As I was praying Morning Prayer with my brothers this morning, I was struck by one of the psalms that was included in the Divine Office for Ash Wednesday, Psalm 100. It reads as follows:
Shout joyfully to the LORD, all you lands; serve the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful song. Know that the LORD is God, he made us, we belong to him, we are his people, the flock he shepherds. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name; good indeed is the LORD, His mercy endures forever, his faithfulness lasts through every generation. (Psalm 100)
As we prayed this psalm, my mind conjured up the images that are a traditional part of Ash Wednesday. I imagined all the churches in Christendom which would be spare in their decorations, devoid of flowers and greenery. I have been in churches which fill the holy water fonts with sand during the Lenten Season. The vestments are violet, and altar and credence table coverings are violet, grey or even black. The music will be somewhat dour devoid of our usual "alleluias." So why does Morning Prayer ask us to "shout joyfully" and "serve the Lord with gladness."
If we pay attention to the rest of the psalm, the reasons for our joy and gladness are enumerated. We belong to God. God is our shepherd, a noble and good shepherd. God is good and merciful. God is faithful. God is, in other words, everything that we are not. Lent is about reminding ourselves that we are created in God's image and likeness. That image and likeness is the picture of goodness, of beauty, of awesome glory. This is what God intended for us. Each time that we turn toward sin, we are turning toward ourselves and away from God. Sin is, after all, basically selfishness in thought, word and deed.
Lent is, hard as it may be to fathom, a time of joy. What could be more joyful than returning to God? Is there anything else that measures up to the joy of finding ourselves in the presence of mercy and love itself?
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator