The fourth Sunday of Lent goes by the name “Laetare Sunday,” which comes from the Mass’s “indroit,” or opening antiphon, which begins “Rejoice, Jerusalem!”—in Latin, “Laetare, Jerusalem!” We break out the rose on the third Sunday of Advent, too, when we’re over halfway to Christmas.
There’s something delightfully human in allowing ourselves a splash of rejoicing in the middle of this penitential season. It’s sort of like stopping at the Dairy Queen for a sundae after passing the halfway point of a long road trip. Of course, to my mind, Lent still is a joyful season, because penance can—and even should—be done with joy. Good Friday is a day of mourning because that too is a part of the human experience, but penance does not mean sadness.
As we hear on Ash Wednesday, Jesus tells his disciples not to look gloomy and unkempt while fasting (Matt 6:16-18). Part of the reason for this is to discourage religious hypocrisy, making a show of all our good works in order to be thought highly of by our neighbors. I remember my dad telling me one Ash Wednesday when I was a kid that if you told people what you were giving up for Lent, you wouldn’t get any grace! Now the principle might need a little theological refinement, but it was a pretty good way to get the point across to a kid.
There’s more than just avoiding hypocrisy at stake in not talking up our spiritual exploits; it’s important sometimes to save some things just for God. Most couples, and even most good friends, have a number of “inside jokes,” funny moments they’ve shared that lose their kick when you have to explain them to someone else. Moments like these can help to build up the intimacy of the relationship, and the whole point of Lent—in fact, the whole point of the spiritual life—is to grow in intimacy with God. So sometimes it’s nice to reserve a few “inside moments” for the Lord alone. (Doing something nice for another person without letting anyone know who did it is another way of sharing such an inside moment with God.)
In the end, all our Lenten practices are about growing closer to God, perhaps by removing obstacles to our relationship with him, perhaps by spending more time in prayer, perhaps by repairing broken relationships with his children, our neighbors. And all this, fundamentally, is a joyful process. In that literary classic, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the souls on their way to Purgatory sing as they approach the mountain (Purgatorio II, 46-48) because even though Purgatory means lengthy toil and pains almost as tortuous as those of the Inferno, all these are endured with one’s face turned toward God. The penitents are joyful, and joy is the sort of thing that’s stronger than pain.
It should also be obvious by now that when I’m talking about joy, I mean something quite deeper than just happiness, which comes and goes depending on circumstances. Joy is not so much a feeling as an orientation, a stance one takes toward life; it’s something the souls of Dante’s Purgatory have because they are slogging upward toward God. Instead of evaporating in adversity, joy is refined and strengthened by it, which is why we embrace adversities in Lent. Joy is the natural consequence of having met God, the reverberation in our bones of that stunning revelation that God has said YES to us.
Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad for her, you who love her; rejoice with her, you who mourned for her, and you will find contentment at her consoling breasts.