Formed as we are by popular culture, most of us function under a terrible misperception: That Lent… and acts of penance are sad things. This Lent we’re going to reexamine Lent and the concept of penance through eyes of faith. What you’ll find – I hope – is that asceticism (i.e. Christian self-denial) can always be marked by joy. To that end we’re going to take a pilgrimage through Lent in the company of two great saints: Peter the Apostle and first Bishop of Rome, and Philip Neri the great 16th century confessor and “Apostle of Rome” who evangelized the Eternal City for a great renewal of faith.
In the case of St. Peter, we’ll be meditating on the virtues for Christian development laid out in his Second Letter (Chapter 1 – translation by R. Knox). To walk with St. Philip we’ll be examining the seven characteristics of his joyful asceticism presented in a great biography of him, The Fire of Joy (by, Paul Turks). Our journey will follow (more or less) the Sunday readings through Lent.
Let’s start with today, Ash Wednesday. In today’s first reading Joel, animated by God’s desire to save Israel, proclaims a holy season of renewal.
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
It’s a joyous proclamation full of expectant hope. Likewise Paul writes to the Corinthians that now, today, this very instant is a time for liberating oneself for goodness and holiness,
In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.
Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.
Both Joel and Paul are resolute… both are serious about what needs to happen… but neither of them seems unhappy or miserable about they work that needs to be done. Why? Because all our works offered to the Lord (i.e. “Penances”) are predicated precisely on the fact of his LOVE… his desire that we be with him in heaven. Hence, our asceticism is to be joyful. The nearest thing I can compare this to is a couple preparing for the birth of their child. They know that a time of unparalleled love and joy is on its way. What do they do? They tear apart their upstairs guest room to make it into a nursery. In the process dad will probably hit his thumb with a hammer… ouch! He’ll realize that he’s been putting together the crib all wrong, only to have to start all over again… ugh! But he’s not miserable about either… not really, anyway. The pain of the hammer fall the frustration of actually having to read the crib instructions are penances offered up… things done for the sake of the greater joy: the coming of the child.
St. Philip: be joyful ascetics
St. Peter: “supplement your faith with virtue.”
Faith and Virtue are both about action… things that we do in response to knowing we are loved by God (see I Jn. 4:10). The actions we hear about in today’s Gospel: fasting, almsgiving and prayer are all things that we do not to cause ourselves pain… but to respond to the God who loves us. So as we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, first thing’s first, “How is God loving me today?” and how, in action, will I respond to that Love. It might be challenging, but it’s far from sad.