A Lenten Reflection

Posted by Peter Ely, SJ on Tuesday, February 28, 2017 at 4:10 PM PST

We begin Lent, this wonderful six-week opportunity to open ourselves to the grace of Christ. I like to begin mid-season with the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday. Laetare means to rejoice. The priest wears the joyful color of violet or rose; instrumental music is permitted, and the altar may be decorated with roses. Some people think this joyful Sunday in the midst of Lent is an interlude in the sober discipline, a sort of break to allow us to catch our breath. My interpretation is a little different. Joy is, in fact, the underlying spirit of Lent as a whole.

Why joy? Isn't it a penitential season with fasting and self-denial, somber purple vestments, no flowers on the altar, and a minimal amount of music? Aren't we encouraged to give up things that give us pleasure, like chocolate or maybe gossip? It is all that. But if we look at the purpose of the sobriety and the invitation to self-denial, we can see why it's a season of joy. The no-frills restraint in the liturgy and our personal lives aims to put us in touch with deepest foundation of our lives, the healing and redeeming grace of Jesus Christ. We get down to the basics. And that is a source of joy, not pleasure, not fun, not excitement but the joyful sense of being in touch with our deepest selves. 

We live distracted lives. Lent calls us back. "Come back to me with all your heart, don't let fear keep us apart." This invitation contained in the opening words of a common lenten hymn always catch me by surprise and lift up my heart. I want to come back. Sometimes I'm amazed at how far I have wandered. The first reading, from Genesis, for the First Sunday of Lent tells the story of how Adam and Eve, tempted by the serpent, let distrust of God, their gracious benefactor, enter their lives and lead them to turn away in disobedience. They suddenly became ashamed of their nakedness, embarrassed to walk with God, subject to hardship, alienated from one another and the earth. In the Gospel reading of this same First Sunday, Jesus is tempted too. But he resists and grounds himself in his identity as the Son of God, the second Adam, our Savior. 

We’re called to do what Jesus did. Look at our temptations, which are nothing more than illusions about what will make us happy and improve the world. And turn to God. When we do that we will experience what Jesus did at the end of his forty days: “Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.” It’s a joyful time.