This year I am doing a course at university. Part of this course involves doing assignments. Part of doing assignments means using the library for research. And part of using the library for research means also occasionally using the bathroom. I’d completely forgotten what student bathrooms could be like, but when I was researching an assignment on Monday, I went to the bathroom and was sharply reminded: somehow the facilities had been quite accidentally blocked up with rolls of paper.
Blocked toilets, and blocked plumbing in general, goes a long way to underlining the importance of Lent. Because these things don’t keep themselves clean. As most mums and some dads know, the idea of a self-cleaning toilet is ridiculous.
It is the same for us. No matter how many sacrifices we make, by ourselves we are always unable to keep ourselves clean and clear. As the Archbishop of Vienna once remarked, every person is like a pipe: we receive good things from God which he expects us to pass on to others. But sometimes we don’t do that. We hang on to it, or get attached to things, and we don’t let through what we’re meant to, and it builds up and begins to rot – and eventually it becomes so clogged it is blocked.
Lent is the very special time of grace in the year for cleaning it up. That is why, like Purgatory, it is not a sad time: it is a time of joy as it is the time Jesus is working – because Jesus is not only the plumber who unblocks big problems within us, he is also the one who cleans us thoroughly of each of thousands of small things that can block us from the endless flow of God’s grace, in a way that we can never do for ourselves. So by the end of Lent, we are fully clean and sparkling, ready to welcome and more importantly able to receive the overwhelming transformation of Easter.
And as he points out in the gospel, prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the tools he uses to do that. If you are the son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves. Here the devil tries to tempt Jesus against fasting. The devil is very afraid when we fast: because it means, that we are allowing God to restore our heart into unity with our body, and our integrated person into seamless unity with God.
But the devil doesn’t give up: he has a second go. He tries to talk Jesus out of true prayer – by getting God to do what we want. It sounds a bit radical, throwing yourself off a building, but the effect if we don’t pray every day is spiritually the same: we’re dead, and the good we want to do is so much harder to do – especially in adversity. This is what Jesus says: life only works when centred around the will of the Father.
Which brings us to the third temptation: I will give you all these if you fall at my feet and worship me. There are many people in history, and even the world today, who have made either a deliberate or semi-conscious pact with the devil, getting piles of wealth and fame but also piles of bitterness and loneliness. It is tempting because all human beings, without exception, have a great big hole in our heart, which is a lack of love. And we try to fill it to a greater or lesser extent by taking things in – food is a common way, or shopping, or trying to impress people. None of this works. Making God and the others the centre, instead ourselves, is the contrary to this temptation, and why almsgiving is the antidote to much of the loneliness and poison of our heart. In giving alms generously, we become just like God, who does the same.