Today we are just a week into Lent, with five weeks to go before the holy Triduum and the glories of Easter. In the meantime, we Christians are praying, fasting, and giving alms in reparation to God for our sins and those of the whole world. These practices are right and just, but if we let them, they can exhaust our energies, induce anxiety in our hearts, and gloom our faces.
It is good therefore to remember the words of Christ that we heard last week during Mass on Ash Wednesday. Jesus tells his disciples:
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you. (Mt 6:16–18)
Here Our Lord teaches us the proper way to do penance. He explicitly exhorts us to keep the interior life hidden so as to avoid the temptations of vanity and spiritual pride. I can’t help but think that Jesus is also implicitly instructing us to bear our penances joyfully, with a cheerful countenance. I can picture Him looking and smiling lovingly upon His friends as He said these words. His Face must have been so eloquently an example of His teaching! We can almost hear Him still, telling us, “when you fast, anoint your head, wash your face, brush your teeth, and smile a big smile!”
The smile is another one of those hard teachings of Jesus. Lifting those cheekbones can feel so burdensome when we are pensive, tired, sad, angry, hungry—all feelings that seem to crop up this time of year. On top of that, it might feel incongruous or unauthentic on the one hand to do penance for our sins as we contemplate the Lord’s Passion and on the other to put on a happy face. Nevertheless, it is always important to radiate the love and joy made possible by our redemption in Christ.
Smiling during Lent can be an excellent expression of charity. But as Mother Teresa, one of our great smiling saints, knew all too well, “sometimes it is just hard for us to smile at one another.” This is true especially when those to whom we should smile are those with whom we live most closely and whom we love most. The saint gives an example, saying, “it is often difficult for the husband to smile at his wife or for the wife to smile at her husband.” And that difficulty holds in our relationships with our siblings, our friends, our brothers or sisters in our religious communities, and our fellow Christians in the Church. How hard it can be for us to rejoice in and to love our neighbor!
Finally, Mother Teresa takes her insight one step further. She tells us, “someone once asked me, ‘Are you married?’ And I said, ‘Yes, and I find it sometimes very difficult to smile at Jesus because He can be very demanding.’” Even to Jesus, who looks and smiles on us with infinite Love, we have a hard time responding with a happy grin.
These challenges should not deter us from smiling at Our Lord and our neighbors. For we have experienced how wonderful it is to meet a happy face when we least expect it. We also know how much joy and comfort we can inspire in others if we make a little effort to visibly manifest the love that Christ has poured into our hearts. And in the end, during this Lent, though our hearts be aching and breaking in penance and suffering, we’ll find that life is still worthwhile… if we smile.
Image: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, A Little Coaxing