“Lent” comes from an Old English word, lencten, “springtime”, to designate the forty-day season before Easter in the liturgical calendar. Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent.
The forty days of Lent recall the period that Jesus fasted in the desert (Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4:1-13). At the end of His fast, our Lord was tempted by the devil to sate His hunger by turning stone into bread; to possess all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshipping the devil; and, the devil quoting Psalm 91 (“He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you…”), to test Divine Providence by Jesus’ throwing Himself down from the parapet of the temple. Our Lord disposed of these by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Dt 8:3); “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test” (Dt 6:16); and, “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve” (Dt 6:13).
Our Lord had to be tempted by the devil because, unlike us, He had no disordered tendencies. These temptations presented to our Lord by the devil correspond to our own “three-fold concupiscence”: “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 Jn 2:16). Like the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Lenten “tasks” of prayer, fasting and almsgiving—piety, penance, and works of mercy—are meant to cure us of this three-fold concupiscence.
Pope Benedict XVI teaches:
“1. Each year, Lent offers us a providential opportunity to deepen the meaning and value of our Christian lives, and it stimulates us to rediscover the mercy of God so that we, in turn, become more merciful toward our brothers and sisters. In the Lenten period, the Church makes it her duty to propose some specific tasks that accompany the faithful concretely in this process of interior renewal: these are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For this year’s Lenten Message, I wish to spend some time reflecting on the practice of almsgiving, which represents a specific way to assist those in need and, at the same time, an exercise in self-denial to free us from attachment to worldly goods…
“2. According to the teaching of the Gospel, we are not owners but rather administrators of the goods we possess: these, then, are not to be considered as our exclusive possession, but means through which the Lord calls each one of us to act as a steward of His providence for our neighbor. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, material goods bear a social value, according to the principle of their universal destination (cf. no. 2404)…
"3. The Gospel highlights a typical feature of Christian almsgiving: it must be hidden: 'Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,' Jesus asserts, 'so that your alms may be done in secret' (Mt 6: 3-4). Just a short while before, He said not to boast of one’s own good works so as not to risk being deprived of the heavenly reward (cf. Mt 6: 1-2). The disciple is to be concerned with God’s greater glory. Jesus warns: 'In this way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven' (Mt 5: 16). Everything, then, must be done for God’s glory and not our own. This understanding, dear brothers and sisters, must accompany every gesture of help to our neighbor, avoiding that it becomes a means to make ourselves the center of attention. If, in accomplishing a good deed, we do not have as our goal God’s glory and the real well being of our brothers and sisters, looking rather for a return of personal interest or simply of applause, we place ourselves outside of the Gospel vision. In today’s world of images, attentive vigilance is required, since this temptation is great. Almsgiving, according to the Gospel, is not mere philanthropy: rather it is a concrete expression of charity, a theological virtue that demands interior conversion to love of God and neighbor, in imitation of Jesus Christ, who, dying on the cross, gave His entire self for us. How could we not thank God for the many people who silently, far from the gaze of the media world, fulfill, with this spirit, generous actions in support of one’s neighbor in difficulty? There is little use in giving one’s personal goods to others if it leads to a heart puffed up in vainglory: for this reason, the one who knows that God 'sees in secret' and in secret will reward, does not seek human recognition for works of mercy.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for Lent 2008)
We may also deduce that, besides not seeking applause, almsgiving ought to be “done in secret” because it is not in keeping with human dignity to receive as alms what one should be able to provide for himself and his family by honest work. On the part of the one in need, “the bread of charity is bitter” (as Rizal writes in his Noli Me Tangere). Also, from a social perspective, “dole-outs” naturally tend to detract from productive work.
Lent is a season for renewing our effective desire to turn more towards God. This is conversion—the reverse of “turning away from God and turning towards creatures” which is the essence of sin—and conversion means being detached from the goods of this world, being “poor in spirit” as demanded by the Beatitudes. St. Josemaria writes: “Rather than in not having, true poverty consists in being detached, in voluntarily renouncing one's dominion over things.That is why there are poor who are really rich. And vice-versa." (The Way, No. 632)