Smile — It’s Lent!

Smear on some ashes, come on get happy,
Gonna chase all those sins away.
Shout hallelujah, put on your sackcloth,
We’re heading for that Easter Day!

Everybody sing!

Or not.

Either way, maybe it’s time to lighten up as you “Lenten up.”

But — sorry to dash your hopes here — that doesn’t mean skipping the “hard stuff.” You know. The going without. The doing more. The saying “no” to self and “yes” to what God’s calling you to do (or worse, challenging you to do).

It means the “hard stuff” can be sources of happiness. Can be the foundation of a new-found joy.

Finding joy

“Can be” the foundation. There’s the catch, isn’t it? Most likely you never spent the 40 days of Lent humming some variation of “tra-la-la-la-la.” You didn’t lightly skip and dance from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday. In fact, you may have grunted “ugh-ugh-ugh” and slogged day after day through all those days. And nights.

So how can “Dies Irae” and “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” not just be compatible but actually mesh? (Or, in more current jargon, be a mashup.) How can “Day of wrath, O day of mourning” be in sync with “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay. My, oh my, what a wonderful day”?

Short theological answer: “God’s ways are not our ways.”

To which the common response is: “You got that right.”

But, seriously, how are you supposed to have a “happy” Lent, a liturgical season that, to quote the glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “is the primary penitential season in the Church’s liturgical year, reflecting the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert in fasting and prayer.”

“Whoo-hoo, it’s time to fast and pray”? Yes, fast, pray, give alms and. ...

No, not host a Lenten bash. But, yes, come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of what Jesus did for each of us because Lent (and Advent) are times “particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises” (CCC, No. 1438).

The blind man

We’re like the blind man that Jesus had to work on twice. You know the story of his two-stage miracle.

“When they arrived at Bethsaida, they brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on him and asked, ‘Do you see anything?’ Looking up he replied, ‘I see people looking like trees and walking.’ Then he laid hands on his eyes a second time and he saw clearly; his sight was restored and he could see everything distinctly” (Mk 8:22-25).

“The point,” the New Jerome Biblical Commentary explains, “is that the man’s return to sight is gradual, at first not completely perfect.”

In a similar way, our view of Lent can be less than clear. We understand what we’re supposed to do for Lent, but what Lent can do for us may be a little fuzzy.

Can do to us — heart, mind and soul.

And as that comes into better focus, as our own “blind spots” grow smaller, happiness and joy become more apparent.

Pick a Lenten Theme
Every young child knows there’s nothing better in the world than your own birthday party — unless it’s your own themed birthday party!

3 suggestions

Keeping this all in mind, you may begin to notice:

1. You can be God’s little helper. Yes, on the seventh day of creation he rested, but he invites you to help him co-create ... you. He has the plans all drawn up, he’s done all the heavy lifting, and he knows what’s needed now to finish the project. Out of his infinite love for you, he leaves some of the work, some of the options (free will!) up to you.

Lent isn’t just a time for repairing what you’ve failed to maintain. It can be a time for refurbishing, revising and revitalizing. For getting started on “You 2.0.”

The praying, fasting, abstaining, almsgiving and private, personal sacrifices can help you better see not just who you are, but who you can be. And it can give you the courage to more seriously and confidently move forward toward that.

Maybe make a few small adjustments this year. Or maybe ... uh oh ... a big one. Further explore the possibility of a priestly or religious vocation, of changing from this job to that job, of going back to school, of retiring, of ... who knows? It’s more likely you’ll be more open to it if you take advantage of Lent.

And won’t that be a happy (and perhaps a little frightening) discovery? Won’t that bring a sense of relief and excitement? Won’t you want to shout “hallelujah”?

2. You can finally conquer that small, pesky, stubborn, sinful habit of yours. Well, maybe not conquer but at least tame. Remember: “Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour” (1 Pt 5:8).

Can fasting and praying really help you knock Satan for a loop? You know who’s the top model, the prime example, of that strategy, don’t you? Of course. Jesus, who was tempted after his 40 days in the desert (see Mt 4:1-11). And you know how that ended: “Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.”

How could that not be a zip-a-dee-doo-dah day for you? Devil leaves, angels come. Now those are reasons to be happy!

3. You can enjoy a daily sense of accomplishment over those 40 days. Each day, with each prayer said or each latte skipped, is a victory — brick after brick in the road that can lead you forward in wisdom and grace. (You have the aging part down just fine.)

In sports or physical training terms, your “personal record” or “personal best” gets better every day. Throughout the day.

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And then — bonus! — that string of repeated good actions becomes a deeply ingrained virtue. Praying is more a part of your life. Or fasting is. Or saying “no” to self is. Or using your talents to help others is. Like the athlete who runs a certain number of miles every day misses that exercise when circumstance interferes, you’re aware when those good actions, when that virtue, starts to slip.

You want — you rely on — daily faith, hope and love. On kindness, patience, temperance and so many others.

Then, after discovering the joy of penance, prayer and virtue, you want every day — throughout the year, throughout your life — to be a little bit “Lent,” so every day can be a whole lot “Easter.”

A little bit tougher. A whole lot happier.

Bill Dodds writes from Washington.