For some Catholics, the arrival of the Season of Lent is not exactly a cause for celebration. In fact, the focus on penitence and the expectation of “giving something up” tends to instill somber sentiment. And, yet, while Lent is indeed a very serious time, it should not automatically cause people to grit their teeth or wear dour looks upon their faces. In fact, I would like to suggest that it can be a season of joy.
The liturgy for the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday even includes a number of references inviting us to commemorate the season as a time of gladness. The first reading from the Old Testament, the Book of the Prophet Joel, proclaims of the Lord, “For gracious and merciful is He, slow to anger, rich in kindness and relenting in punishment.” And, in the second reading, the Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul exults, “Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” In the Gospel, from the writings of St. Matthew, Jesus goes so far as to counsel against assuming a sullen visage, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.”
And, when you think about it, there are more than a few reasons for embracing a more positive attitude during Lent. For one, the goal of the season has more to do with affirmation than with negativity. Lent is a time for the conversion of heart. Contrary to the normal perception of conversion, primarily an experience of wallowing in the throes of our wrongdoing, it really is an invitation to acknowledge and confess our sinful human inclinations and leave them behind. The original call of Jesus in His preaching to repent (Mark 1:14-15) was an exhortation to change one’s perception of life — to look at the world through the eyes of God rather than our limited mortal view of reality.
Another positive element of Lent is its baptismal orientation. This is the season when those seeking to join the Church enter the final stages of their preparation and commitment to the Catholic faith. Yet, they do not make this journey alone. Through the rituals of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), the whole community of faith is encouraged to walk with them on the road of incorporation into the Paschal Mystery. Sharing in their celebration of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and first holy communion, long-time Catholics are able to appreciate anew the exhilaration of those sacred encounters with the Lord.
Even the seemingly most arduous of the traditional Lenten penances — fasting — can be viewed in a more positive light. The spiritual masters remind us that ascetic practices are not ends in themselves, grudgingly accepted as an odious and punitive burden. They are opportunities for renewal. Fasting provides a chance to enter into solidarity with the poor and to hunger for the spiritual food that alone can satisfy our deepest longing. In fact, the Rule of Saint Benedict which guides that venerable religious community states that practices like the Lenten disciplines are to be considered “an effort freely accepted with the joy of the Holy Spirit.”
In this more positive approach to the celebration of Lent, I would recommend that we might give some consideration to a new form of Lenten penance. Rather than fall back on the familiar effort to “give up something,” perhaps our sights could be set upon doing something constructive for the Season. Members of a church in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, Saint Monica Parish, once developed a list of positive activities from which to select:
• Learn about your patron saint;
• Read a Catholic magazine or visit a Catholic website;
• Pray for those who have left the Church;
• Talk to a neighbor or relative that you normally don’t;
• Pray the newspaper – for people in need mentioned in the articles;
• Observe 10 minutes of silence each day;
• Look for ways to compliment rather than to criticize;
• Develop a prayer list and offer those intentions daily;
• Donate an hour of your time to service work each week;
• Shop for “BOGO” grocery products and give the second item to a food pantry; and
• Start a “cuss bowl” – for every unkind word you utter, set aside a dollar and donate the money to an “English as a second language” program;
Now, I am not suggesting that the penitential nature of Lent be abandoned and all of the rigor be removed from the Season. After all, the Lord challenges us to pick up the Cross and follow in His footsteps on the way through death to resurrection. Still, I can’t help but think that meditating upon the joyful elements of Lent will help us keep in mind the glorious destination which lies at the end of the journey.