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Lenten Joy

“We think of Lent as a gloomy season: it is because we do not love God enough. The same thing has happened to our word sacrifice: we think of it as something painful and repulsive, something we do because it had to be done but which we do not pretend to like; we forget the idea of a sacrificium laudis, a thing of praise and joy. It is because we do not love God enough. Who has ever found it repulsive to make sacrifices for someone he deeply loves? On the contrary, to give is precisely what love impels us to do. And we should think of Laetare Sunday, not merely as a brief respite from the rigors of Lent, but as a needed emphasis on the fact that it should be a time of joy. Be not as the hypocrites, sad, said our Lord: that is the worst thing, to assume a glum and suffering appearance so as to impress the onlooker; but to let ourselves in fact be saddened by such sacrifices as God asks of us is still very imperfect: it means that we have not yet learnt to love because as yet we do not love to give.

“The Mass of Laetare Sunday makes all this very clear. We are the sons, the Epistle tells us, not of the bond-woman but of the free; the psalmist rejoices, in the Introit, because we are in the house of the Lord: we are free with the freedom of God’s sons. Now to be free is to be able to give (the slave has nothing to give); but to be able to give gladly is to be fully free. For there are the three freedoms: you can be free of bondage to another man, but still you may be a slave to sin. You can be free of that bondage too and still, as St. Paul tells us, be under the bondage of the law. But if you can learn to love God so much that your own will becomes identified in everything with his, then the law is no longer a bondage, you are free of that too, because it has become the desire of your own heart. Et mori lucrum: to die is gain: our Lord told his disciples that with joy he rejoiced in his coming passion, his coming sacrifice…

“Two things, the humility, the joy, go together. If we think of the acceptance of crosses that God sends us, or of the sacrifices we ourselves make, as something that we are doing, as of ourselves — I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all I possess — we are going in the wrong direction, we are going away from the house of the Lord. A son, by definition, receives life, receives everything, from his father; and knowing that dependence gives it all back again in the form of love. If we think of our fasting and our tithes as ours, then God will do as we wish, he will live us to our own devices; austerity will become a form of self-regarding stoicism, and in the effort to live up to the plan we have set ourselves we may well become thin-lipped and hard and gloomy. St. Francis, when he gave everything to God, even his clothes, sang; because his nakedness was not a feat of human endurance but a liberation of spirit, a falling into the arms of God…

“It is not much use setting out to execute grandiose schemes of asceticism of our own choosing if at the same time we grumble at every little trial that God sends us. The first thing we can learn, and must learn, from the attempt to cast all our cares upon him is the ability to see his love in all that comes to us and so to accept it lovingly and if possible gladly. The gladness, we know, would be there if only our sense of God’s providence, and love of God’s providence, were deeper and stronger. The essential thing therefore is to try to make sure that we are going in the right direction, taking things in their right order: first the deepening awareness of our total dependence on God, then the correspondingly deep awareness of his constant care for us and the joy of being in his house, then thirdly the response which is thus called forth from us, the deepened gratitude for, and love of, that will in which his care is expressed at each moment as it comes, and so finally the ability to make of each moment a sacrifice of praise, something that we take humbly and gladly from the hands of God and, having done the best we can do with it, return to those hands. Then, in that setting, we can hope that the sacrifices we try to make in addition to what comes to us not of our choosing will similarly be sacrifices of praise, similarly theocentric, similarly motived and ensouled by love. And so we come back to the beginning: because if they are indeed acts of love they will certainly also be acts of joy.” (Fr. Gerald Vann, The High Green Hill, ch. 3)

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