Thursday, February 22, 2007

All the Joys of Lent

"Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return."

In a telephone call on Shrove Tuesday, a priest-friend closed our telephone conversation by wishing me "all the joys of Lent." The sentiment warmed my heart as much as communicating with him always does.

It occurred to me, hearing the phrase, how counterintuitive it sounds to most ears. "The joys of Lent"? Lent, the average believer might say, is when we are to fast, repent, mourn, "weep between the porch and the altar."

True, but how different are the prophets' commandments to fast with the inducements of the New Testament! The inherent joy in Lent is indicated, in a manner, by the lectionary. The "Epistle" reading on Ash Wednesday, in the Western tradition, is from the Prophet Joel 2, beginning at verse 12. In context, the call to "sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly" is in response to a foreign invasion. "A nation is come up upon my land, strong, and without number, whose teeth are the teeth of a lion." Moreover, God forecasts this persecution will worsen, becoming "a day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness." Hearing this at the beginning of a 40-day fasting season reminds us of another prophet, Jonah, who bid the wicked people to fast, or else "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (3:4).

The fervency of fasting should be the same for us as it was for the Old Testament saints. But how different are our incentives! Forty days from Ash Wednesday the Church will experience, not destruction and obliteration, but the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The intention behind our fasting is not to stave off physical calamity or spare national pride the sting of imperial conquest, but to prepare the spiritual man for the blessedness that will be ours in His neverending kingdom, to stitch with the fabric of our souls a wedding garment worthy of eternal union with Christ. "For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection" (Romans 6:5).

The process of altering the material of our characters is a joy, removing the stains and imperfections of sin, but equally becoming new creations in His uncreated grace. The means are fasting, repentance, almsgiving, confession, prayer, and taking the sacraments. And these are our joys. Lent introduces the soul and body to their own nature, and for one season, they behave as they should all year long. We eat less, consuming only what nutritionists call "a healthy diet." The soul prays more...not as much as it should, but more. We honor the Person of Christ in one another through almsgiving, though we should see Christ in each other at every moment.

Lent gives us the joy of freeing our souls from the parasite of self-indulgence, the fulfillment of becoming the people God created us to be. As Thomas Merton [1] wrote in The Seeds of Contemplation:
Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy.
Lent is a holy fire, consuming the "thorns of our transgressions" while purifying the gold of our faith and the silver of our virtue. The end is bliss and glory; the means are a chrysalis of light and a crucible of blessing. Drawing nigh unto Christ is its own reward, and the road leading to Him is paved with inward joys. May the earthly shadow of that joy fill all of us until we are eternally united with its Source, the Author and Finisher of our faith.

Yes, I know his faults; I just like the quotation. So sue me.

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