overcoming the temptations of Satan. Like Adam, Jesus is tempted with food, power, and the desire to test God. The serpent tells Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil because, in doing so, they will become like God, knowing all. Similarly, Jesus is tempted by the devil to prove that he truly is the Son of God by turning stones into bread, by casting himself from the pinnacle of the Temple to test God, and finally by worshipping Satan in exchange for worldly power.

This last great temptation, the temptation for worldly power, is at the heart of all temptations. In allowing ourselves to fall into sin by listening to temptations, we reject God, and so place material possessions before him. Pope Benedict XVI reflects on the temptations of Christ in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, saying that, “At the heart of the temptations as we see here, is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives.”1

Lent is a time of conversion. It is an invitation to prioritize our lives. By fasting from those things which distract us from God, and which separate us from him, we purify our hearts so that they only love God. This is what Lent entails: a conversion of heart. Pope Francis reflects on the necessity for conversion in his 2015 Lenten Message by saying that Lent is a time of renewal for the whole Church, and that it is a time of grace for each of its members.

During Lent, Pope Francis reminds the faithful of our call to conversion. He asks us to renew our hearts, that is, to allow ourselves to be converted by the love of Christ. Francis says this renewal of the heart is necessary because the world has become indifferent to the sufferings of others. When we fail to recognize the sufferings of others, or neglect to serve those in need, we develop a selfish and lazy mentality. We become too comfortable with our lives and daily routines. We then consider it an inconvenience to help others, because it is an imposition on our time and resources. This selfish mentality devalues the dignity of each human being, as the dignity of the person is now only defined in terms of utility: how someone can be useful to me, or how someone can improve my life.

The Book of Revelation speaks of the consequences of such indifference. At the last judgment, Christ will say to the indifferent person: “But because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth. You keep saying: ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ Little do you realize how wretched you are, how pitiable and poor, how blind and naked!’” (Rev. 3:16-17).

Christ also warns against indifference by telling his disciples the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Even though Lazarus begs daily at the doors of the rich man, the poor man receives no food, no shelter, and no aid. Meanwhile, the rich man ignores the reality of the suffering of others, and continues to live a life of luxury and excess. When the rich man dies, however, he suffers in the eternal fire, mindful that “as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for Me” (Mt. 25:40).

Speaking on this parable, Pope Francis reminds us that God, unlike the rich man, is not indifferent to our needs. God knows each of us by name, and knows our needs, and the desires of our hearts. In love, God called each one of us into existence, and by his love he holds us in existence. The pontiff reflects that the proof that God is not indifferent to man lies in the fact that “God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die, but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).2 After the Fall, God could have left mankind without any promise of redemption. Instead, he became one of us, sharing in our pains and sufferings, and taking upon himself the sins of the world, so that we might share in his divine life. Because he loves us, God is not indifferent to us.

In Lent, we are called to follow Christ more closely by growing in perfect love for God and neighbor. Francis provides three concrete ways to help us renew our hearts: prayer, acts of charity, and reflection.

First, Francis emphasizes the importance of prayer. He reminds us that when situations seem helpless, and even when we are physically unable to help someone, we can still be of service to our neighbor by praying. In fact, this is the best way that we can help. Jesus himself tells us to come to him in prayer: “Ask, and you will receive. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). God wants us to come to him. He wants to help us, but we must first ask.

Secondly, Francis suggests that the faithful can renew their hearts by performing acts of charity. Charity requires selflessness; it entails attending to the needs of another person. Acts of charity allow us to “become like someone in love” and opens our heart to “being shaken up by another’s needs.”3 Francis says that “love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home,” for “holiness is always tied to little gestures.”4 In our daily lives, Francis notes that these acts of charity can be as simple as giving someone a hug after a long day at work or preparing a meal.5 Francis reminds us that charity also requires us to look for opportunities in our local communities, and in the world, to serve our neighbor, for if “one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).  As we are called to aid our neighbor both physically and spiritually, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are great exercises in charitywhether it be by dropping food off at a local food pantry, instructing someone in the Faith, serving at a soup kitchen, donating money to a charitable organization, or serving the people of poverty-stricken areas as a lay missionary. The pontiff encourages us to perform little acts of charity daily, for they are signs of God’s “living and active presence in our world.”6

Thirdly, the Pope reflects that the suffering of others should call us to conversion, as it is a reminder of the uncertainties of our own life. Whenever we become too comfortable with our lives, we are in grave danger of forgetting that we need God’s assistance, because we take for granted the many blessings that we have, whether it be religious freedom, family, education, employment, or housing. The sufferings of the poor should serve as a reminder to us that wealth, power, and fortune are fleeting, that everything we have is a gift from God, and that overnight we, too, could be dependent upon the charity of others.

In order to begin this interior conversion, Pope Francis reiterates Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s call for “a formation of the heart.” According to Benedict, formation of the heart requires an “encounter with God in Christ which awakens {one’s} love and opens {one’s} spirit to others. As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for {one} a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence driving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love” (Galatians 5:6).7 Similarly, Francis stresses the importance of having a relationship with God: in having a heart open to God, we will be receptive to the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Francis mentions that the formation of the heart requires Christians to have “a poor heart.” In calling for a poor heart, the pontiff challenges us to embrace St. Francis of Assisi’s radical poverty—which demands an interior disposition of being detached from earthly possessions and desires. The interior poverty which St. Francis espouses allows us to purify our hearts, and detach ourselves from the things of the world, so that we no longer place value in material possessions, power, or comfort. Instead, we realize our own poverty, for we are totally dependent on Christ. Only when we come to this realization can we dedicate ourselves to the service of others, and be attentive to our neighbor’s needs. In this way, Pope Francis invites the faithful to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis, and attain an interior poverty.

When we observe our Lenten practices of praying, fasting, and almsgiving, let us remember that we do so out of love for God, and to grow in love for him. It is only by freeing our hearts from material distractions and pleasures that we will acquire a pure heart which only seeks God. This Lent, let us renew the world by first renewing our own hearts. In making our hearts firm, we will acquire a poor heart, a humble heart, one that is attentive to the needs of others.

  1. Benedict XVI.  Jesus of Nazareth.  Translated by Adrian J. Walker. Doubleday New York, 2007. p 28.
  2. Francis. Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for Lent 2015. October 4, 2014. Vatican Website. w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/lent/documents/papa-francesco_20141004_messaggio-quaresima2015.html
  3. Jesus of Nazareth. p 197.
  4. Pope Francis. “Closing Mass of the Eight World Meeting of Families, Homily of Pope Francis.” September 27, 2015. w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2015/documents/papa-francesco_20150927_usa-omelia-famiglie.html
  5.  Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Benedict XVI.  Deus Caritas Est.  Translated by Vatican Press. December 25, 2005. w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20051225_deus-caritas-est.html. Paragraph 31.
Maria Cintorino About Maria Cintorino

Maria Cintorino graduated with a BA in theology and minor in philosophy from Christendom College. She currently teaches at a Catholic school in Northern Virginia.

Comments

  1. Avatar Clement Soempit says:

    Thank you for this beautiful article, my sister. This will surely make me leave a purposely Lenten observances.

    Thank you once again.

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