During the Lenten season Christians are urged to more deliberately contemplate Christ’s suffering and death. But traditional observances, such as penance and fasting, all too often produce dour expressions instead of spiritual fruits. Three new books hope to resurrect the joyful side of this season of sacrifice.

God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter (Paraclete Press, Dec. 2013) includes reflections from writers like Richard Rohr, Lauren Winner, Ronald Rolheiser, and Kathleen Norris. The book offers a wealth of daily meditations that aim to help readers return to the seasons of Lent and Easter in a new way, offering “a feast in a sense, not a fast,” says Pamela Jordan, president and C.E.O. of Paraclete Press. Greg Wolfe, co-editor of the book (with Greg Pennoyer), says that the contributors “all write from the perspective that Lent can be a life-giving season, a time not to reject the things of this world but to learn how to hold them lightly, so that we cherish them rather than being taken over by them.” The essays are accompanied by a wide variety of artistic images that include “both classic pieces and lesser-known gems, which produces a startling effect,” says Jordan. “The resulting work is able to touch Christians of all backgrounds deeply who are seeking a fresh, challenging, beautiful reading experience.” Paraclete Press will host a Lenten roundtable blog beginning Ash Wednesday (March 5).

The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (Franciscan Media, Dec. 2013) by Daniel P. Horan is grounded in scholarship, incorporates Franciscan spiritual traditions, and challenges readers to work against injustices of modern society. The book “begins with the presupposition that the Cross is about both love and suffering” says Horan, adding that “there is a tendency to ‘romanticize’ or ‘overly spiritualize’ [the seven times Christ speaks from the cross] such that they don't impact the individual believer, or even nonbeliever, in a personal, challenging, and direct way.” But Horan’s book aims to challenge. He connects lines like “I thirst” not just to spiritual needs, but to questions around environmental justice and clean water. He hopes to make the words of Christ on the Cross relevant to readers beyond Good Friday and to challenge readers to change their lives in response. In addition to offering parish talks and retreats, Horan will participate in a special live webcast about the book, hosted by Franciscan Media, on April 16.

In Executing God: Rethinking Everything You've Been Taught about Salvation and the Cross (Westminster John Knox, Dec. 2013), Sharon Baker says she hopes to provide “an alternative way to look at the Cross.” By incorporating scripture and various Christian traditions “the book gives readers a substitute for believing in an unjust, tyrannical God who demands a pound of flesh before granting forgiveness,” she says. All too often “the love, compassion, and extravagant grace of God get lost in gory details,” says Baker. “As a result, we unintentionally communicate the good news with horrifically bad news.” She says the image of a God who loves peace and mercy provides a needed contrast to a world in which religion and violence often are viewed as closely linked. Baker hopes readers will be energized and renewed by Christ’s loving sacrifice, and that “those who desire to experience the awakening of new life, the joy of new discovery, and the determination to make them matter in the way they live will find the motivation to make those desires a reality.”

Kerry Weber is the author of Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job (Loyola Press, Feb.).