As I was wrapping up a Lenten retreat recently, someone in attendance approached me afterward and asked if it’s appropriate or even possible to wish someone “Happy Lent!” The funny thing is, I had said those exact words to Father Bob Longobucco as he walked into the church earlier that evening, even though it’s not something I would usually say seriously to anyone. But if you know Father Bob, you know a little levity is always allowed amid the spiritual seriousness.
But this person’s question made me take a closer look at the topic, and I promised I would ponder it and maybe even write about it. So here we are. What I said off the top of my head that Wednesday evening was that I think we hear “happy” with our secularized ears and what we really mean is “joyful.” But does “Have a joyful Lent” ring any truer in a season where sacrifice and the road to Calvary are in view?
I would offer a resounding YES! And here’s why. Look at some of the readings of this season so far. On Ash Wednesday, in the first reading from the Book of Joel, we were urged: “Return to me with your whole heart … return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, and slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.” What could be more joyful than a God like that? So often we focus on what is wrong with us and how unworthy we think we are, but God reminds us that we are beloved exactly as we are right now. And that should make us both happy and joyful, no matter what the season.
Last week, one of the Gospel acclamations, quoted Psalm 51, saying: “A clean heart create for me, O God; give me back the joy of your salvation.” I used this exact line of Scripture as a breath prayer for my retreat group precisely because of the words “the joy of your salvation.” I wanted to remind people that ours is a faith of joy, even on the road to Calvary, because we know what lies beyond it.
Famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton, in his book “Seasons of Celebration: Meditations on the Cycle of the Liturgical Feasts,” wrote: “Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast. It cannot be otherwise, as it forms part of the great Easter cycle.”
He goes on to say, “There is joy in the salutary fasting and abstinence of the Christian who eats and drinks less in order that his mind may be more clear and receptive to receive the sacred nourishment of God’s word, which the whole Church announces and meditates upon in each day’s liturgy throughout Lent.”
Notice the word he uses there: joy. For many of us, the word “happy” is where we get hung up, because happy in our secular world’s view is about those surface feelings we get when we go on vacation or get a promotion or eat a good meal. There is a big difference between happy and joyful, and we are called to be joyful in our faith, not just when things are going according to plan but even when they feel terribly off course, maybe especially in that case. No easy task, to be sure.
Even if you’re not comfortable wishing your neighbor at church a “happy” Lent, can you spend some time thinking about where the joy lives in this season? When we discover the joy bubbling up amid the sacrifices we’re making, like a purple crocus pushing up from beneath the snow in our yard, we begin to realize that there is far more to this season than what we see on the surface.
Happy, joyful, blessed Lent!
Mary DeTurris Poust will be offering a Lenten retreat at St. Patrick’s Church in Ravena on Saturday, March 11, at 10 a.m. and via Zoom on Wednesday, March 15, at 7 p.m. For more information, visit: https://notstrictlyspiritual.com/events.
Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash