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Publish Date: 10 March 2019

The Archbishop's Lenten Message 2019

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Peace be with you!

How to observe the Lenten season has become a challenge for modern-day Christians, because apart from the traditional worship and liturgy in which they take part, their religious practices, attitudes, attire, habits, and frames of mind all differ from those in the past. When I was young, remorseful tears, fasting, abstinence, self-mortification, and gravity were the ideas and customs that were part and parcel of Lent.

I know of a priest who neither cuts his hair nor shaves in the Lenten season; and another who abstains from chocolates, coffee, and Coca-Cola. Some people choose to wear only dull-coloured clothes during Lent. Though once popular, these Lenten attitude and observances are retained only by a few nowadays.

Deviating from the old custom, we might wonder how we should spend the forty days of Lent: Can we laugh? If we can laugh, how is laughter related to Lent, which is supposedly sorrowful and full of tears? And how should we repent? Apart from staying away from sins, what else should we abstain from?”

In a monastery off the southeast coast of France, on one of the Lérins islands, hangs a crucifix. The Jesus on the cross is portrayed as tilting his head to the right and tightly shutting his eyes, but carrying a smile on his face. Hence, the crucifix is called The Smiling Christ.

The Smiling Christ might help us understand the Lenten season from another perspective and observe it in a different way, because smiling is not necessarily contrary to the spirit and mood of the season. In the Gospel reading of Ash Wednesday, Jesus teaches his disciples, “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting” (Matthew 6:16). I would like to explore the meaning of Lent from two perspectives: first, whether Jesus ever laughed; second, whether we should laugh or weep during the season.

We shall begin by finding out whether Jesus ever laughed. The fourth-century Rule of St Basil says, “According to the Gospels, Jesus never smiled.” Truly, nowhere in the Gospels can we find mention of Jesus laughing or even smiling. On the contrary, he has been twice recorded weeping: one time over Jerusalem, and the other over the death of his friend Lazarus. This may confound us: Since Jesus is not only divine but also human, how could he have only wept for sadness but not laughed for joy? How could he have held children in his arms with a poker face? How could he have not smiled when the steward at the wedding in Cana wondered where the good wine came from? It would be hard for us to believe, when Jesus saw the tiny Zacchaeus climb up a sycamore tree in order to catch a glimpse of him, or when he took the hands of Jairus’s daughter to raise her up from the dead, that Jesus would have maintained a blank face. Perhaps we have placed too much emphasis on the divinity of Christ and overlooked his humanity. Our bias leads us to perceive him as an unrealistic and emotionless being. In fact, like us, Christ is also wholly human and shares all our emotions and feelings.

Of course, we do not believe that Jesus would smile or laugh when he was driven out of Nazareth and was threatened to be thrown off the cliff, or when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Although we cannot know for sure whether Jesus smiled when he was crucified, we can be certain that there were some situations which he would not face with a smile. Jesus’ life was full of ups and downs, just like that of ours. He screamed when he was in excruciating pain on the cross; he welcomed fishermen, centurions, children, and women. We are convinced that Jesus would be smiling, instead of looking stern, when he approached these people.

The second point to consider is whether we should laugh or weep during the Lenten season. If we agree that Jesus has laughed, can we allow a “smiling Christ” in the Lenten season? To answer this question, first we should not create for ourselves a Lent of self-delusion, one in which we deliberately fabricate a sombre ethos pretending that Christ has yet to be risen, and wait until Easter to celebrate his resurrection and begin to live like the risen Christ. In fact, even though we are in Lent, we are all “risen” Christians already and should not ignore the status of being resurrected. These two facts, namely the risen Lord and our attaining new lives through His resurrection, can help us understand the significance of Lent. In the coming few weeks, we, as “risen Christians”, will revisit the journey Christ took from his entry to Jerusalem to his crucifixion. Through revisiting the journey, our sufferings and our crosses are connected with the “smiling Christ”, because the cross is not a symbol of failure, but Christ’s victory. Therefore, we need not await the coming of victory and of Easter.

That said, we must not deceive ourselves into believing that we need Lent no more because we have already risen with Christ through baptism. Our resurrection is not yet complete, as St Paul complained: “We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). As followers of Christ, we have to participate in Christ’s journey to Jerusalem in our daily lives through liturgy and through our personal experiences. This is how we can laugh with tears during Lent when we pray to the Lord: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me!” (Luke 22:42). We have not yet attained complete transformation in the risen Christ, and this will only happen when we journey to Jerusalem with Christ.

Is Lent a season for laughter or one for tears? As I see it, Lent is both! However, I will give more emphasis to the latter because it helps us gain a deeper understanding of the Lenten season and its meaning, so that we can observe the Lenten season joyously.

May the Father bless and guide you, my brothers and sisters, to observe Lent with laughter and tears.

+ Paul Kwong



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