“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)
Ever since I converted to the Catholic faith ten years ago, I’ve had a very deep love for Lent. Recently, a friend of mine admitted that she rather disliked this season of penitence, which prompted me to reflect on just why I like it so much. After all, 40 days in which we take a keener stock of our sinfulness, in which we give up some sort of pleasure, and in which we enter into the desert with Jesus through fasting, abstaining, and more sombre liturgies hardly seems like an overly enjoyable experience. And yet, I can say that this season (including Holy Week and the Easter Triduum) is my favourite time of year. Allow me to explain why:
First, Lent is a time where there is more “tradition” in Catholicism. The emphasis on various penitential practices hearkens back to the earliest times of the Church. The hymn selection at Mass, in an effort to be more solemn, typically uses more ancient hymns (many written by Pope St. Gregory the Great). It also seems to be when parishes are willing to incorporate more Latin back into the Mass (even if the only Latin used happens to be Greek)! Devotions such as the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, and others have greater prevalence as people strive to renew their spirituality in preparation from Easter. All of this serves to connect us with a Church that goes all the way back to Calvary itself—a history and tradition which attracted me to Catholicism in the first place.
Second, Lent offers us another chance to start over. We fail in our resolutions so quickly and easily that it can often be discouraging and seem hopeless when we desire to better ourselves. Every January 1, people around the world make New Year’s Resolutions which are often forgotten or abandoned by the time February 1 rolls around. The various liturgical seasons of the Church—Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost—provide Catholics with opportunities to begin again every month or two, it seems. Advent and Lent especially are focussed on such renewal, with Lent having pride of place. The very word, “Lent”, comes from the old English referring to the “Lengthening” of the days as Spring approaches. The wilderness season of Lent prepares us for the new springtime of Easter! This is why, on Ash Wednesday, we are exhorted to “repent and believe the Gospel” as we receive the ashen cross on our foreheads.
The third reason why I value Lent so much, though, is paradoxically because of its sombre melancholy. While joy is indeed a fruit of the Holy Spirit, being joyful is not the same thing as having a smile permanently plastered on our face, or acting as though there’s nothing wrong with the world or our lives. Sickness, pain, sorrow, and death are all very real parts of life, and while we have joy that stems from the hope we have in Jesus, that joy is not a pollyanna naiveté. The shortest verse in all of Scripture is, “Jesus wept.” He wept at the death of His friend, deeply and profoundly moved. He knew that He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, but He still took the time to grieve, to enter into the human experience fully. The Church in her wisdom affords us the opportunity to embrace the melancholy of life, the sorrow that results from suffering, sickness, death, and most of all, our sinfulness. She gives us an entire season in which to feel that sadness culminating in the Cross, and an entire day to really let that sorrow sink in.
And when we are willing to embrace the melancholy, the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection becomes infinitely more vibrant, more transcendent, and more powerful in our hearts!