Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris. Remember man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return. Cheerful. Every Catholic just loves Ash Wednesday—just as every Catholic just loves Lent. Forty days is a long time. These were my thoughts as I stalked out of church with my brows smeared with that singular, stark Catholic insignia, passing the young priest in the vestibule where he stood greeting his parishioners. “Happy Lent, Father,” I said wryly; but he arrested me—and my sarcasm—by his response. “I know! Happy Lent to you! Lent is my favorite time of year, too. It is happy.”
Memento homo… Lent is nothing to be depressed about, despite the seeming negativity of the famous Ash Wednesday pronouncement. These words are, on the contrary, something to exult in because they point to the hereafter. The dust is not the end. That would certainly be defeating. The point of Lent is not defeat, but victory—joyful victory. Lent is a season of austerity, but not morbidity. Lent is a sober time, but not a somber time. Nothing about divine friendship is somber. Lent is for sacrifice, but not for sadness. In fact, one of the best things to give up for Lent is melancholy.
The sixth chapter of St. Matthew captures the spirit of a happy Lent memorably and magnificently. The principle Lenten works are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting; and the principle Lenten attitude is one of private communion with God with outward cheer. But that cheer is not just a hypocritical show. The delight of doing good for its own sake is the most rewarding and uplifting of practices. It bestows joy because it is the basis of sanctity: a foretaste of heaven on earth, and heaven—as everyone knows from their Penny Catechism—is the place where God wants us to be happy with Him forever. The hypocritical show is usually characterized by emotions other than happiness.
When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Lent—for all its severe associations—is rooted in the brightness of springtime. The word “Lent” is etymologically related to the word “lengthen,” referring to the lengthening of days as the world shakes off wintry darkness and turns to the dawn in the eastern, or Easter, sky. In spring men enjoy a lengthening of days, increasing light, and an unveiling, or even remaking, of the world. Lent, as a time of penance and self-examination, should be viewed as an awakening out of hibernation into the dawn of the world and the Word. Everyone is called to be made anew into the comprehension and participation of the creation and Resurrection—which is something to rejoice and be glad about.
The deprivations and disciplines of Lent should be understood and undertaken as invigorating forces for the sake of health, strength, and happiness. As with anything that gives enjoyment—as opposed to mere pleasure—effort is required: a passage, a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages, though difficult, are merry. One of the reasons for this is the Chaucerian joke that pilgrimages point out the wide spectrum of humanity that makes up the Church: saints, sinners, and middle-roaders, all bumbling and stumbling their way towards the common goal, towards eternity. Like the pilgrims we all are, Lent calls for the asceticism of the Way and bids us, challenges us, to rejoice in it—to find happiness in holiness: on earth as it is in heaven.
The teachings of Christ indicate that Lent must not be a time to elicit the reward of men for external mortification. Lent is a time to earn the reward of God for jubilation in spite of hidden mortification. Though we are required to suffer through Lent, so too should we laugh through Lent. There is no such thing as a sad saint. It is in suffering that the human soul finds the deepest spring of contentment. The paradox of this cheerfulness, this happiness that is holiness, is nothing to hide. God gives the gift of joy to share, and Lent is the time of all times to share, to give, and to make other people happy. Though the Lenten journey is one that should be kept between the penitent and his God, this does not mean that the gladness that flows from reconciliation cannot shake the world like a fanfare. Though you keep your left hand from knowing what your right hand is doing, do let your neighbor know that you are happy. This is the essence of Lent: to happily renew faith and recover newness of life—to lengthen our days with light together with the days of our brothers and sisters as well.
One of Our Lord’s epithets is the Man of Sorrows, for so is He painted out in the prophecies of Isaiah. His sorrow was the emotion that the Gospels mention with the most specificity, as He wept over Jerusalem and His departed friend, Lazarus. His Passion was, of course, sorrowful—have mercy on us and on the whole world! Though Christ was, indeed some intense sense, a sorrowful Man, He was nevertheless an exultant God. There is a wild and wonderful passage from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy that presents the Man of Sorrows from another angle:
He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.
This “tremendous figure which fills the Gospel” may have been a Man of sorrows, but only because He hid His happiness—a heavenly happiness that would have shattered earthly mortals with its humors. Mankind was able to bear God’s tears, but he would never have been able to bear His gaiety. It is for His followers to let that mirth shine through their lives like sunlight through sky—an illumination that is rejoiced in even as it rejoices. Do not be men of sorrow, especially during Lent. On the contrary, show and share the mirth Christ hid. Lent is the time for such exposition: a time of light, of life, of laughter.