Let's make sure we've gotten past the Sunday school concept of how to live this season.
“Daddy, I used to think that I would be in my 20s forever, but then I turned 27 …”
That’s part of a conversation I overheard recently. I too, was once a 20-something, and unconsciously assumed that being in one’s 20s was “standard”; then the first gray hair showed up…
I think of these things as the season of Lent begins. There are so many ways of marking Lent badly—ways that are harmful. And there are some very good ways of living Lent well—ways that are often overlooked or have become obscured or forgotten over the years.
Growing up, I remember hearing other children at Sunday School talking about what they would “give up” for Lent. Word had trickled down to us that as Catholics, we were supposed to deprive ourselves of something that we enjoyed because … well, I can’t recall anyone explaining the reasons why, and I don’t recall anyone insisting on an explanation either. Most children I knew selected a narrowly-defined species of sweets that they would give up, for example, not all sweets, not all chocolate, but, say, chocolate with almonds. I don’t know whether or not such an approach benefited anyone, but I do know that everyone seemed to be glad when Lent was over. Is that the best we can do?
Let’s recall Ash Wednesday. In more recent times, one of the formulas used during the imposition of ashes goes something like this, “Reform your lives and believe the good news!” Well, okay. Nothing objectionable in that. But does it really seize the imagination? An older formula takes a different approach: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” That’s a showstopper, isn’t it?
Especially in circumstances of relative comfort and safety, people need to be reminded of their mortality; they need to be reminded that eventually, they will run out of eventuallys … Growing up, children might have an abstract awareness of their own finitude (at least sometimes) and everyone seems to be aware that death has happened to someone else. But turning 27, or finding that first gray hair, or finding for the first time a lump underneath the skin—these things can compel us to face the fact of our own inevitable death. Ash Wednesday can help us to confront the truth of our mortality. The season of Lent, as a whole, can be a dress rehearsal or preparation for life facing both mortality and immortality.
… death brings for us not so much an end but a change.
In other words, death brings for us not so much an end but a change. Or, better said, death ends the flow of time and change and brings us into irrevocable eternity. Moving from this life to the next, we must give an account of ourselves, and see for ourselves what God already knows—whether we have lived in a manner that has prepared us for eternal love and glory or eternal lovelessness and misery. Left to our own devices, the story can end only one way; in cooperation with grace, if we conform ourselves to Christ crucified we will be conformed to Christ risen.
On this view, Lent can and should be a focused time to put away distractions, illusions, and encumbrances that keep us from the good use of time to prepare us for eternity. Christ showed us the path to victory. It is up to us to walk that path with him.
When I write next, I will continue our reflections on Lent. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.