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March 25, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Last Sunday, Laetare Sunday, was a feast of joy. Stuck at home, in preparation for watching Mass on a small computer screen I read the commentary on the day from Fr Pius Parsch’s classic The Church’s Year of Faith. 

This Sunday has a unique distinction in the Church year—a day of joy in the season of penance and sorrow! …All the Mass texts ring with joy; the entrance song is a joyous shout, ‘Laetare—rejoice!’

This particular Sunday is a little moment of joy in a season of sorrow. As we approach Easter, there are, in fact, others: the joy of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, remembered on Palm Sunday, and the joy of the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, on Holy Thursday. Earlier, there was the Feast of the Transfiguration. Though not tied to the Easter cycle, but generally falling in Lent, are the great feasts of St Joseph and the Annunciation: not to forget St Patrick. And then, of course, is Easter itself, and the long Easter season.

As Fr Parsch likes to say, the Church is a good psychologist. You can’t have uninterrupted misery throughout Lent. It would wear us out, emotionally and spiritually, and we would become numb to it. The moments of joy, in fact, enable us to face the difficulties, the penance, and the sorrow: to face them and suffer them. Yes, sorrow: sorrow over our own sins, which is sharpened by our compassion for the sufferings of Our Lord, sufferings which He bore for our sins.

In the same way, we encounter problems if we attempt to exclude penance and sorrow from our lives, and from the liturgy. If the penitential aspect of Lent is ignored, and life simply goes on as normal, and if we are told that God is all about joy, joy, joy, then it ceases to mean very much. We won’t have special moments of joy, but just joy as usual, and joy as usual is not very joyful, at least not in our fallen world. Without the contrast, it loses its meaning.

There is another difficulty as well, which is that the world we live in will not go along with an insistence that everything is joyful all the time. Even people in quite comfortable circumstances have moments of suffering and sorrow, and it is far from being the case that most people are in comfortable circumstances. Those who do seem to have no real problems often seem to generate fake ones to compensate, as if they were missing out. They complain about trivialities, and suffer all sorts of hypochondriacal maladies. 

People like that can sometimes be made to feel better by a religion of joy and more joy, because the ersatz salvation on offer can solve their non-existent problems. Real religion does not offer to solve all our problems—health problems, poverty, the suffering of injustice. It is not God’s will that all such difficulties be removed from the world, just like that, though it inspires people to oppose and ameliorate them. What God does do, is to give us the spiritual strength to live through them.

The coronavirus is a particular case, but in truth sufferings great and small are characteristic of human life in general. The Church cannot and does not ignore the reality of sin, suffering, and death. She follows the advice of St Paul: not to pretend everything is wonderful when it is not, but rather: “Rejoice with them that rejoice; weep with them that weep” (Rom 12:15). She puts on black vestments in recognition of the seriousness of death; she dons violet for penance. She has songs of joy, and songs of grief and repentance.

These sorrows make it possible for us to experience real joys, and above all the joy of the Resurrection. Just as the Resurrection could not have happened without the Passion, so our regeneration in grace cannot happen without our death to sin. Grief can be the price we pay for joy: the grief of bereavement, for example, may seem the coping stone on a joyful marriage. Joy and sorrow are not so much enemies in competition: in the present world they are inseparable.

In the words of the poet William Blake:

It is right it should be so 

Man was made for Joy & Woe 

And when this we rightly know 

Thro the World we safely go 

Joy & Woe are woven fine 

A Clothing for the soul divine 

Under every grief & pine

Runs a joy with silken twine  

The world to come is another matter:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away. (Apoc 24:1). 

But this is not because the mourning and sorrow were unnecessary or meaningless, but because we have passed through them. 

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.