During the Great Lent everything around us appears to transform. We intentionally do things that subdue our mood by abstaining from foods and things we enjoy. The black closed curtain separates us from the altar, clergy start using black vestments. The monotone penitential hymns, the dim and dark churches and vigil services usher in sober and solemn spiritual experience. It is as if the Lent spreads a veil of sadness over the church.
But is this what truly Lent and penance are about? Sadness? Is this our goal? Or perhaps there is something more, something quite different behind it all waiting to be discovered and experienced.
Let’s look into the Armenian word for penance: Abashkharutiun. Sometimes, this term is mistakenly identified with the Armenian word Ashkhar (world) and then concluded that Abashkarutiun (penance) must mean rejection of the world. But why would anyone reject the world which God loved so much that He Gave his only Son for it. Why would we denounce the world which Christ embraced and sacrificed his own life for. In fact, Ashkar and Ansharel in classical Armenian mean to lament, mourn, cry. Therefore, the Armenian word for penance Abashkharutiun means moving away and rejecting from the sadness and mourning.
But how can we possibly consolidate these radically different and opposing views of Lent and penance. One of the most prominent liturgical theologians of the 20th century Fr. Alexander Schmemann came up with what is probably the best definition of Lent and he did so in two simple words when he called it a season of Bright Sadness.
Bright sadness probably is the most powerful spiritual experience that we know. It doesn’t’ just remind us of where we are and have been but also of who we are, beloved children of God, called to live a life of inner joy and peace.
It is sadness which also has the rays of joy on the horizon. It is a season of sadness which prepares and softens our hearts for the joy of Easter, for the divine liberating love to fill us and lift us up with our resurrected Lord, leaving behind all sadness, grief, mourning, loss and embracing a life of joy.
Think about it, a life of joy. That is the precise plan of God for you and me, that is exactly what he wants to see – us living a life full of joy. Not merely spikes of simple emotional joy here and there, but a life full of joy. In John 15 Jesus says that all these things I said and did so “My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full”.
How often and how many of us can truly claim that our lives resemble and are full of joy. Yet, for each and every one of us God has a plan that would lead us to living a life full of His peace and joy.
The Great Lent creates a priceless opportunity to reflect and contemplate on all the things that hold us back and prevent us from living such a life. Yes, perhaps we are fully aware of all the reasons and what exactly holds us back from living and feeling joyful life. Perhaps, we even tried very hard and for many years to remove these obstacles. The reason we were not successful in doing so could very well be because we relied only on our efforts. What if we also prayed for joy? Could the results of our struggle and effort be different if we asked God to help us and work with us in removing these obstacles preventing us from living a life of joy?
May God bless your journey through the Great Lent. May He be your guide showing the way to the promised land of joy and peace. Amen.