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Gospel Commentary: Begin again



The legendary golfer, Jack Nicklaus, had an annual spring ritual. Despite his countless career achievements, every year he would revisit his old golf teacher, Jack Grout, and together they would review the three fundamentals of the game: grip, stance and swing. When asked how an all-time great such as Nicklaus could possibly benefit from such instruction, he replied, “You can never overemphasize the basics.”


None of us is a “great” in the spiritual life. We are all mere beginners. That’s why every year during Lent, the Gospels revisit the three basic practices of the spiritual life — prayer, fasting and almsgiving. And there’s no better teacher than Christ himself.


It’s been said that the human heart has three primal fears — the fear of being alone, the fear of being obscure and the fear of being destitute. Or to put it another way, we fear to have no one, to be no one and to have nothing. These three basic fears give rise to three basic temptations: temptations of the flesh, such as lust and gluttony; temptations of pride, such as envy, arrogance and jealousy; and temptations of greed, such as covetousness, selfishness and avarice. It’s also been noted that each of these three temptations are strongest at different points in one’s life. The temptation toward unchastity is strongest when we’re young. In middle age, the greatest temptation is pride — the desire to be distinguished, accomplished or admired. In the autumn years of life, the greatest temptation is greed — to find security in money rather than in God.


These three basic temptations are the same three faced by Christ our Lord in the Gospel this Sunday. First, a temptation to a sin of the flesh: to misuse his divine power for the sake of his body. “If you are the son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Second, a temptation to greed: to misuse his divine power for the sake of what he could obtain. “All the kingdoms of the world I will give to you,” the devil said, “if only you will worship me.” Third, a temptation to the sin of pride: to misuse his divine power to prove himself. “If you are the son of God, throw yourself down from here, and let the angels catch you.” Later in the Gospels, Christ will counter these three temptations in his teaching, with the three evangelical councils of poverty (the opposite of greed), chastity (the opposite of indulgence) and obedience (the antidote to pride). As Jesus offers his life on the cross, the summation of all his teaching, he shows us the diametric opposites of pleasure, power and pride.


In our church’s mystical tradition, we fight the three primal temptations with the triple discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Like a table designed to stand on three legs, all three of these practices are needed. Remove any one of them, and your spiritual life will falter. Prayer is the raising of your mind and heart to God, and it requires a daily commitment of time. Fasting is an umbrella term for any type of bodily self-denial, and is the root of our Catholic tradition to “give up something for Lent.” Almsgiving may be the least understood of these three disciplines. Most people imagine almsgiving to be the donation of money, but my favorite definition came from St. John Paul II. He once said, “Almsgiving means giving in abundance from that which you would most jealously guard for yourself.” As such, almsgiving will always be your toughest Lenten challenge.


Our Lord taught many things, but he is not primarily a teacher. Our Lord worked many miracles, but he is not primarily a wonder-worker. Our Lord helped many people, but he is not primarily a social reformer. Jesus is first and foremost a savior who came to reconcile us to God, and yet, even he cannot make that happen without our cooperation. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the means by which we do so. Lent is not a 40-day endurance marathon after which we merely relapse back to the same spiritual stance we started. You can never overemphasize the basics. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving can make this Lent the best one yet.


Fr. Hudgins is pastor of St. Jude Church in Fredericksburg.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019