I Choose Joy

by Hugh Farquhar

The Lectionary Gospel Reading (Revised Common Lectionary) for next Sunday, the first in Lent, is Mark 1:9-15 which includes the baptism, temptation, and mission of Jesus.

My eyes fixed on verse 15: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

I’ll be surprised if the title of this reflection doesn’t raise some eyebrows! Two words that don’t normally go together are “joy’ and “Lent.” Isn’t Lent supposed to be serious and somber?  Isn’t Lent to be “observed” with guilty introspection? Where is the joy in that?

A religious, sending a Lenten message on the Net to her community, wrote, “Lent has cast its pall over us.” This pandemic has cast its pall over many of us; we don’t need more pall!

This Gospel Reading culminates in “good news” – good news appears twice in these two verses. The good news was (and is) that in Jesus the realm of God has come near. Good news generally generates joy and it certainly did in those early days.

So, I choose joy for Lent. This spin on Lent began for me years ago when I was browsing in a religious bookstore. As I perused the many volumes on the shelves, I spied a book with an intriguing title: Choosing Joy for Lent by Marilyn N. Gustin. It caught my eye because it struck me as an odd way to write about Lent.

Back then I would have spoken about moving from Lenten solemnity to Easter joy. I wondered what it means to choose joy for Lent. It sent me on a quest to dig deeper, a quest that resulted in my agreeing with the author, who spoke of the attitude with which we undertake the disciplines of Lent. Do we choose to undertake them dutifully and grudgingly? Does that really nourish the soul? I now think that joy, carefully interpreted, is the appropriate approach in Lent.

It means seeing the traditional disciplines of Lent with new eyes: repentance, prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.

In this Gospel, Jesus said, “Repent, and believe in the good news.” Lent is a time for life-review and repentance. But we have tended to moralize repentance so in our theologies. The word conjures up reciting our many sins and expressing our total depravity. The biblical meaning of repentance is deeper and richer. It literally means “to turn around.”

When we turn to something, we automatically turn our backs on something. Repentance includes turning our backs on sin in all its forms with an accompanying contrition, but the emphasis in Jesus’ message is on the turning to! Turning to God! Believing in the good news! Karl Barth, great 20th Century theologian, wrote that “repentance as decreed by the gospel of God is a joyful venture. Those who repent might well put on their very best clothes . . . Repentance is not a dark moment; it is a bright moment.”

Why not make Lenten prayer a continual burst of gratitude. Why not make almsgiving (generosity in modern terms) a cheerful process, remembering Paul’s words that God loves a cheerful giver. Why not make fasting the giving up of things that distract us from a loving relationship with God and others.

Obviously. there is a pathos to Lent that calls for a measure of solemn contemplation. It is, after all, recalling Jesus’ journey that culminated in unimaginable suffering and an excruciating death. So, it is a time for acknowledging our mortality, for personal introspection, for lamenting the world’s brokenness, and meditating on who we are meant to be and what we are meant to do. But if all of that is not grounded in something more affirming and hopeful, it seems a gloomy exercise.

Joy for Jesus was not what we often call ‘joy’ in our culture – superficial happiness or mindless enthusiasm – but the deep and profound sense of blessedness he was talking about when he prayed for the disciples that his joy might be in them and their joy might be full. And, by the way, he said that in the Upper Room, on his way to the cross. Joy doesn’t have to be exuberant. It may be quiet. It may be contemplative.

This deep joy is firmly rooted and grounded in the love of God revealed in Jesus and is ours to choose in every season, including Lent.

Hugh Farquhar is Minister Emeritus at St. Paul’s United Church, Riverview, NB and teaches Biblical Studies online at Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, NS.

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