What is Lent?
A few years ago, it used to be fashionable in certain circles to greet people by saying, ‘Have a happy Lent!’ This was not something I ever liked very much, because I think that it made the penitential season of Lent sound just like Easter, which really is the proper liturgical season for rejoicing.
But I suppose that greeting found its origin in the Preface for the First Sunday of Lent which used to say, ‘each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mystery with mind and hearts renewed.’ However, the new translation of the mass puts it a bit more accurately: ‘each year your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure.’
This makes things much clearer; it stresses that Lent is principally a time of purification. So, it is not the season that is joyful but the fact that it leads us to purify our lives. The joy that is referred to is more like serenity than pleasure. It is the serenity that comes from having kept a good Lent, having borne the hardships of penance and fasting and having put quite a bit of extra effort into our prayer lives.
We need to be attentive to the fact that the liturgy has various moods with specific emphases for each liturgical season. The same applies to the mass which is why in Lent we don’t use exactly the same music for the Kyrie, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei as we do during the rest of the year. We use different tunes to express the very different emotions of sorrow, praise and profound devotion appropriate for the season.
Lent may be a penitential time, but that does not make it a miserable season. There is joy in it but it is a sober joy, a restrained serenity that comes from being faithful to the traditional penances which are undertaken to unite ourselves with the sufferings of Jesus. Yes, it is a sorrowful season but our sadness is moderated by the knowledge that Christ has won the victory and paid the price of our redemption.
Father Alex McAllister