Today is the second Sunday of Lent, so the Lenten disciplines have either taken hold or they haven’t really. Hopefully, we have added some prayer to our lives that wasn’t there, or we have changed some aspect of our regular prayer activity. And prayer is some form of communication or conversation with god. In prayer, we talk to our Lord and we listen to our Lord. Hopefully we have added some aspect of almsgiving to our life in Lent. Almsgiving is giving away money to people who have less. It is a work of Mercy. And almsgiving helps us grow in being more generous people. And hopefully the third Lenten discipline, fasting, which is giving up something that is good, has helped us grow in our understanding of detachment. Remember, we’re not supposed to give up something for Lent that we shouldn’t be doing. That’s why we give up peppermint ice cream rather than cursing. And the something we give up should be something that we could do on Sunday, because the Sundays of Lent are not included in the 40 days of the Lenten fast. Sundays are feast days, even in Lent.
These Lenten disciplines – prayer and almsgiving and fasting – are all good. They are all supposed to help us grow closer to our Lord. But sometimes they can become almost ends in themselves. People frequently ask each other, “what are you giving up for Lent?” But our Lenten disciplines are not part of some self improvement program. We don’t fast so we can lose a few pounds and look good for the beach. We don’t give away money so we can have a bigger tax deduction next April. And we don’t pray so that we can show others how great our prayer life is.
We do all these things because Lent is about Love. It’s about the love God has for us, and how he gave his son to us. And it’s about the love his Son has for us, and how he gave his life for us. And it’s about how that self-gift conquered evil and opened for us the door to everlasting life.
So we should be clear that lent is not a bitter and gloomy endurance test. Yes, we stripped some things away. Yes, the hymns all seem to be in a minor key. And yes, we started the season by reminding ourselves that we are dust and unto dust we shall return. Lent is really a season of preparation for that gift of love. Just as a cat gathers itself before it leaps up onto the kitchen counter, lent is a period of gathering ourselves before some great leap.
The great leap that comes at the end of Lent is the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, rather than being an endurance test, Lent is a period of preparation for great joy and great glory. In two weeks on Laetare Sunday, we will rock the rose vestments – remember never pink – because that is the joyful Sunday of Lent just as we have a joyful Sunday in Advent. But all of Lent should be characterized by joy – joyful anticipation of the glory that will be revealed in the Easter Triduum.
Today’s readings prefigure two of the principal occasions in that glorious three day period which marks the end of Holy Week and the beginning of Easter. We see Good Friday in the story of Abraham and Isaac going up the mountain so that Abraham – in obedience to His Holy Father – can sacrifice his only son. The difference, of course, is that God’s only son actually did sacrifice himself in obedience to His Holy Father to pay the price of all the sins of all Humanity for all time. Lent is a time for us to anticipate the joy that flows from that glorious sacrifice. Saint Paul puts it so well in his letter to the Romans: “If God is for us who can be against us?” And through his sacrifice on Mount Calvary, Jesus most definitely demonstrated that he is for us.
Every year on this Sunday, we read the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Three of the Apostles see him fully revealed in all his glory. Then the great Prophet Elijah appears. And the great lawgiver Moses appears. They are chatting with Jesus. No wonder the apostles are terrified and hardly know what to say. Then, a voice comes from heaven. Their minds must have been completely blown. Finally, as they go down the mountain after that terrifying experience, Jesus tells them not to speak about it until after he has risen from the dead.
We, who know how the story plays out, do not have to be terrified or confused by the stories we read today from the scriptures. Since we know what is coming, we are free to enter into the joy of the Resurrection even as we prepare for sorrow of the Crucifixion.
I use the word joy because joy is not the same thing as happiness. Peppermint ice cream makes me happy. It does not bring me joy. Joy proceeds from Love, which is ultimately god. We have joy at the goodness of God during Lent, our joy comes from our understanding that he sent his son into the world to proclaim the kingdom of God. All those prophets over all those generations turned out not to be enough, so he sent his son. He sent his son because he loves us. And that is the source of our joy. Love.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains that sorrow also comes from Love. Lent is a preparation for the sorrow of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when Jesus had to suffer and die for our sins. Nobody who watches a movie about the Passion, can watch the scenes of the scourging and the crucifixion and be happy. Our Lady, more than anybody else, knew that this man was innocent and did not deserve the punishments inflicted upon him. She is Our Lady of Sorrows. But she is also Our Lady of Joy, because Joy and sorrow both flow from Love, which is God.
So my prayer for you is that in the next four weeks of your Lenten disciplines you can enter fully into the joy and the sorrow of the season of Lent. For it is a season of Love. We should be sorrowful not only for our sins but for the sinful condition of the world, and that’s why we go to confession, and we pray for the world. We were made by the god of love, yet the world is not marked by love. So be sorrowful.
But be joyful, too. Be joyful in the glory of God during Lent. Be joyful that he sent his son to die on the mountain rather than asking Abraham to kill his son on the mountain. Be joyful that he showed his apostles the fullness of his glory to strengthen them through the dark days of the Passion and the early persecution of the church. Be joyful in the obedience of Jesus Christ, who though in the form of God was obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Be joyful that his obedience is how we have the hope of Heaven.
So return to your Lenten disciplines, maybe restart the ones that seem to have fallen away. Return to them with joy. Our little steps of obedience help us to grow more in the generosity and detachment that our Lord Jesus Christ showed us through his earthly ministry. One day hopefully in heaven we will see him in all his glory, which the apostles got to see on the mountain of transfiguration. In the meantime, we can do the little things of Lent, to grow more receptive to his love and his joy.