By: Fr. Timothy Combs, O.P.
St. Theresa of Avila is known to have often quipped, “God save us from long-faced saints!” Her admonition is no less valid during this season of Lent, when it can be tempting to suppose that the penitential attitude is supposed to be a gloomy one. The word ‘Lent’ actually means ‘Spring.’ It is intended to be a Springtime for the soul, in which whatever inhibits the action of grace is made to give way to the life-giving influence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. It is a season of new life!
Though it is true that there can be something unpleasant about the negative dimension of penance—i.e., the sacrificing of something we enjoy, remembering the ‘why’ behind such sacrifice yields a far more positive perspective. The forfeiture of some legitimate good in the practice of penance is done only for the sake of a greater good, and since this greater good is none other than God Himself, the benefit it brings infinitely surpasses that of whatever we have renounced. St. John Vianney would speak ardently of ‘the joys of mortification,’ and he had in mind precisely the deeper union with God in which his sacrifices enabled him to exult.
When St. Paul wrote that “God loves a cheerful giver,” he intended to spare his readers the misfortune of doing something objectively good with a reluctant attitude that would deprive their sacrifices of their real value. That verse is an important reminder to me whenever I see or recall it. Every Sunday during the season of Lent, in the Liturgy of the Hours the Church reminds us of the words of Nehemiah the prophet: “Do not be sad this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!”
I believe the connection between penance and joy is best understood by considering the Cross. The Lord said, “there is no greater love than this—to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Since the manner in which Christ has loved us is by way of sacrifice—indeed, the ultimate sacrifice, there is incredible joy in being able to return that love in like manner. Love is repaid only by love, and without some sacrifice there can be no true love. For as long as we are alive then, let us rejoice at the opportunity to love in return the One Who has loved us so deeply.
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