February 27, 2024 // Perspective

Our Call to a Cheerful Lent

If you are like me, perhaps Lent takes some getting used to. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a season filled with much joy. The notion of giving up things we delight in and fasting from food seems to be contrary to a life of joy. And yet, as I sat down to pray morning prayer with two of my brother priests on Ash Wednesday, the antiphon for the Canticle of Zechariah said the following, “When you fast, do not put on a gloomy face, like the hypocrites.” Jesus says the same in Matthew 6:16.

So, if we’re not supposed to look gloomy during this season of Lent, how are we supposed to look? I think St. Philip Neri can give us some insight. In reference to the pursuit of holiness, St. Philip said, “The true way to advance in holy virtues is to persevere in a holy cheerfulness.” In other words, if we want our Lent to be a truly holy campaign, we are encouraged to ditch our gloomy faces for cheerful ones.

But why does St. Philip put such an emphasis on cheerfulness? I think his answer – and the answer of all the saints – is because they know that Jesus Christ is already victorious. He has definitively defeated sin and death and has invited us into the supernatural life of grace. When Holy Mother Church invites us into this sacred season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, she is inviting us to take up the very weapons of that same victory.

By prayer, we participate in the very life of God. Fasting makes us realize that both our bodies and souls are made for heaven instead of for earth. And almsgiving is an expression of who God is in Himself – Self-Giving Love. Thus, these three traditional acts of Lent are truly a foreshadowing of the life we were made for. I think that is something worth celebrating!

The other reason St. Philip highlights cheerfulness as the path to holiness is because it is an expression of humility. In our own time, one of the greatest temptations is to take ourselves too seriously. As in every age, the temptation is to place ourselves at the center of attention, as if the world revolved around us. If we live in that way, certainly we have many reasons to have gloomy faces. We see so much pain and suffering surrounding us, as well our own fears and anxieties about our lives and our futures. Think of how much time is spent in our culture seeking security in our digital identities through social media and other such means. When we live in that place where we are responsible to create and sustain our own universe and our own identity, we inevitably begin to experience real gloom, because we were not made to bear the weight of the world on our own backs!

The truth of Christianity, on the other hand, is that we have been created out of infinite love by an all-good God and have been made for unending joy. By proclaiming Jesus Christ as both King and Redeemer, we admit that all of creation is His domain, and all pain, suffering, and death has been redeemed by His own death and resurrection. In other words, the Christian message is an invitation to free ourselves from our own self-absorption and move into the Kingdom of unending joy.

That’s the same message of Lent. By prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we move from placing ourselves as the center of existence to living in the Kingdom where Christ has already established His definitive victory. So cheer up! We don’t need to have gloomy faces during this season of penance, because we already play on the winning team!

Father Brian Isenbarger is Parochial Vicar at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Fort Wayne.

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