Today, Ash Wednesday, is the start of the slowing walk leading to Easter Weekend. The Lenten season seeks to reduce distractions that would otherwise blind us to the dark and difficult and glorious wonders lying ahead. We are invited to slow down, to come gently to that Good Friday death, to pause there at the foot of the cross – and to not be carried too quickly past it by the momentum of our rush to Resurrection. The desire for new life is so strong that I often forget that the only way to that Sunday is through that Friday. And it is not true just for Jesus.
Lent invites us to embrace a bit of suffering, a bit of pain, a bit of dying to self as a way of preparation. It is often a time of fasting, making use of the shaking up of our systems of comfort to consider our capacity for life through death. As Advent sets the table for Christmas, Lent clears the table for Good Friday. Many followers of Jesus use it as a time of self-denial to push back against the relentless accommodation to any and all means of resisting discomfort. It seeks to train our gaze towards the cross, gently bringing us back to focus when we’d as soon turn away.
As a way of entry this year, I have decided that each day of Lent I will take a few minutes and consider the day of my death.
Last year a colleague introduced me to the Eastern Church’s prayers of memento mori – a Latin phrase which means “remember you will die.” Rather than a morbid fascination, the remembrance of death invites the full living of life. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, “the knowledge of one’s death concentrates the mind wonderfully!” We are forced to focus on the day – this day – the Lord has made, and invited to rejoice, knowing that we won’t have it for long.
Distractions abound when there is endless time; editing occurs with awareness of limits. If it is true with the budgeting of financial resources, it is no less true with the budgeting of temporal resources. Scripture reminds us – often – that our life’s span is but a mist, a vapor – we are here today and gone… We do ourselves harm if we forget that reality. The Psalmist gives us the words to pray, “Teach us to number our days, O Lord, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” And again, “Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life.”
Most of my days seem to be consumed with trying to do two or three things at once – with the result that I am barely able to do one thing at once! In Resurrection, we are made capable of life forever. But, as it turns out, preparation to live forever, involves remembering that I won’t live forever.