March 17, 2023

Christ the Cornerstone

There is still time for joy in a season of sacrifice

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

O God, who chose the Bishop Saint Patrick to preach your glory to the peoples of Ireland, grant, through his merits and intercession, that those who glory in the name of Christian may never cease to proclaim your wondrous deeds to all. (Collect).

The publication date for this column is Friday, March 17, which is St. Patrick’s Day. As most people know, Patrick is the patronal saint of Ireland, and the Irish people take special pride in his holiness and his evangelization of their homeland.

In spite of the fact that this memorial feast occurs during Lent, St. Patrick’s Day is a day when people of Irish descent, whether at home or abroad, and all who are Irish at heart, celebrate with abundant food, drink, dancing and music.

Isn’t this contrary to the spirit of the Lenten season? Aren’t we supposed to spend these 40 days fasting and doing penance?

Catholic faith and practice are often characterized by the expression “both/and.” We resist the rigidity of the “either/or” mentality, and we recognize that there are times and places for everything.

Yes, Lent is a penitential season whose primary emphasis is on prayer and spiritual renewal. Unlike the Christmas and Easter seasons, which are focused on the joyful truths of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection, Lent has a more somber feel overall. After all, during Lent we are deliberately walking with Jesus on the Way of the Cross.

But it is a mistake to regard Lent as a time of gloom and misery. We fast, pray and do charitable works during Lent as a preparation for the joy of Easter. Conscious that the suffering and death that Christ endured was necessary to free us from the fatal consequences of sin and death, we give up good things, and we make other sacrifices in order to appreciate more fully the great gift we have received through our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection.

The liturgical calendar for this time of year acknowledges the both/and nature of our experience.

This year, for example, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is celebrated on March 20, instead of the 19th, in order to give precedence to the Fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday, which falls on March 19 in 2023.

All of the Sundays of Lent are exempt from the season’s fasting requirements, but this particular Sunday in Lent the color violet or rose is used, instrumental music is permitted, and the altar may be decorated with flowers. We are still in the penitential season of Lent, but the Church takes a breather, if you will, to remind us that we are destined for joy. “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her,” we proclaim in the entrance antiphon. “Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast” (Is 66:10-11).

A similar break in the Lenten ethos will happen the following weekend, on March 25, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. This is a particularly joyful liturgical celebration because it recalls the moment when the Angel Gabriel announced that Mary was destined to be the mother of our Savior, and she freely accepted God’s will for her. We know (and Mary surely sensed) that many sorrows would follow, but once again our faith reflects the truth that both joy and sorrow are part of the human condition. What is significant for us is that we believe that the joy of Easter is victorious over all our pain and sorrow.

Lent is the liturgical season that prepares us to endure the hardships and sorrows of Christian discipleship in order to experience the lasting joy that comes with our redemption.

Yes, Lent is a penitential season, a time to pray, fast and engage in good works. But Lent is not a time to be downhearted or gloomy. It’s a time to practice what we preach: Namely, that if we follow Jesus, all our sorrows will be replaced by joy, and all our fears will be overcome by the peace of the risen Christ.

So, let’s not hesitate to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today, St. Joseph’s Day next Monday, and the Solemnity of the Annunciation the following Saturday. And let’s rejoice this weekend on Laetare Sunday with the confidence and hope that can only come from faith in our Lord’s victory over sin and death.

Both sorrow and joy are reflected in this penitential season of Lent. Let’s give thanks to God for the witness of all his saints and martyrs, the women and men who have gone before us—but who walk with us even now—on the synodal journey of Lent. With them, we should take seriously the call both to do penance and to rejoice.

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhaoibh! Happy St. Patrick’s Day! †

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