She was smiling, completely unaware that the world around her was falling apart. And as I scrolled through the news headlines on my phone, I wanted to be exactly like her.
Amidst the website’s stories of terror attacks, uncertain markets and natural disasters, the image of her face — which capped an article about an unusually warm March day — was utterly out of place: a carefree toddler photographed in midair as her mother pushed her on the swings. A sunbeam made a fuzzy halo of the child’s short curls; her eyes squinted in delight as she threw back her head and stretched her plump limbs.
Such joy seems incongruous with Lent, and yet our penance and prayers are supposed to make room for just that. This season of sacrifice is not an end in itself, but a road to a greater reality, a deeper relationship with the risen Christ. The cross, which is sheer “foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:8), was never Jesus’ ultimate destination. Instead, “for the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame” so that he could “(take) his seat at the right of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
Many times, we prefer to take a shortcut to the deep fulfillment we seek, or we fail to embark on the journey altogether. We opt for passing pleasures, even “harmless” ones — a little extra food or alcohol, mindless foraging through Facebook, idle chatter at the office, an impulse purchase at the mall. “Life is short and the world is a mess anyway,” we think, hoping to stave off that nagging craving for something more than the whims of the moment. We avoid the reckoning demanded by our inner desert, while utterly shortchanging ourselves of the kingdom of God in our daily lives.
As a result, we end up on a kind of existential see-saw, moving up and down with our changing circumstances. If our bodies and bank accounts are healthy, we’re happy; if adversity threatens us or our loved ones, we sink into anxiety, pessimism, even despair.
Jesus offers us a better ride, if we’re willing to follow the same Spirit that led him into the desert (Matthew 4:1). As incomprehensible as it may seem, it is entirely possible, in Christ, to suffer and still experience joy. Quoting St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “‘we live by the Spirit’: the more we renounce ourselves, the more we ‘walk by the Spirit’” (CCC, 736).
This renunciation, so painful and unwelcome, ushers in nothing less than new life: “By this power of the Spirit, God’s children can bear much fruit …. love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (CCC, 736; see also Galatians 5:25).
The little girl in the news photograph delighted in an innocent unawareness of the violence, injustice and tragedy that marred the world just beyond her playground. How much more should we as believers rejoice, knowing that despite all the forces of hell itself, we can lift our heads in the light of the Son, stretch forth our hands and smile in joy.
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