As we approach the holy season of Lent, I am reminded of a line from Joy Davidman’s book “Smoke on the Mountain”:
How does one keep a day holy? By making it unpleasant, and restrictive, and boring – or by making it joyous? By making it as much as possible like hell, or as much as possible like heaven?
We don’t usually think of Lent as a joyous season: Our church services are more somber, we refrain from using the joyous expression “Alleluia,” and we are encouraged to be more mindful of our sinfulness and or mortality. But the Spartan and penitential nature of Lent, need not remove all joy from our lives every February. In fact, when understood properly, our Lenten journey can actually help us to find and hold onto the true source of joy in our lives.
Life has a way of distracting us from what is really important. We are always tempted to put our faith (and our time, energy and resources) into things other than God. Maybe our desire for food controls us more than it should. Maybe our television habits are poisoning our view of humanity. Perhaps we need to spend less time chasing after life and more time just living it. The world always wants us to believe that joy is to be found in more stuff, but our faith is always calling us to remember that sometimes true joy is to be found in less.
Less drama, less noise, less clutter, less dessert: Lent can be the spiritual and emotional equivalent of cleaning out the basement, the attic and the garage. The austerity of Lent is not meant to be an arbitrary punishment for our sins; it is there to focus our attention on those things that are truly important. It is there to remind us of how much the world tries to distract us from the love of God.
We worship the same God during Lent that we do during Christmas and Easter. The God that we celebrate feasting on pancakes on Shrove Tuesday is the same God that calls us to fasting with ashes on Ash Wednesday. The God that confronts us with sin and death on Good Friday is the same God that offers us forgiveness and life on Easter Sunday. We need both, and God knows it.
Now we are come to the beginning of Lent. We are all given the opportunity to make this season truly holy, not by giving up joy, but by focusing ourselves on what the true source of our joy really is. We may put aside some things for a while, not because they are necessarily bad, but because we recognize that we don’t need them as much as we need God.
Joy Davidman (that author I quoted above) was the wife of C.S. Lewis. When she died prematurely of bone cancer in 1960 he had the following epitaph placed on her grave:
Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.
The ashes that we are anointed with this Ash Wednesday are a reminder of our mortality and all that we must let go of, but they are also a sign of hope: Hope that no matter how much we have to let go of in this world, there is so much joy waiting for us in the next.