[Note: I’d like to thank my friend Lisa Hendey for bringing me on board the crew sharing regular faith thoughts at CatholicMom.com. Every Friday of Lent (and hopefully beyond), my posts will be duplicated there. I’m looking forward to being a part of her excellent slate of faith columnists!]
Yes, that’s right, Happy Lent!
Oh wait, I know. Lent begins with ashen crosses, involves sacrifice, and, when done really well, will include plenty of solitude with a bit of suffering sprinkled in – in generous amounts some years. So, what’s with all the happy talk?
Well, it’s taken me a while, but my viewpoint of Lent has changed in recent years. Maybe it’s spiritual maturity, or just having experienced enough Lents to see the bigger picture. But I’ve come to realize that Lent can be met with more joyful eagerness and less foreboding dread.
The other day, Ash Wednesday, I was sharing a bit about Lent through email with an atheist friend. Grasping my enthusiasm of this Church season, she signed off with, “Happy Lent!” In past years, I remember wanting to do the same – to end my Lenten notes with similar cheerfulness. But I would always question this, wondering whether my approach should be more solemn, or if I would be staying true to what Lent is supposed to be about.
My non-believing friend has never experienced Lent. She was simply reflecting back to me what I had shared with her, and she’d rightly picked up on my joy. But if there were any lingering doubts in my mind that Lent can and should be a happy time for Christians, they were dispelled when I began reading the introduction to Lent and Easter: Wisdom from Saint Benedict, by Judith Sutera, OSB.
“Happiness, not punishment or self-hatred, is the ultimate goal of any discipline, just as when one diets, exercises, or learns a skill,” Sutera says. “To live a Lenten life is to look forward with joyful anticipation toward Easter. As each Lent culminates not with crucifixion but with resurrection, each Lenten life is also lived to transform and transcend one’s own death to find eternal joy.” (p. viii)
Aha! There it was – the affirmation I was seeking to avoid slogging through the season dragging a black cloud behind me. Though I’ve also experienced that kind of Lent, and may again at some point this season, there’s no reason to not believe that this Lent, like all others, will lead me both to and beyond the cross. I’m called to embrace the cross so that I might, one fine Easter day, look up and find that my Lord has risen. And if I’ve put enough of myself into Lent, I will experience not only joy but a taste of the glory of the life to come.
I spent the first hour of Ash Wednesday in a beautiful church filled with hundreds of Catholic school students grades 6-12. I heard an energetic homily by the school chaplain who began with, “Are you ready to go into battle?” and challenged us to approach Lent with tireless enthusiasm. I listened to sweet music from the choir loft, the voices of young angels in harmony, and was nearly brought to tears by the sheer gift of it. And then I walked in a line with the others to receive my ashes and be reminded of my imperfections, as well as my dependence on a loving God who has all my best interests in mind.
“By the way, you’ve got a smudge on your forehead,” a drive-thru attendant told me not long after that Mass. When I realized he was talking about my ashen cross, I said, “Oh, thank you. I’m Catholic and it’s Ash Wednesday, but I appreciate your good intention. Any other day, I would have been relieved you were honest enough to point it out!”
Even in that small exchange, I felt joy. It’s a beautiful life we Christians lead. God gave us this season so that we might let go of the excess and be refreshed in that; to give ourselves permission to love more deeply, and yes, even experience happiness.
May your Lenten journey be both meaningful and sprinkled with generous doses of happy!
Q4U: Do you dread or look forward to Lent, and why?