March 1, 2023 // Perspective
The Joyful Season of Lent
Welcome to the joyful season of Lent! Now, I suspect that you have never thought of Lent as a time of joy, and no wonder. It seems more like a dry, bare season in the Church: it begins with ashes, we don’t hear a lot of music, and we don’t sing the Gloria nor the Alleluia. And what about the raucous parties that led right up to the very eve of Lent? Think about the city of New Orleans, for example, which started celebrating Mardi Gras season at the beginning of the new year, only to have Ash Wednesday come and pull the rug out from under Bourbon Street. It’s nearly impossible to find a King Cake now that we’ve been reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
And yet I’m here to let you in on one of the best-kept secrets of our Church’s calendar: Lent is actually a time of joy, and everything we do in this season is meant to prepare us for a greater joy than we could ever imagine. As St. Paul, quoting the prophet Isaiah, promised, “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9). But because we are busy people pulled in dozens of directions, we all need to be reminded to re-focus our attention, to prune away some of the spiritual cruft, in order to recognize and appreciate the joys that God has promised to His sons and daughters.
If you’ve ever prepared a family feast, you may have had the experience of the actual meal itself being anticlimactic. The work of cooking a huge spread can both tire you out and diminish the joy of the meal itself. Food blogger Dana Velden writes, “sometimes when I cook, by the time I sit down to eat my dish I’m kind of done with it. Between tasting it for seasonings and doneness and inhaling all the aromas of cooking, I don’t get that clean, first-bite thrill when I actually eat it. There are no surprises in flavor or texture. So while I can be satisfied that it tastes good or even great, it’s more of a confirmation than a discovery.” Like parents tell their children, “Quit snacking or you won’t be hungry for dinner!”
Lent is our yearly reminder that God is the one preparing the feast, a banquet better than we could ever make ourselves, and that we need not tucker ourselves out trying to out-do Him. We are invited through our Lenten observances to focus our thoughts, our appetites, and our hearts on the One who generously pours out “a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,” (Luke 6:38). The somewhat bare season of Lent reminds us that the many joys of this world, truly delightful though they are, bear no comparison to the joy that we shall find in the resurrection.
To help us prepare our thoughts, appetites, and hearts to truly appreciate this joy, the Church proposes specific Lenten practices, drawing upon the experience of generations of believers who themselves prayed, fasted, and gave alms in imitation of Jesus, “the leader and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2). These practices strip away whatever obscures our focus on the Lord. In imitation of Jesus, we fast as a reminder that we do not “live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4).
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are effective practices for honing our spiritual focus, but what do they have to do with joy? There’s an ancient saying in the Church, lex orandi, lex credendi: “the law of prayer is the law of belief,” or to put it another way, “as we pray, so we believe” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1124). Multiple times throughout the 40 days of Lent, the Church speaks of joy in the liturgy, illustrating via both Scripture and prayer that Christian joy is about anticipating God’s presence:
“All who take refuge in you shall be glad, O Lord, and ever cry out their joy, and you shall dwell among them” (Wednesday, Week 1);
“May this Communion, O Lord, cleanse us of wrongdoing and make us heirs to the joy of heaven” (Monday, Week 2);
“You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, O Lord,” (Wednesday, Week 3);
“Cleanse your people, Lord… and do not let them cling to false joys, for you promise them the rewards of your truth” (Thursday, Week 3).
We especially focus on Christian joy in the Mass of the 4th Sunday of Lent, called Laetare Sunday. The liturgy of the day is all about rejoicing (which is what the Latin word laetare means). The Entrance Antiphon bids us: “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.” In the prayer over the offerings we pray, “We place before you with joy these offerings, which bring eternal remedy, O Lord, praying that we may both faithfully revere them and present them to you, as is fitting, for the salvation of the world.”
Our Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving prepare us to both offer and to receive the Eucharistic banquet that is the salvation of the world. Truly, that is something worth anticipating with joy.
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