Every month I'm a guest on Relevant Radio's daily call-in spiritual direction show "The Inner Life," hosted by Chuck Neff. Last week the producer wrote me about the topic for today's show and wondered if I wanted to talk about Lent. My first reaction was "No! We're going to have 40 days of Lent. No need to start it early." Instead, I thought it would be good to talk about Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday or, as it's often called in the Polish community of Milwaukee, Paczki Day. Is it OK for Christians to have fun?
Of course! Jesus had fun. Unfortunately much of our religious art makes Jesus look as though he never cracked a smile and never laughed. He appears very somber and even scarey. But this can't be the way Jesus really was. No one would want to go near Him. Certainly not the children. Yet Jesus attracted droves of people to Himself. So Jesus must have smiled, laughed, had a good time, and genuinely enjoyed life. He even described heaven in terms of a big party or wedding feast and when He participated in a feast where the wine had run out, He made more.
But what about "Fat Tuesday" and all the excesses we see? The tradition of over-indulging seems to have arisen from the logic that since we're going to have to fast and pray and go to confession, now's the time to party. This isn't really the best way to enter into Lent.
While Lent is a more somber and subdued time, a time when we see the color violet at Mass and don't sing "Alleluia" or "The Gloria," it's supposed to be a happy season. The Preface for Lent I which precedes the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass addresses the Father and says, "Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed." The Preface for Lent II has: "This great season of grace is your gift to your family to renew us in spirit." Do you think of Lent as a "joyful season," a "gift"? How can fasting and penance and sacrifice be joyful?
Our fasting with its accompanying hunger reminds us of our hunger for God. It's a way that we pray with our bodies as well as our minds. It shouldn't make us irritable and grumpy. If it does, then it would be better for us not to fast, for spiritual exercises that don't lead to greater charity are useless. As St. Paul wrote in his famous chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, without love we are nothing. Without charity our knowledge and faith and even our martyrdom, should we be so called, are nothing.
True fasting and prayer should make us more aware that nothing on earth can ultimately satisfy us. We're made for union with God and while the things of earth may take away the hunger pains for a while, they ultimately don't satisfy. Our physical hunger should remind us of our spiritual hunger. We are, as St. Augustine famously wrote, made for God and so our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.
It all comes down to balance. Christians, following Jesus' example, enjoy life and its legitimate pleasures. Sin may make us feel good for a while but ultimately it's a poison that destroys us and others. It's OK to have fun today, to eat those wonderful Polish fruit-filled doughnuts known as Paczki. Have fun and give glory to God. Follow St. Paul's example, eating and drinking and giving glory to God who wants to be a part of every moment of your life. But don't go overboard for that will only lead to unhappiness.
St. Ignatius of Loyola counsels in a similar vein in the First Principle and Foundation of his "Spiritual Exercises." All earthly things and pleasures are given to us to help us attain the end for which we were created--the praise, reverence, and service of God--our salvation, our union with God who alone fills the restless heart. Thus we should use the good things of the earth in so far as they help us attain our end and we should reject them in so far as they get in the way of our attaining our end. This is real balance. Lent is a time to grow in this balance and that growth is what makes it a "gift" and a "joyful season."