It’s strange to consider that we will shortly be entering the season of Lent. Strange because time seems to be moving at such a rapid pace. Where did 2012 go again? 2011? 2010? But strange also because I believe we were thrown into a spirit of mourning even as we prepared for the celebration of Christmas.
When we heard about the deaths of the children of Newtown Connecticut, the bitter taste of ash and the sting of loss and grief punctuated the coming remembrance of the first advent of Grace in flesh. Of course, there have been mass shootings before, all too common in fact. But less common than the more widespread murders that darken the streets of our cities and towns throughout each year. The Newtown massacre brought home to us the senselessness and the human loss of all of these tragedies, I believe, because of the clear-eyed innocence of the victims.
It was in the context of thinking about Lent and Lenten mourning that my mind was drawn back to Sandy Hook and to several other tragic and challenging events in the parish and larger community. How is it humanly possible to deal with such things without simply becoming cynical or jaded, by becoming more and more heartless, less and less willing to feel? Or, alternatively, how to we deal with such horrendous events when they occur in our own lives when the options aren’t so much to be wracked by pain or close ourselves off from feeling, but rather, to be wracked by pain and never move out of it, but linger within it allowing pain to stagnate into bitterness and harsh anger?
Lent is an ideal time to reflect on this struggle. Consider the Collect for Ash Wednesday, and its unflinching take on the human condition and God’s mercy:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (BCP, 166).
Unsurprisingly, given the way we tend to think about Lent, this collect reminds us of the universality of sin, our need for repentance and God’s readiness to forgive. What stands out to me more this year than in the past, however, is one word: wretchedness. Most of us have an idea of what sin is, and even more than a few guesses of particular sins we’re probably guilty of. But wretchedness? That’s a term we don’t hear a lot, particularly outside of the insult of hearing someone–perhaps in an old movie–referred to as a “poor wretch.” But this collect calls on us to acknowledge our wretchedness, meaning that it must be something that characterizes all of us in some way.
The primary meaning of the term is “deeply afflicted, dejected, or distressed in body or mind.” That seems to describe the human condition particularly well, especially after such tragedies. But recognizing the fact that we can be afflicted, dejected or distressed is only part of the story. The other aspect is that there is hope. We lament our sins and profess the truth that God “doth forgive the sins of all who are penitent,” while we acknowledge our wretchedness in the context of the hope of forgiveness and the reign of Jesus Christ, that is, because of the foundation of all Christian hope.
There is a transition that has to occur, from feeling sorry for ourselves or even bitter toward God because of our afflictions, toward a spirit of thankfulness for the good that we have experienced. There’s no doubting that this is much more difficult to do than to write about, but it is nonetheless a necessary change if we are to truly live in hope.
In his book Mending the Heart, which we read for our Advent series, John Claypool recounts the alternative responses he wrestled with following his little girls death, the road of gratitude or the road of resentment:
It came to me that Laura Lue had been part of my life in exactly the same way. She was a gift, not a possession. My mother’s words reverberated in my mind: ‘When something is a gift and it is taken away, you use that occasion to give thanks that it was ever given at all.’
That was the moment I decided to take the road of gratitude out of the valley of the shadow of grief, rather than the road of resentment. To this day I believe that gratitude is the best of all the ways through the trauma of loss rather than a spirit of entitlement. It does not in any way eliminate the intense pain and frustration that always accompany the work of rebuilding one’s life in an entirely different context, but it does take away the feelings of anger and the conviction that a terrible injustice as been done, and it opens the way for thanksgiving. Gratitude also deepens our sense of trust, for we begin to believe that the One who gave us the good old days can be trusted to give us good new days as well (Mending the Heart, 66).
It reminds me as well of Plutarch who in a letter of consolation to his wife upon hearing of the death of their daughter, writes movingly of not avoiding her memory or reminders of her:
I cannot see, my dear wife, why these and similar qualities which delighted us when she was alive should now distress and confound us when we bring them to mind. Rather do I fear lest we lose those memories along with our grief, like that Clymene who said, ‘I hate that well-turned cornel bow; away with all exercises!’ She avoided and shuddered at every reminder of her son. In general, nature avoids everything that causes distress. But in the case of our child, in the degree did she proved to us a thing most lovable to fondle and look at and hear, so the memory of her must abide with us and become part of us, and they will bring us a greater quantity and variety of joy and sorrow (Plutarch, ”Consolation to His Wife,” The Art of the Personal Essay, 18).
What Claypool and Plutarch have in common is an effort to remember rightly. That is, to appreciate and recall the joys and blessings they enjoyed during the lives of their daughters, and to avoid the corruption that bitterness brings. The pain of bitterness, brought on by a refusal to accept stewardship as opposed to possession, corrupts and permeates even fond memories with the sting of malice for injustice. Now, the loss of our loved ones, or other challenges and limitations we may face can certainly be unjust, but we have to learn to let go of a proprietary feeling toward others and toward ourselves, for we do not even belong to ourselves, but our very lives are a blessing from the Almighty.
This is very much a Lenten reflection for the Lenten season. Lent is a time of letting go. We often think of it as a time to make resolutions, to sacrifice this or that favorite thing, sometimes in an effort to reform our lifestyles and sometimes as a sort of sacrifice and reminder for the season. But Lent is about letting go of more than these things. In the end, Lent is about reflecting upon the passion of Christ, seeing his obedience and willingness to pour himself out, and coming to a place of Christ-likeness. Lent is the season when we strive to have all the dross consumed.
Lent is about learning to let go of what was never ours to begin with–including our selves–so that we can welcome and receive hope and so that we can be truly thankful for every good gift, and most especially for that gift that is eternally ours, proclaimed so loudly on Easter morn.