The other day I attended a gathering of folks who follow the daily disciplines of the Cursillo movement within The Episcopal Church, a gathering known by the Spanish word Ultreya. It was a nice evening. We had dinner together. Since we gathered on the evening that the Winter Olympics held its Opening Ceremonies, we introduced ourselves by explaining what Olympic sport most appeals to us and why (curling for me because of the strategy involved). We sang some of our favorite, uplifting, churchy songs. It was nice. Then we had a speaker speak to us, Fr. Ron Verhaeghe.
That’s where it stopped being just a nice evening. Fr. Ron spoke to us – from his many years of experience as a hospital chaplain – about death. He spoke how death is the part of life we so often want to avoid. We want to avoid talking about it. We want to keep it at arm’s length. We don’t even want to say the word, choosing rather to use euphemisms such as: he passed away; she’s gone on to Larger Life; he’s gone to a better place; etc.
Fr. Ron encouraged us to think about death and to think about death as natural, as part of life, and even as a friend. I appreciated what he had to say. It was, to me, a very useful reminder of the theological truth that (being oh-so-very human) is not often lived out in our often-fear-driven lives. Thanks, Fr. Ron, for the reminder and for the jolt out of my worldly attitudes about death.
During Fr. Ron’s talk, my mind ran to a passage of scripture, Mark 9:24 to be exact. The story in chapter 9 goes like this. Jesus has just descended the Mount of Transfiguration where his appearance was changed to dazzling brightness as he conversed with Moses and Elijah. When he comes down, he happens upon an argument between his disciples (on one hand) and a crowd and some scribes (on the other). One man in the crowd, the father of a boy possessed by an evil spirit from childhood, tells Jesus that he brought his son to Jesus’ disciples to be healed, but they were not able to do the feat. Jesus asks that the boy be brought to him, and when he comes into Jesus’ presence, straightaway the spirit sends the boy into an epilepsy-like fit. With his son writhing on the ground, the father asks Jesus: “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus’ reply is not what you’d call gentle: “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” (The emphasis is mine.) At Jesus’ words, the father immediately cries — and this is the part that came to me during Fr. Ron’s talk — “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
I have a hunch that this sentiment is real and true for most of us when we think about the Church’s historic teaching about death. The Church says that dying is the gateway to life. The Church says that life is changed, not ended. The Church says that there are many dwellings in our Father’s house. We want to believe; Lord, help our unbelief.
The Pentecost 2015 issue of the Sewanee Theological Review shares an article by Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, Your Life is Hidden with Christ in God. I want to quote from the opening of her article:
“Everything has changed, yet nothing has changed. On a hillside overlooking the North Sea in the Scottish town of St. Andrew’s there is an ancient stone archway. Once, centuries ago, it was the doorway in a small church built by some of the first missionary monks who came to preach in that region. But the rest of the church has fallen down, its stones taken for building houses and walls, and now only the stone archway remains. It is a peculiar archway, since when you walk through it, it seems as though something should be different on the other side. You should be in a different room, or inside rather than outside, or perhaps outside rather than inside. But no, you are simply on the other side of the archway; it is the same, bright, clear day — or, since it is the coast of the North Sea in Scotland, the same, grey, foggy day — as on the other side. Everything seems to have changed; yet nothing has changed.”
The grave and gate of death present us with a similar paradox. And that brings us to the importance of Lent and the victory celebration that follows: the Great 50 Days of Easter.
Lent is one side of the archway. Easter is the other. Lent seems different than Easter, very glum, very gloomy, even very sad, with a side order of morose. Easter, in contrast, seems light and happy, joyous and celebratory, festive and triumphant. But aren’t they just two sides of the same arch? Aren’t they just two aspects of life and death? And are they really so different?
Lent begins with a reminder of our mortality: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Easter reminds us of our eternity in Christ, an eternity won for us, not by us, a gift from God.
Essentially, we observe Lent for the same reasons we celebrate Advent and even Christmas; we do it to live into God’s story. How we observe Lent is not as important as why. Too often Lent becomes a to-do list of things to give up or add on, of ways to make our life more spiritual by pretending the allure of material things is less, or of taking a brief hiatus from things earthly. We give up candy. We ignore the internet. We read the Bible (a very good thing!). We help at a rescue shelter or a food pantry. And much of this is good, much of this serves the purpose of any Lent observances, which is to remind us of “the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith” (BCP, p. 265).
Another way to express the purpose of observing a holy Lent is this: The Church suggests the disciplines of Lent (self-denial, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, self-examination, repentance, and reading and meditating on God’s Word) to help us grow in virtue. Virtue leads us to that which is truly good, which is God Himself. Growing in virtue, we are freed from the things that keep us from God. Lenten disciplines aid us to love more fully: we are better able to be attentive to those around us rather than being distracted by our own wants.
One of the Christian virtues is humility. At its root, humility is knowing that one is not God. Lent is the time when we realize anew that we are not God, never were, never will be.
Writer Jacques Phillippe says, “The desire for perfection is a good thing, but it can be ambiguous. What do we really want? We would like to be experienced, irreproachable, never make any mistakes, never fall, possess unfailing good judgment and unimpeachable virtue. Which is to say we would like to have no more need of forgiveness or mercy, no more need of God and [God’s] help. If at bottom our dream of perfection is to be able to manage without God, we are no longer on the path of the Gospel.”
In Lent we assume our rightful place. In humility, we recognize that we are creatures, created by the God who made us, the Creator we still need, the Source of life without whom life cannot reach its fullest abundance.
Easter, is the other side of the archway. Easter celebrates the truth toward which Lent has pointed. God is the wellspring of life, gives life in abundance, fills life with meaning, and continues life beyond the grave. If Lent helps us realize who we are, Easter is the celebration of what God has done for us.
But are the two sides of the arch truly the same? I believe they are because God is on both sides of the arch. God is with us in this life and in the next. God gives life and brings life back into his eternal presence for time without end. Lent and Easter help us see that life is continuous and that life in God is on both sides of the archway, on both sides of the gateway of death and the grave.
All glory to God our Savior!