Guest Contributors,  Path of Death

Day 22: Dying to Embrace Life

Written by Alexander Jackson

Last year’s Lent almost snuck past me. I was so prepared. I approached it with prayer, attended an Ash Wednesday service, and settled into a moderate 40-day fast.

Ten days in, my brother died of a heart attack on an overseas flight. He was twenty-nine. There were no warnings.

The events that followed eclipsed the Lenten season—a short London trip to retrieve his remains, two weeks in shell shock, and then a long stay on the West Coast to grieve with family. We got back to the East Coast on a Wednesday and attended an Easter service four days later.

But I didn’t completely miss Lent. A friend helped me see that. My family and I were in the thick of it. As my brother left this world for another, we stared death in the eyes. That is exactly what Lent forces upon us. Memento mori. Remember, you must die. It calls us back to Genesis 3:19:

…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. [1]

In this way, Lent simulates a confrontation with death. It prepares us for the great drama of Holy Week, that mighty week when death was not eliminated, but changed.

What an earth-shaking time! Long before, thanks to Adam and Eve, death had entered the world as a cul-de-sac of flaming tires at the end of life’s long road. Then Jesus came along and broke death’s claim on us. No longer a dead end, death became a glittering gateway to an avenue lined with evergreens. He paved our way to God, converting death itself into a road to everlasting life.

Mortality has become our entrance to an immortal inheritance. Final death is no longer final.

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There is another life-giving death: sanctification. It’s the progressive death of our ego in which our selfish desires shrivel under the brilliant light of God’s infinite goodness. And it, too, leads to life in the Kingdom of God.

Self-denial imitates death. Through spiritual disciplines like fasting, God purifies our hearts. Our vicious self-interest shrinks in power as we ask God to replace our earthbound appetites with a heavenly vision. The process opens us to love what God loves. God uses it to turn our hearts into highways for his Kingdom (Psalm 84:5). Somehow, that self-denial becomes another avenue to abundant life.

Fasts are audacious affairs. They train us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). In a sense, we are both seizing God and being seized by God. Knowing that in his presence there is “fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11), we deny ourselves in order to grab hold of abundant life. As Rod Dreher puts it,

The ascetic knows that true happiness can be found only by living in harmony with the will of God, and ascetical practices train body and soul to put God above self. [2]

Our spiritual efforts are attempts to reach a more and more passive position so that God can work through us. He cultivates in us a reflex towards virtue, which equips us for warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Done well—prayerfully and with prudence—fasting freshens the spirit for the fight.

Ascetic practice embodies our bold defiance against the power of death. In short, we embrace our crucifixion with Christ to shove death’s nose in it.

O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting? (1 Corinthians 15:55)

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Last Lent, I watched my parents worship even while grieving for my brother. That’s boldness in the face of death. They mourned the separation death brings, and they knew the separation for what it is: temporary.

The wilderness then and the wilderness now overlap for me. Memento mori. Remember, you must die.

So then, proceed with your fasts. Practice those holy rituals and rites that nurture repentance and contrition. Taste and see that the Lord is good, “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3), and it is the dead who sing the brightest anthems to the King of Glory.

 

1 Scripture quotations taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

2 Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (New York, NY: Penguin, 2017).

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