The Lenten season returns once again. We celebrate the arrival of a newborn baby only a little of one month earlier and here we are turning our attention to suffering and death. I noted last year that I swore off social media (really just Facebook and Twitter) as a Lenten practice. It made me slightly more productive, but I am not sure I was taking on any sacrificial suffering. This Baptist boy is still trying to figure out the liturgical process for observing Lent. But news reports this afternoon from South Florida remind me that we celebrate every newborn’s birth with a recognition of their suffering and death. This Ash Wednesday, like all of them for almost two millennia, we enter the darkness not because evil passes over and around us but because we are frail, we suffer, and we die.
The death of seventeen people at a South Florida high school at the hand of a gunman becomes yet another mass death event in a nation unwilling to figure out why we love guns. The deaths of high school students rock our social values that believes teenagers live long lives, even though we have steady reminders that children die from all kinds of terrible things, including at the hands of their parents. But these spectacles catch our attention and we mark them, never addressing them completely but remembering them by commemorating the particularly distinctive ones. I am struck by how we approach our deaths. When I talk to students about this question, they recoil and fuss about my focus on dying. It is not so much about death as it is about living. None of the families of those children who died today knew they would not come home as they had gone out this morning. The living carry that reality with them. So how we live with one another matters, every day.
As Lent begins this year, I think about the turn Jesus made to Jerusalem. I have thought about this journey in an academic sense for many years. The way the Gospel writers emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ ministry has fascinated me. All four of them have a clear turning point where Jesus realizes he has to go to Jerusalem. What were those days like? What did his mother think about that moment? Why do his friends seem so oblivious to his teachings? And again, what were the days like? Jesus heads toward Jerusalem knowing he will not make it back to Nazareth or Galilee. He turned to face his death, but he focused on life and all that it beholds.
This Lenten season may the sacrifices be real, so that we focus on our living. The yearly reminder that we die should heighten in us not a dread or fear but an understanding that we must live fully into God’s kingdom. I’ll forego Facebook and Twitter but my Ash Wednesday practice of praying for the people who died today serves to help me understand that Lent is not about giving up but embracing, even if that embrace causes such deep pain and loss.