“A journey, a pilgrimage! Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the ‘bright sadness’ of Lent, we see–far, far away–the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the kingdom.”— Alexander Schmemann in “Great Lent: Journey to Pascha”
The words, “bright sadness,” captured my imagination this week after reading this passage in Alexander Schmemann’s wonderful meditation on the Season of Lent. What can be “bright” about sadness? What is it about sadness that can actually illuminate our self-awareness and longing for God? The readings for this Sunday, the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus, can help us form an insightful answer.
We will read the story of the departure of the prophet Elijah taken up in a “whirl of wind” to heaven (2 Kings 2:1-12). We learn of Elisha’s close relationship with Elijah and his sadness at their impending separation. In the closing verse of the passage, Elisha sees a vision of a chariot and horses of fire coming between him and Elijah as Elijah is taken up by the whirlwind. Elisha cries out, “My father, my father! You-the chariot and cavalry of Israel!” All that Elisha can do is rend his clothes in grief; he has gone up with Elijah to the place of his ascension, but now he must return alone.
In Mark’s Gospel this Sunday (Mark 9:2-9), Jesus has led Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. On that mountain, the disciples enter a mystery so great that they fall down in fear and can find no words for the brilliant light they see shining through the humanity of Jesus. But after that high and mysterious experience, the disciples must descend into the valley to face the final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Both readings are examples of the “bright sadness.”
In his book, Schmemann suggests that the Lenten season is meant to kindle a ‘bright sadness’ within our hearts. The spiritual focus of Lent is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost or unattended. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this primary relationship in our lives. The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the surprising brilliance of the Resurrection and find new confidence and hope for the living of our days.
I look forward to exploring this theme of “bright sadness” more personally in my sermon for Sunday and consider small steps we can take in Lent to nourish our awareness of God, our deepest selves, and those around us.
Update: The sermon is now posted here.