Happy New Year! Happy Birthday! Happy Advent! Merry Christmas! Happy Easter! All those make perfect sense. Each celebrates something joyful. We get gifts. We drink toasts. We decorate the house and eat candy.
I also say this to friends and strangers alike at this time of year: “Happy Lent!”
Doesn’t make sense, does it? Lent is called the penitential season of the Church. We know it as a season of fasting and penance, self-reflection and metanoia, change of heart. We make sacrifices ranging from eating no meat on Fridays and giving up certain pleasures during the month to attending Mass more frequently and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The secular world might look at all we, as Catholics, are pursuing and wonder how on earth I can consider this a happy time. It’s because the Church doesn’t look at life with a secular perspective, but rather with a heavenly, divine perspective.
To say the least, God’s ways are not like our natural, human ways. That’s why, really, the world never can understand what we do and why we do it.
Allow me to illustrate with a few thoughts:
“When you attack the roots of sin, fix your thought more on the God you desire than on the sin you abhor.” Walter Hilton, 14th century Augustinian mystic
“God does not love you because you are good; God loves you because God is good.” Fr. Richard Rohr, Franciscan friar
“When was the last time someone confused you for Jesus?” Matthew Kelly, Catholic author and speaker
The secular world focuses on science and actions, things that can be seen and experienced. Science can be wonderful in all it can teach us about the world God created. Actions can be beautiful and life-giving, life-affirming. But they don’t tell the whole story; they can’t tell the whole story — especially the story of God, which is the story of love.
The mistake most of us make regarding the Lenten season is that we focus on our mistakes, our wrongdoings, our sins. In doing so, many times we plunge even deeper, into despair. We see our sins, and we see badness. The negative of our sinfulness overpowers the love.
So we give up chocolate but don’t change in our hearts. The result for many can be feeling further removed from God — as He really is — than went Lent began.
“How can we expect people to fall in love with a God who is going to burn them in hell forever if they mess up?” Fr. Rohr once wondered.
Here’s the thing: God isn’t interested in your sin. He is interested in you. For proof of how different God is than human beings who are saddled with original sin, remember: God forgives and forgets. Is there anything more unlike a man or woman, who might find it in their heart to forgive but likely never can forget.
On its own, the secular world can’t naturally relate to that kind of unconditional, unconventional, relentless love.
The world tells us to seek revenge on our enemies, punish those who do us wrong. Jesus wants us to love our enemies and pray that God will change them. In behaving that way St. Augustine said, “you are loving in them not what they are, but what you would have them to become.”
While dying on the cross, Jesus not only forgave his enemies but prayed that they be forgiven. He embraced them with love. As Catholics, we are called to do the same.
Nope, the secular world doesn’t get that at all. Consider the way the world regards St. Teresa of Calcutta, who won a Nobel Prize for her work with the dying poor and generally was considered a saint by most people well before she died in 1997. Yet at the time of her canonization last year — and for quite a while before that — she had many loud critics, famously including atheist Christopher Hitchens as well as a group of Canadian academics.
Mother Teresa faced allegations of misuse of funds, poor medical treatments in her hospitals and evangelizing the patients in her facilities. People such as Hitchens accused her of baptizing dying men and women, proselytizing and having “dogmatic” and “fundamentalist Roman Catholic beliefs” on abortion, contraception and divorce.
Imagine that: A Roman Catholic nun trying to save souls and sticking to the teachings of the Church!
Her mission wasn’t primarily focused on eliminating poverty or saving the dying from death. I remember hearing about one of the first men she rescued from a Calcutta gutter. The man was dirty, old and ignored. St. Teresa tenderly carried him to a hospital and cradled him until his death. Before passing, the man asked why she was spending her time with him.
“Because I love you,” she told the man. “Because I see Jesus in you.”
That’s what the world didn’t understand about St. Teresa of Calcutta. That’s what the world — and many of us — don’t understand about Lent. We aren’t giving up something for only 40 days and then heading back into life as usual. It’s about changing our hearts. It’s about looking for something — for someone.
We need Jesus.
We have a choice this Lenten season: We can turn away from our sin. Or we can turn toward Jesus. What’s the difference? It’s a matter of motivation. It’s a matter of love. You see, Jesus died on the cross for you. For you.
And if he had to, he’d do it again.
So have a happy Lent. Just don’t expect the world to understand.