ON ASH WEDNESDAY the dust from which we came and to which we return is daubed on Christians’ foreheads. It is an intimate reminder that the Spirit of God breathes in us and we live; without the Spirit we crumble.
To be more Christlike means facing death in all its forms—the death of reputation, the death of truth, and the bodily death of our beloveds. Lenten scriptures keep before us stories of temptation, failure, and the heavy machinery of this empire or that, always shifting into position to crush those who threaten human power and wealth. There are hints of resurrection in the lectionary readings, but the pain and destruction of dreams and life that comes before is given its full due.
We are too well acquainted with the world and its ways not to imagine what massacre or plague filled that valley with dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision. And, in John’s gospel, Jesus is confronted by Lazarus’ grieving, accusing sister. Why did you not come when called? Mary demands, while Lazarus was alive and could be healed. The story is raw with the pitch of her rage and Jesus’ own tears.
Isn’t the daily news grim enough, without also dwelling in church on all that is broken? The wisdom of Lent is that if we leap ahead without taking a measure of how powerful and omnipresent death is—corroding our souls as well as stalking our bodies—resurrection is reduced to a cosmic carnival trick, with eternal life the prize for those who live well.
Without Lent we may easily brush aside how sin kills us a little each day and entangles us in its death-dealing ways. The writer David Dark often tweets a single-line response to news of a leader mocking the vulnerable or a policy decision that will inflict suffering or kill people: “There are so many ways to hate God.”
Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Here death might refer in part to our inevitable crumbling to mortal dust or to the unconscious (and for some, conscious) ways we contribute to the killing of others. But it also speaks to the soul corruption, the unintended consequences, the needless burdens that sin causes. The death that comes in small nibbles and slow decay of compassion, empathy, safety nets, checks and balances.
In complex human systems—a commercial aircraft manufacturer, for example—a few peoples’ individual choices to give a go-ahead despite warning signs or to stay silent when convinced of a product’s deadly flaw can result in hundreds of people dying. Greed, a desire for security, or self-absorption can lead us to hoard our money or our hearts or wield them as power over others. And most of us (and our institutions) are warped—wounding or wounded by the way centuries of racism and colonialism continue to order our attitudes and our opportunities.
Lent is a way to experiment with shaking off a little of our sin and lean into a story that is about overturning the power of death in small and large ways. We may—we will—find that we can’t do it alone. We need help. We need community. We need a God who is reaching toward us and isn’t afraid of meeting us at the point of our worst sin, a God who knows death intimately, and pulls us toward life.