Guide for the Journey

James Martin, SJ

A lighthearted Lent?

February 2012
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James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine, and the author of Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life; The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything; and My Life with the Saints.


Joy in Lent? Sounds almost heretical, doesn’t it? After all, it’s the season leading up to the passion and death of Jesus, a time of serious soul-searching and somber sacrifices, right?

Not so fast. The new English translation of one of the Lenten prefaces to the Mass includes these words: “Each year your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure.” The former translation was even more direct: “Each year you give us this joyful season,” it began. Either way, Catholics might be forgiven for asking, “What’s so joyful about Lent?”

The rest of the new translation provides one answer. Christians are to become “more eagerly intent on prayer and on the works of charity, and participating in the mysteries by which they have been reborn, they may be led to the fullness of grace that you bestow on your sons and daughters.” Our prayer and charity lead us to new birth in Christ.

Church of the Resurrection
Another way of saying it is this: during Lent, we not only recall the passion and death of Jesus Christ, we also ready ourselves for his resurrection. How would Lent be different if we thought of ourselves as preparing for rebirth in Christ, that is, for new life?

This is not to say that one doesn’t accept the reality of Jesus’ suffering—or ours. But these things must be held in tension. The story of Easter is not just one of death. Indeed, its primary message is life.

This was driven home to me last year when I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One of the places I visited was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the church on the spot of Christ’s tomb. (It also surrounds Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus was crucified.)

The name of the ancient church is quite evocative—the church of the tomb. But when it dawned on me that this was also the place from which he rose, I wondered: why isn’t the holiest place in all of Christendom called the Church of the Resurrection?

Christ is already risen
While we may commemorate Jesus’ suffering and death during Lent, we also need to remember that he is alive now. Jesus does not suffer and die again during our annual Lenten commemorations, even if we are encouraged to ponder his agonies. He lives! And surely that is something to be joyful about.

What would it mean to have a “joyful” Lent? Perhaps we might focus not so much on sacrifice, but on doing something positive—even joyful—for family, friends, coworkers, and especially the poor.

Can we share joy with someone who is sad? Can we offer humor to someone who needs some perspective? Can we laugh with someone who is lonely? In this way we might find “the joy of mind” that the Church encourages.

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