Living Word: Rejoicing during Lent!
By Joe Gehret
In the tradition of the Catholic Church, the Fourth Sunday in Lent is Laetare Sunday, a day which marks the half-way point of the Lenten season. Laetare Sunday, like its Adventian counterpart Gaudete Sunday, seems to stand in contrast to the seasons they find themselves in. Both Laetare and Gaudete are Latin words which mean the same thing: “Rejoice.”
This is rather peculiar when you place it in context. Lent and Advent are periods of fasting, penance, and preparation; they are not seasons known for their emphasis on the more cheerful side of faith, but rather they are periods of solemnity, of conversion and penance. And yet, here we are, on Laetare Sunday, and the word of the day is “Rejoice”. Why? Is it because we’re halfway done with our Lenten penance? Or is it because we can pause our fasting for the day and indulge? No, not really. Our rejoicing comes from something much deeper. We rejoice in the midst of Lent because of one simple irony: Hope.
You see, Lent exists, if for no other reason, than to bring us into the Paschal Mystery, and by doing so, discovering one simple, painful truth: We need God. We don’t do Lent, with all of its communal and personal fasting and penance, because God has schadenfreude and likes it when we’re inconvenienced. God wants for nothing, he has no need or desire for our fasting and penance. From the perspective of the divine, God is only concerned with our Lent because Lent is genuinely good for us. We fast and repent because we are removing from ourselves things that distract us or content us beyond the realization that we truly need God.
Let’s put it in the context of the Gospel from Mass. Jesus approaches the blind man, and instantly, the bystanders assume that his blindness is punishment; that he suffers to appease God. How very similar to how many of us see Lent; we see this Lenten journey as God’s desire for our suffering; we think that He has some vested interest in our penances. Pay attention to the answer of Christ: the man is blind “so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” Do not lose the irony of that statement. His blindness gives visibility to the works of God. His lack of vision brings vision. Such is how Lent works. Lent exists because it makes the works of God more visible in us and through us. The things we give up, both as a community and as individuals, remind us that we need God more than we need anything else. Lent takes us and places us in the realization of our need for God’s grace. It makes visible to us our need for God.
So why do we rejoice in our hope? Why Laetare Sunday? Why are we rejoicing in our time of need? Lent makes us aware of our dependency and vulnerability, and such states are typically not cause for hope and rejoicing. As it turns out, hope is a funny thing. Resist the attempt to domesticate hope, because, at least in the Christian sense, hope is incredible. The apologist G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Hope means hoping in what seems hopeless,” and just as a lamp is really only meaningful in dark situations, hope is only meaningful where all seems hopeless. Lent, in so much as it makes us realize how empty-handed and dependent we really are, can seem hopeless. As such, it is the perfect opportunity to hope.
As we are made aware that we are not in control and we cannot save ourselves and we are utterly dependent upon the mercy of God, Laetare Sunday says “Rejoice!” because in the midst of our need, we have hope in the God who will provide for us. In the middle of Lent’s desert, God sends his angels to bring us the Bread of Life. As we climb the mountain of Lenten penance, God reveals the saving Glory of his Son. As we come thirsty to the well of Lenten prayer, God gives us Life-giving water to drink. As we beg for God’s grace in our blindness and vulnerability, Christ opens our eyes to see Him and believe in Him. Our Laetare rejoicing is beautiful and odd, because Lent has shown us our empty hands, and raise them up rejoicing. Hope drives us to rejoice for that which we have yet to receive; It compels us to praise God for blessings which have not yet been revealed.
If Lent is hard on you, and you find yourself uncomfortable and unsettled, I urge you to really take the chance to rejoice, because the season of Lent proclaims a God who saves. If you are finding this Lent easy, I urge you to do more; to better immerse yourself in your neediness, and by doing so, be more hopeful and rejoicing, because God’s salvation comes.