The pinata is a children’s game frequently played in Mexico whose popularity has been spreading throughout the world.
It is made of a paper-mache box filled with candies and decorated with colorful streamers hung from a tree branch or a ceiling. Children are blindfolded and then get turns trying to break the pinata open by hitting it with a stick. When the pinata finally is broken, the candy spills out onto the floor to the delight of the little ones who run up to grab as many of the treats as they can carry.
Those this game is associated with Mexico and other Central American countries, it is believed to have originated in China. As the story goes, Marco Polo brought the game to Europe. In Italy, it became customary to play the pinata at the beginning of Lent, so much so that it was common to call the First Sunday of Lent “Pinata Sunday”.
The game of pinata as we know it today, however, took shape when it was brought to Central American by Catholic missionaries eager to convert the indigenous population to Christianity. Because the native peoples already had a game similar to pinata, the missionaries thought they could use it to teach them about the faith and, in particular, about the reality of temptation and sin.
The paper-mache box decorated with streamers and confetti represented temptation. It always comes to us packaged in an attractive and alluring disguise. Because the devil knows that if we saw him as he really looked, we would run away from him, he changes his appearance to make it more pleasing and desirable to us. In just the same way, he presents sin to us as something pleasurable so that we will desire it.
The blindfold represents faith. As Saint Paul tells us, “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). Though temptation and sin come to us in an alluring package, we have to close our eyes to it so that we can see it as it really is. In faith, we have to turn within ourselves and remember that, no matter how pleasurable sin may seem, we desire something greater - life with Jesus. Therefore, we do not rely on our eyes or on appearances, but on God’s promise which we hold on to through faith.
The stick that is used to beat the pinata represents all the weapons we have to fight against sin and temptation. It represents prayer which keeps us grounded in the promises of God and the desire to be in relationship with Him. It represents the virtues such as patience, self-control and wisdom which give us strength to fight against evil. It represents the sacraments such as Confession and the Eucharist which strengthen our resolve to be good, loving people. And it represents the Church which helps us to understand right from wrong so that we will see evil for what it is.
Finally, the candy that spills out of the pinata once it is broken open represents the joy we experience when we overcome temptation. It represents the sweetness of overcoming the devil and the traps he sets for us. When we persevere in fighting against temptation with all the weapons that God gives us, we find a satisfaction that is deeper and longer lasting than the fleeting and false pleasures sin offers.
So this children’s game has much to teach us about the Christian life, particularly as we begin this Lenten Season. Just as Jesus ventured out into the desert to confront Satan, so we live these forty days by practicing self-denial in hopes of conquering our weakness. During this first week of Lent, we can be enthusiastic about all the penances and good works we want to perform. However, as the days drag on, we can begin to lose focus and our motivation can wane. As we confront our sinfulness and selfishness, we will be tempted to think that it is more than we can handle and may want to give up. However, by calling to mind this simple children’s game and remembering the example of Jesus in today’s gospel, we can find encouragement to carry on.
One thing to remember - temptation always starts out as something which seems minor and insignificant. In today’s first reading from the book of Genesis, all the serpent was asking Eve to do was take a bite of a piece of fruit. What harm could come of that? And in the gospel, all Satan is asking Jesus to do is ease his hunger by turning stones into bread. How could that hurt anyone? However, we know that eating that piece of fruit directly contradicted God’s command and resulted in the loss of Paradise. Also, if Jesus were to turn those stones into bread, He would be using His power for His own good rather than for the good of others.
Just so, it is likely that we will be tempted in small ways throughout these forty days. It could be to tell what seems like an innocent lie. However, before long, we are telling other lies to cover up for the first lie and our friends begin to distrust us. It could be that we are tempted to skip praying one morning. It seems harmless enough. However, once we get out of the habit of daily prayer, we find it harder and harder to regain our rhythm and, before we know it, the days become weeks and we have lost precious time with our Lord.
If we are to make progress in holiness throughout this Lenten Season there are two truths we must remember - sin always comes to us disguised as something pleasurable and harmless and it always tries to convince us that the temptation is insignificant. Once we understand this, we can see sin for what it really is and then we will find the focus and motivation to fight it with all our strength and will all the weapons God provides us with. Then, like candy falling down from a pinata, we will know the joy that comes from overcoming our weakness and living in friendship with God.