It's only Day 2 of Lent, and already I've met with a few raised eyebrows indicating that wonderment, "Are you bonkers?" One person even gave voice to their puzzlement, "Whaddya mean--happy?. This is Lent, we're not suppposed to be happy!" Au contraire. I love lent; it makes me happy, so the natural greeting for me this season is "Happy Lent!"
I'm actually in good company with this tendency towards happiness during Lent. For catechumens preparing for baptism in earlier centuries of the church, Lent represented the home stretch--soon they would be initiated into full participation in the church during the upcoming Easter festival. Likewise for notorious sinners who had been assigned public penance: soon they would be restored to the community during the Easter Vigil. True, there was a challenging path ahead, but Lent was the beginning--of the end--of their troubles, so, indeed it was a happy time.
The best rationale, I think, for being happy and wishing people happiness during Lent is found in the Bible itself. In the Greek language of the New Testament, "makarioi" is accurately translated either as "blessed" or "happy." That is why we see the more popular "Blessed are the meek..." right alongside the "Happy are the meek" of newer translations. If we're comfortable with the idea of wishing people, "Blessed Lent!" perhaps hearing greetings of "Happy Lent to you!" will trigger some thinking as to what "blessed" actually means. Somberness is not the sine qua non of blessedness. In fact, joyfulness seems to be the more usual manifestation of holiness. Even in the midst of her long "dark night of the soul," people were constantly struck by just how joyful Mother Theresa of Calcutta seemed. And John Paul II was famous for his natural good cheer, even amidst his rigorous self-discipline, to mention just two famous examples.
Still not convinced? Consider the Gospel advice from Ash Wednesday not to feign sadness or gravity when fasting. Instead, look your best and wear a bright smile, we are told. For some, perhaps that smile will seem a bit forced at first. I maintain, however, that any forced quality to that smile will melt with the satisfaction of knowing that we are on the right track. Isn't it a GOOD thing to be praying more, disciplining ourselves with some sort of fasting, and consciously giving more to the poor this season? Solemnity would be the appropriate accompaniment to blowing off Lent, not to our endeavors to keep it. If we truly feel deeply out of sorts or ornery as a result of our Lenten discipline, perhaps we need to lighten up a bit. Snacking on a small slice of cheese does not destroy a fast; it's not the ego-gratification of perfection we are seeking, but rather a heightened attentiveness to God, our short-comings, and thus our need for Him. If a little nibble enables you to replace those overwhelming thoughts of a cheeseburger with something a tad more spiritual, I say, bring on a few peanuts! And, if you grab your small snack in thankfulness that you have the means to do so, unlike so many in the world with empty larders, that would make for a rather good start to Lent indeed.
Resurrection Sunday will soon be here. Meanwhile, may your Lent be HAPPY and fruitful!