We’re well into Lent by now, and so it’s time to renew our struggle, to examine ourselves on how well we’ve lived up to our resolutions from Ash Wednesday.
If we look hard, we’ll probably find that we’ve come up short. If you’re anything like me, you might find it necessary to adjust your attitude and begin again — to launch a new Lent, so to speak.
The Church recognizes this need, and marks Lent’s halfway point with a special day: Laetare Sunday, which falls on March 14 this year.
That Latin word speaks volumes: “Laetare!” It means “Be glad!” Isn’t that an amazing thing to say in the middle of a season of penance?
But a truer word could not be spoken. We rejoice because we are given the capacity for true repentance, and the grace to change our lives. We rejoice because God extends forgiveness to us, and even comes down to meet us — like the father in the parable of the prodigal son — like the word made flesh in the Incarnation.
My friend Father Kurt Belsole wrote a book some years back titled “Joy in Lent.” Father Belsole is a Benedictine monk and director of liturgical formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. “Joy in Lent” is a wonderful scholarly study of a distinctive teaching of St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of western monasticism.
St. Benedict urged his monks to go the extra mile during the home stretch of Lent, to take on some additional sacrifice, but do it with a smile. “In that way each one, of his own free will with the joy of the Holy Spirit, can offer God something beyond what is imposed on him ... and let him await Holy Easter with the joy of spiritual desire.”
Father Belsole rightly traces St. Benedict’s teaching back to the apostle Paul, who said, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4).
Father Belsole goes on to explain how St. Benedict “encourages those who might have done some backsliding to offer something extra with joy like the joy they had at the beginning. To rejoice in Lent really means to struggle constantly against the flesh, to be removed from personal autonomy, and to be attached totally to Christ.”
And that’s what we want. That’s why we revisit our promises to God and renew our efforts for the remaining days. I want for myself that reality that Father Kurt describes so well: to be attached totally to Christ.
It’s significant that St. Benedict, the great master of western monastic life, mentions “joy” only in the context of Lent.
Yes, we feel the pinch of a little bit of suffering during this season. But suffering is perfectly compatible with joy. Jesus rejoiced that he could suffer for our sake. It’s the proof of love.
As we reexamine ourselves on the three marks of Lent — prayer, fasting, and almsgiving — let’s consider how we might do more in the weeks that follow, and do it with joy.