I recently was reminded that the liturgical season of Lent begins soon. It’s somewhat a bittersweet feeling and appropriate as it comes with the recognition that Easter Sunday comes only after Good Friday.
Lent is a season of sacrifice. I tend to go about my day-to-day life avoiding sacrifice as much as possible. It seems to be a hard-wired instinct to seek the easiest possible way of life. I imagine that all of us who are not living saints do so as well. For this reason I never catch myself looking forward to Lent.
But the contrast between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is worth reflecting upon. It sheds light on two essential ideas within Christian worship: celebration and sacrifice.
In a certain sense, these two ideas are somewhat related. Any celebration requires a sort of sacrifice. I recently traveled to celebrate a class reunion — it was a celebration that required a sacrifice of a valuable weekend, not to mention the sacrifice of money that travel necessitates.
And yet when something is truly worth celebrating, then it is also worth the sacrifice.
It’s always tempting to forget the sacrifice and only engage in the celebration. But we are in this strange world of the “in between,” where we can receive the fullness of Christ at Mass while simultaneously awaiting his coming. Despite the communion with God that has been made available through Christ, we still find ourselves separated from our Creator, in whom alone we can find true happiness.
And this is precisely the point: These two ideas — celebration and sacrifice — come together perfectly in the Christian liturgy. The Mass has long been described as a sacrificial meal. It is a simultaneous celebration and sacrifice.
I would assume (as I do so often while playing “armchair theologian”) that our lives ought to reflect this higher spiritual reality. After all, it was God’s sacrifice, and not ours, that makes the great celebration of Easter possible.
Earlier religions offered sacrifice in the hopes that their gods would accept them. Christianity gives us that strange reversal, in which God offers a sacrifice to us in the hopes that we accept him. This is worth celebrating.
All this only shines a greater light on my own shortcomings. Obviously I’m bad at sacrifice — but I’m not much better at celebrating. I have spent many Sundays (our weekly Easter celebration) hard at work, as if somehow it were more important than God making the salvation of mankind possible. I should like to think that, while work is important, there is necessarily something more important that is worth working for.
This final goal is — so I have been told — happiness. But that most perfect happiness, the kind bringing complete peace, is only made possible by God. St. Augustine reminds us that “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
This promise is both worth our sacrifice and worthy of our celebration.