Lent began this year on February 17th with Ash Wednesday and with one of the most profound truths of the liturgical cycle: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
And thus begins our forty day journey of wrestling with that truth in our lives. It is facing the reality of the nature of impermanence of all things – ourselves included. It is facing the truth that we will one day die, as will everyone and everything we love. To dust we will indeed return.
This truth is the root of human suffering and our human self-centered nature (what we call sin). We don’t want this to be true. We are attached to our lives – we do not want them to end. We spend great energy and lengths to avoid even talking about death, seeking eternal youth through all kinds of means. We believe that we can make our temporary existence seem more permanent by working harder, doing more, and being better. We work for bigger bank accounts, more success, greater fame. But in the end, we will all return to dust. Our own works will not save us. And in fact, in the process of trying we hurt others, exploiting the well-being of each other and our planet in the process of trying to get to the top.
Jesus shows us that there is a better way. On the cross, where he died to save us from this cycle of human sinfulness, he shows us that we cannot escape the reality of suffering and death by our works. Jesus shows us that the way to eternal life is lived out selflessly, compassionately, and lovingly. It is what God has already done for us. We are free of having to save ourselves. The way of the cross is a way of dying to self to live for others. Because of God’s promise of life for us, we are free from the grip death has own our lives.
Lent has a lot to do with death, but it is not about despair. Despite the suffering and death Jesus faced, the tree of life still stands. The cross is not about avoiding suffering and death, but reorienting ourselves to the world to live selflessly, free from the chains death placed on us. Before we get to the glorious Alleluias of Easter, we must walk the forty days through the darkest valley. There is no joy of Easter without facing the reality of human suffering. There is no resurrection without the cross. There is no life without death.
Lent is a season of intentionally working on this, reflecting on it, and living it. You may, perhaps, take up a self-denial practice – a fasting of sorts – to practice this selfless way of the cross. Or perhaps maybe you will take on a new practice: daily prayer, scripture reading, meditation on the cross, and/or regular worship attendance. However you keep Lent this year, the way of the cross is that path to which we have been called, and I am looking forward to walking it together.
Blessings on your Lenten journey,