Lent is the happiest of all Seasons in the Church calendar and the most joyful of all times in life. Say what? Let me explain. There are some today who think of Lent as a time of dreariness, of drudgery, and that ever-painful word, “sacrifice.” Some see Ash Wednesday approaching and lament that Good Friday is coming too early this year.
The truth is exactly the opposite. There is more joy in sacrifice because it shows the universe just how much you are blessed. You sacrifice what you have, what you take for granted, what you are attached to; in other words, you give up what you already acknowledge is your surplus. You renounce meat for 40 days because for 325 days you can eat meat whenever you want. You abstain from Dr. Pepper because you have overwhelming access to it. (Oh how I miss you, Dr. Pepper!)
And here is the paradox of Christian sacrifice: in giving it up, you get it back better. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” (Matthew 16:25). People choose to renounce many items for Lent is because they overindulge in them, or they see a creeping dependence on them. You renounce it because you take it for granted, and you lose the ability to be thankful. Lent gets that thankfulness back.
The unique quality of humanity that no other animal possesses is the ability to be thankful. In our relationship with God, we are always responding to Him. He is always acting first, and we are constantly receiving from Him. “We love because he first loved us,” as 1 John 4:19 says.
However, since the Fall of Man we often no longer wish to be grateful for gifts, but see through our selfishness that everything is labeled “mine.” Modern man especially, because of his materialism and obsessions with pleasure, has forgotten how to say “thank You,” just as he neglects to say his grace before meals.
The truly Christian man, however, is the utterly thankful man. The highest prayer of the Church, the Mass, is the “thanksgiving” prayer, which is what the word “Eucharist” means. When we learn to be thankful, we see everything in its newness; as Chesterton says, “The greatest adventure is being born.” Imagine looking at everything in life and seeing it as an adventure given to us to be fully lived out. Every day would truly be new and fresh because we would see it as a wonderful gift. Lent gives us exactly that!
Human nature is fallen and is prone to disordered and selfish attachments. Anyone with a sweet tooth, an addiction, or lust knows what it means to compulsively desire something. You become the slave of the very thing that you thought would make you happy. To the Christian, if anything destroys your virtue, even if it is a good and beautiful thing, like sex or Dr. Pepper or a walk in the park, then it has become a very bad thing indeed. The good can become an enemy of the best when it gets in the way of the best, and the very best is the love of God. Sacrifice trains us in righteousness and schools us in the virtues. That is why sacrifice is so sweet!
We know for whom we sacrifice. The Christian sacrifice might be difficult, but it is always wonderful. We are no longer possessed by our possessions or habits. We learn, through Lent, to walk in the freedom of the Lord Jesus Christ. You give something up, you get it back better because you are better. Self-denial gives us self-control. Self-control gives us self-mastery. Self-mastery leads to self-gift.
Lent is a season not of depression and sorry-sacrifices, but of such a jubilee of joy at what God has done in our lives and in human history. It is the joy of being thankful for the gifts you have, even when you cannot immediately enjoy them. Absence might make the heart grow fonder, but abstinence makes the heart grow holy.