Lent may be the most singularly observed and diversely interpreted season of the liturgical year. I have heard it referred to as a time of sacrifice, a time of mourning, a time of healing, and a time of joy. There is an argument to be made for all these points of view, but joy is probably the concept we are least likely to associate with Lent and the one that has been most on my mind lately. We get so caught up in the atonement, the sacrifice, and the mindfulness of sin that we forget that a closer relationship with the loving God is the fruit of the season. The joyful fruit.
When I was growing up Lent meant one thing: giving something up until Easter. It’s easy to draw the conclusion that this sacrifice is our way of punishing ourselves for our sinfulness and Easter Sunday is the light at the end of the tunnel of atonement. It’s as if we sentence ourselves to prison for six weeks, get a parole hearing on Good Friday, and released on Easter Sunday. We are then expected to check in with our “parole officer” (confession) periodically for the next ten months after which we are inexplicably sent back to prison for another six weeks and start the whole process all over again. No wonder Catholics have such a reputation for guilt! What’s the point of going to confession at all during the year if we are just going to put ourselves through forty days of punishment anyway? Maybe this popular notion of Lent could use a little retooling.
The pastor at the church my wife and I attended when we lived in Los Angeles said that the longing we feel for whatever we have given up is supposed to remind us of our longing for God. It’s easy to notice when, say, chocolate, is missing from our lives for forty days. Are we as apt to notice how often God is missing from our lives the rest of the year? By substituting a material absence we gain insight to the absences in our spirit. I suggest that sacrifice is not a form of self punishment, but rather a visual aid for self examination.
The Stations of the Cross is another ritual from which I’m learning to derive joy during Lent. By meditating on Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, I am reminded that Jesus suffered and died for our sins so that we wouldn’t have to. He took upon Himself all the punishment due to mankind so that when we sin, we only have to acknowledge and repent our sins and we are forgiven. It is His greatest gift to us.
This morning, as my wife and I waited for Mass to start, we noticed two little girls enjoying a children’s version of the Stations of the Cross. Using stickers and pictures, the girls were tracing the path that Jesus took to his own crucifixion. The two children giggled with delight as they found and applied the stickers that reconstructed Jesus’ walk to death and resurrection. Their childlike joy in the story of the redemption of mankind reminded me that Lent is a season not so much of sacrifice for the sake of suffering, but a season of spiritual renewal and the joy of God’s love.