I was busy all day yesterday preparing for Ash Wednesday, so I hadn’t seen the news. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent by acknowledging our own mortality and inviting us to into a 40-day journey of reflection and repentance. At the end, Jesus will die. We will call it Good Friday, so it will appear to be a celebration of death. We don’t reckon with the truth of that day; we only view it with Easter Sunday on the horizon. An innocent man was brutally tortured and executed and we sacralize it with magical thinking, we wrap it up in a cosmic bow as a gift to humanity. The lengths we will go to in order to avoid the pain and grief and loss of death. We’ll even sacrifice our own children.
Ash Wednesday happened to fall on Valentine’s Day this year, so we leaned into a conversation about love and death. We opened with a song by Death Cab for Cutie called “What Sarah Said.” The pivotal line, after a vivid description of a hospital waiting room, is what Sarah actually said: “Love is watching someone die.” Being with someone as they die is a time of extreme vulnerability for everyone. There is nothing that can be said, nothing that can be done, nothing that can be fixed. Sitting in that is devastating. Some of us choose that as a vocation, some are moved to it by familial bonds, but the people of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were conscripted into it.
They were conscripted into it by a nation that does not know how to love because we are not awed by death. Death is packaged and commodified as entertainment. It is romanticized in tales of heroic patriotism. It is pacified by clichés like, “He’s in a better place now.” Or, “It’s part of God’s plan.” Or, perhaps worst of all, “God needed another angel.” It is a terrible irony that Christianity, a faith borne in tragic death, has become the vehicle for avoiding the reality of death. If we view the death of Jesus as this cosmic magic trick that saves us all and as only temporary because of the resurrection and as guaranteeing us the same evasion of death, we enable a culture that is willing to let people die for nothing.
What if, instead, Jesus’ death was a call, not the thing that fixed everything, but the event that called us to live into a life of love? Cornell West has famously said that “justice is love in public.” If we see the outrage of the cross, we should be defiant against the powers that erected it. Jesus fought for the poor and marginalized and he was killed for it. He loved children. If we see the outrage in South Florida and do nothing but pray, are we really following Jesus? “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17.2). A millstone for the neck of every politician who who offers thoughts and prayers but does nothing. A millstone for the NRA and their Russian collaborators. A millstone for everyone whose freedom to arm themselves trumps a child’s freedom to live. A millstone for the neck of everyone that doesn’t lock up their guns. A millstone for the neck of each of us that gets tired and puts down that cross and turns away from brutal injustice. A millstone for me.
I hope that Lent for each of us is a time of reflection and repentance. I also hope that, for all of us collectively as a nation, Lent is a time of reflection and repentance. Who are we? What is the fear that drives our obsession with violence, our willingness to collude with death? Is there another way? Perhaps that way begins with sitting with the pain and terror and loss, not rushing to forget or to paper over it with platitudes. Sit with the dead and be devastated. They deserve at least that much.