Years ago, at an Ash Wednesday Mass, the homilist made a lasting impression on me by observing that Lent is meant to interrupt us, to stop us in our tracks and direct our focus to mysteries that run beneath the preoccupations of our daily routines. So, this year as usual, we began the holy season signing our foreheads with ashes and being reminded of the dust-to-dust nature of our earthly journey.
Now that Lent is drawing to a close, the liturgy offers us not ashes but palm branches as symbolic accompaniment to the Gospel account of Jesus’ final days on Earth. This, too, should stop us in our tracks: The passion and death of Jesus are not pious abstractions but historical facts. Our belief in the incarnation, coupled with the reality of Jesus’ death on the cross, reveals that God is with us as a fellow traveler, sharing our finitude, our dust-to-dust destiny. Having been schooled in the primacy of the resurrection, we may be tempted to give the stark fact of Jesus’ death less attention than it deserves.
A recent occurrence at my place of ministry became an unexpected opportunity for me to engage this challenging aspect of our faith. Arriving for what we thought would be a normal workday at the hospital, we learned that one of our security officers—a 47-year-old married father of five—had died suddenly at his post in the early hours of the morning. The shocking message spread through the staff quickly. The sense of loss was palpable and inexorable. Hundreds of us formed an honor guard in the corridors as our coworker’s body was reverently borne away from us. For several minutes, we stood shoulder to shoulder in a silence so profound that it seemed to “speak” its own message. Language is a gift that allows us to communicate and relate to others, but silence (speechlessness) can be a gift, too—a gift that enables communication and communion when compassion is the only answer we have.
My meditative mood stayed with me as I returned to my office. On the wall, there is a print of Michelangelo’s most famous Pietà—a reproduction of the exquisite white marble sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica. I took in that familiar image as if seeing it with new eyes: The Mother of Sorrows showing us the fruit of her womb—not yet victorious, but a lifeless body on its way to burial.
Our belief in eternal life clashes with actual death, especially the death of someone we love. A large measure of the suffering we call grief is our struggle to re-compose and re-shape the hard evidence of death, and to reconcile it with the promises of faith. Lent concludes with a reminder that the only way out is through—through, with and in the One who died for us. Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears, we count on our Holy Mother’s prayer for us: That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.