March 2, 2007


Let’s pray for a happy Lent

We don’t usually think of Lent as a happy time.

Lent is a penitential season, a time of preparation for the joy of Easter that usually takes place in the dead of winter.

Spring is not yet with us, and the mood of this liturgical season is somewhat somber. We might say that, psychologically, Lent is a time for introverts who are recovering from the merriment of Christmas and not yet ready for the exuberance of Easter.

During this season of the year, we don’t normally wish others a Happy Lent. In fact, we deliberately restrain ourselves: no alleluias. No festivals. Abstinence. A muted approach to the music we use at Mass.

During the 40 days of Lent, we dedicate ourselves to ascetical practices and to the threefold observance of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We don’t ordinarily associate these activities with the pursuit of happiness, but perhaps it’s time we looked at Lent differently.

In fact, it’s quite possible that increased communication with God, self-denial and generous sharing with others are the keys to happiness and the surefire secret recipe for experiencing Easter joy.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving should not be restricted to Lent, of course. They are practices that Christians should observe at all times and seasons during the total course of a lifetime of discipleship. If we are to follow Jesus successfully, we must be in dialogue with the Father as he was.

We must renounce personal advantage in favor of the mission we have been given to live and proclaim the Good News of salvation in Christ. And we must be grateful and generous stewards of all the gifts (spiritual and material) we have received from God through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Will spending more time in prayer make us happier—less lonely, resentful or dissatisfied? Will fasting and abstinence help us become less preoccupied with our own wants and desires? Will generous sharing involve us more fully in the lives of others and help free us from the slavery of our own sinfulness?

The experience of countless Christians throughout the ages affirms this. Ascetical practices can be taken to extremes, of course, and become destructive.

But most of us are not in danger of praying too much, fasting too much or sharing too much. Most of us would benefit from more Lenten observance year-round.

That’s why the Church offers us this season of grace—to remind us that we are called to follow Jesus, without counting the cost, in good times and bad, through the sorrows of pain and death to the joy of resurrection.

Pope John Paul II once described what he called “the personal style of Jesus Christ” in terms that are profoundly countercultural. He said that the life of Christ (or life in Christ) can be characterized by these fundamental attributes: simplicity, poverty, responsibility for others and the renunciation of personal advantage.

Clearly these are Lenten values, but the witness of Christians throughout the ages is that these are also Easter values. They are spiritual principles, or ways of living the Gospel, that when put into practice in the concrete circumstances of life bring joy and happiness to all who are fortunate enough to experience them.

Lent is not a happy time—if our understanding of happiness is superficial or self-centered. But Lent can, and should, be a time of peace, contentment and the anticipation of Easter joy.

Let’s pray for a Happy Lent. For a time of fruitful prayer. For the ability of saying no to ourselves more successfully and more often. For an experience of generosity that comes straight from the heart and that doesn’t stop when we’ve reached the normal, acceptable limits of charitable giving.

As Pope Benedict XVI continually reminds us, being Christian should not be a depressing, negative experience of prohibitive rules and regulations (which are necessary sometimes but never ends in themselves).

Christian discipleship should lead us to the fulfillment of our deepest hopes and desires. It should lead us to peace and love. And finally, to the joy which is Christ himself.

Let’s pray that a Happy Lent, and the faithful observance of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, will lead us, slowly but surely, to an abundance of Easter joy.

—Daniel Conway

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