Should we experience Lent as a joyful season?

Whatever penance we do during Lent, it should be a joyful accompaniment to savoring our baptism as the most important event in our spiritual lives

Q. When I was a child, Lent was focused on the suffering and death of Jesus — not very joyful. Now we hear that Lent is meant to be a joyful season. Really?

A. Yes, really and truly! Your childhood experience of Lent is mine, too. When I was growing up in Ascension Parish in north Minneapolis, Lent seemed like a long prelude to Good Friday. Today, Preface I of Lent reminds us that by God’s “gracious gift each year, your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure….”

The wearing of violet vestments and the suppression of the “Easter word” (A_ _ _ _ _ _a!) remind us that Lent is a serious time of final preparation of those chosen for Christian initiation at Easter and for the yearly renewal of baptismal promises at Easter by those already baptized.

But seriousness in our Lenten prayer, fasting and works of charity is not somberness that excludes joy. Rather, we are joyful during the days of Lent because baptism is our way of sharing in Christ’s dying and rising, his paschal mystery. If we didn’t live each day of Lent in the power of our baptism, it would be a very dreary and gloomy time, but our Lenten preparation for the liturgical renewal of our baptism at Easter is a source of joy during the Forty Days.

Joyful hearts

Part of our Lenten renewal of heart and mind is honest confession of our sinfulness. “There will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents,” Jesus assures us (Luke 15:10).

Some of that angelic joy becomes ours as we admit that we are that sinner. Some of heaven’s joy becomes ours on earth as we set ourselves once more to accept the dignity of discipleship, the responsibility of servanthood, the paschal mystery of salvation, as our Christian ancestors did. Joy fills our hearts when we turn away from sin and commit ourselves once again to living in the “Jesus-is-Lord” universe that we entered at our baptism.

As we listen to the Mass readings for Monday of the fourth week of Lent, we find that the new heavens and the new earth promised by God through the prophet Isaiah come only after the sorrowful things of the past (Isaiah 65:17-21). But our hope for those new and good things of God makes every Lent, as every life, a joyful season, even a glorious season.

Strengthening our spirits

“The glory of these 40 days we celebrate with songs of praise,” sings Maurice F. Bell’s translation of a sixth-century Latin hymn. “For Christ, through whom all things were made, himself has fasted and has prayed.”

It is our Lenten prayer and fasting in spirit with the ascetical Jesus that prepare us for Easter glory in company with Christ. And so we pray: “Our spirits strengthen with thy grace, and give us joy to see thy face.” With the psalmist we know that “the Lord is just and loves justice; the upright shall see his face” (Psalms 11:7). They will see his face in glory because they have seen it now in his least and needy ones and have shared their Lenten sacrifices with them.

Looking forward to holy Easter “with joy and spiritual longing” is to mark the Lenten observance of monks for whom St. Benedict wrote his Rule in the sixth century. He encourages them to add more private prayer and give up some food or drink, “so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (“RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English” [Liturgical Press, 1982], ch. 49:5-6; the quotation is from 1 Thessalonians 1:6).

There is joy for everyone in such works of penance when they are directed to renewing our hearts in love for God and others.

Writing in the March 1939 issue of “The Oblate,” Father Romuald Bloms, my Benedictine confrere at St. John’s Abbey, reminded those keeping Lent that: “A childlike, clean, and upright heart … is the important thing. This spiritual fast, this eagerness to be renewed in the Easter Baptism, this elevation of our minds to spiritual things is what the church demands of all of us. It is not the external exercises and mortifications that matter so much. God sees and searches the heart, and what [God] wants to find as a result of our Lenten warfare is a renewed turning of our whole selves to Christ, the Easter King” (Vol. 13, no. 3).

Whatever penance we do during Lent, it should be a joyful accompaniment to savoring our baptism as the most important event in our spiritual lives. This is the joyful spirit in which to undertake our Lenten self-denial, all the way to holy Easter.

Father Romuald was correct: “Here we touch upon the secret of the church’s Lent — she is steadfastly intent upon the Easter joy and glory.” And, wonder of wonders, we receive some of that joy and glory even during Lent.