By Carolyn Y. Woo and Justin Bartkus
Recently, a number of friends lost their parents. Their obituaries portray lives of faithfulness given to tireless service to family, community and Church. In my condolences, I note that these individuals were mindful of this eventual end and had prepared themselves through generous works, prayer and a rich sacramental life. While Christmas is the time when Christ comes into our world, Lent and Easter, in contrast, remind me of our return to God, when we will meet Him face to face.
St. Benedict instructed his monks “to keep death daily before one’s eyes.” The painting “St. Francis in Prayer” by Caravaggio depicts the saint on his knees, next to a cross, contemplating the skull in his hand. We can see the centrality of death in Francis’ meditations. The cemetery for the priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross is located at one entrance of the University of Notre Dame, with rows of identical crosses reminding them of their destiny.
My husband, David, and I brought our two sons to the burial plot we purchased in the site adjoining the priests’ at Notre Dame. It was a beautiful day with no clouds. We want the boys to remember that we had anticipated this day of return to God and that we hoped had lived our lives accordingly. We chuckled about our neighbors, the view for visitors and the bonus of a football game when they return to visit. Preparing for one’s death is common in the United States as reflected in practices such as wills, life insurance, estate planning, living wills, burial insurance or the pre-planning of liturgy.
Lent seeks the renewal of life in the context of our poverty. Ashes are a reminder of our mortality, the basic fragility of our existence, that the Creator and Sustainer of our lives cannot be ourselves. In fasting, when we have to endure the lack of sustenance, we begin to realize that our moral resolve and good will are weaker than we had thought and that the illusions we have of our own righteousness are off the mark. When we are aware of our own capacity for mistrust of God and secret self-idolatry, we can look upon our neighbors with more genuine compassion. The practice of almsgiving expresses this basic spiritual disposition. It is not just a sentimental commitment to “nice thoughts and kind vibes” towards our neighbor, but rather a nod of mutual understanding between one beggar and another.
And if Lent is meant to awaken us to our biological, moral and spiritual poverty, then Easter floods these arid channels with grace, abundance, fullness and joy. During Lent, we acknowledge the basic scarcity of our love for God and each other. But then we look to the cross and realize that here is the One who mediates between all enemies, supplies what is lacking in human love and relationship. He is the One whose perfect love enables true love to pass between neighbors. Christ beckons us during Lent to refer our mortality and weaknesses to Him, and in exchange for them, He supplies Himself as the sign of peace between warring peoples and broken friends. The violence of the world is inflicted mercilessly on Him, but with Him it is buried once and for all, provided that we recognize the greatness of His act. Lent prepares us to recognize and behold the grace of Easter. Now is the time to remember our deaths, for when that painful realization leads to repentance, conversion of heart, and love for others, we offer ourselves to God in exchange for Easter joy.
Dr. Woo is the president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service.