On Mortality: A Lenten Reflection

As Lent begins to draw to a close, and we find ourselves moving towards Easter, I have been doing some reflecting on the paradoxes of this season.  This time of self-examination, repentance, prayer, and fasting. This time of preparing one’s heart for the cross.

Lent begins with the words, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Yet as the cross is traced in ash upon one’s forehead, there is a powerful irony in the words: for we are dust no more. The living breath of God has been restored to us. Christ became dust for our sake — became a mortal formed from clay, destined for death — so we could know life. Yet we are still poised in this space of in-between. Caught between the cross and the resurrection.

Lent calls us back to our mortality. Reminds us of our frailty. But does not do so in order to imprison us there. Rather, we are reminded so we might turn and be healed. When Christ declared that he came not for the healthy but for the sick, he was not implying a dissonance between those who had need of him and those who did not. Only that there were those who refused to acknowledge that need, for only those who know themselves sick will seek a physician’s care. As I have written elsewhere, I am coming, more and more, to believe that salvation through faith is not about being saved by faith — by one’s ability to believe passionately enough — but in fully submitting to the reality that one cannot save oneself, and in ceasing to strive to do so.

And perhaps it is that striving, that insistence on a closed, stubborn, self-sufficiency — a pride that demands we earn our own place in the world — that is, in itself, at the heart of our sickness. I doubt it was Eve’s longing for knowledge that brought death into the world, but perhaps it was a demand for that knowledge on her own terms — not a relational knowledge (and perhaps the knowledge of good and evil can only ever be relational if it is not to be destructive) but an independent, self-sufficient knowledge. The right to declare truth for herself and by herself. Give me my inheritance, demands the prodigal. I can do this on my own. But can such self-reliance ever be aught but a rejection of love? And can life exist where love does not?

The journey back to the Father, as Henri Nouwen reminds us in his The Return of the Prodigal Son, is simply (and not so simply) about allowing ourselves to be found by the love that has been pursuing us all the days of our lives.

Yet here, too, is irony and tension, for what lies on the other side of a closed, stubborn, self-sufficiency but a vulnerable, broken, openness? Nouwen writes, “It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering.” And so we are brought back to the cross and the life that is somehow found on the other side of death. In this upside-down economy, where the first are last, and the last first — where one must lose one’s life to save it — it would seem that to be whole one must choose to be broken, for Christ bears his scars even on the right hand of the Almighty, and if love wears the face of suffering, then, in wearing that face, one wears the face of God.

Do we have courage enough to root ourselves here? In an open, vulnerable, brokenness? To choose to reject the temptation of self-protection and the illusion of control? To recognize that only God can be perfect and sufficient in God’s-self, yet even God has rooted that perfection within relationality, and chosen the dependence, vulnerability, and heartbreak of relationship over an independent self-sufficiency?

Is it possible we’ve misunderstood, from the beginning, where strength, wholeness, and life truly lie? Misunderstood what it means to be like God?

Whatever the case, Lent reminds me that coming home isn’t about striving for perfection, but accepting imperfection, embracing my humanness (and the death that comes with it), and allowing God to meet me there with the love she has been speaking over me since the day I was born.

God did the work, all I must do is allow myself to be found. 

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountain and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

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