None of us like the idea of suffering, or the cross, or the idea of disciplining ourselves through penance. We would all rather not have to be patient or put up with trials and suffer. We would all rather indulge ourselves and be comfortable.
And yet when it comes to the prospect of something worth-while, we deprive ourselves in many ways. For example, at the prospect of getting tickets to a show, some of us will camp out and spend the night in front of the place where the tickets will go on sale. We want to be first in line too, in order to get the best seats. When a husband and father is driving home from a long business trip, he will continue on the road despite his tiredness in view of the joy of seeing his family again.
The point is, we willingly face suffering when we keep in mind the good that is our goal. When it comes to Lent, the goal we keep in mind is the celebration of Easter. We focus on the cross, the mystery of good Friday, in order to prepare ourselves for the myster of Easter Sunday. We do penance so that we our spiritually renewed. And by doing penance, we spiritually pick up our cross, that is, we willingly join the Lord in the mystery of His cross remembering that in His cross, in the mystery of His death, is our salvation specifically because the cross led to the forgiveness of our sins and the new life given to us in and through Jesus' rising from the dead. "By death trampling down death and giving life to those in the tombs," sings the Eastern Church of Christ during the Pascha or Easter season. "Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life," we in the Western Church remember at times during mass when we "proclaim the mystery of faith." So the cross of Jesus, our cross too when we unite it to that of Jesus becomes a place of victory and of joyful hope for the resurrection.
In this light, the light of salvation in he cross of Christ, the penance of Lent takes on a joyful motivation. It is a time of being more unified in the cross of Christ so that we can share more fully in the celebration of the His Resurrection.
And yet this very attitude of Lent as being a time of penance is not supposed to end with Easter. We may be used to giving something up as a penance for Lent in order to "do our duty" of abstaining from something, and though this has its value, it is recommended that pick a penance for Lent that we then carry into the rest of the year, that the thing we strive to give up or the effort of penance we take on be a permanent thing. So, though giving up chocolate for Lent is a good beginning of doing penance, we are called to try penances that will carry over into our normally daily Christian lives. For example, I can be patient with an acquaintance or co-worker who normally annoys me and who I normally avoid. I can decide to dedicate some spare time to the local homeless shelter and continue my visits even after Easter.
The reason why we try to do a penance during Lent that will carry over into our daily lives is because Lent, our time of picking up the cross in preparation for the celebration of Easter is really an analogy for our current state as pilgrims and strangers. Our Christian lives are called to be one continual preparation for the ultimate celebration of Easter... our own resurrection from the dead on the last day.
So, we pick up the cross with this ultimate goal in mind... salvation, sanctification, our communion with God in and through Christ Jesus our savior, who already bore the cross for us and can help us in our attempts to bare our struggles in union with Him and with the help of the Holy Spirit. Seen in this positive light our aversion to the difficulty fades, and we become more willing to endure it.
So for those of us who have forgetten that our Christian journey is one of picking up the cross in light of being unified to the death of Christ (and ultimately also to His resurrection!) or for those who have never thought of it this way, may this Lent be a time of beginning again, a time of picking up the cross with the intention of embracing it, both in preparation for March 23rd, Easter Sunday and in preparation for that Happy Day when, God willing and we remain faithful, we rise from he dead unto the resurrection of life... the complete sharing in the resurrection and divine life of our Lord and Savoir Jesus Christ.
Ave Crux Spes Unica!