While Christmas is the time when Christ comes into our world, Lent and Easter, in contrast, remind us when we will meet God 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. As a family, we visited the family burial plot we purchased in the site adjoining the priests’ at Notre Dame. It was a beautiful day with no clouds. We want our family to remember to anticipate the day of our return to God. We chuckled about our neighbors, the view for visitors and the bonus of a football game nearby.
Such preparation 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 preplanning of liturgy.
Lent brings a different kind of preparation. It 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 we are not the creator and sustainer of our lives.
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 righteousness are off the mark. When we are aware of our capacity for mistrust of God and secret self-idolatry, we can look on our neighbors with compassion.
The practice of almsgiving expresses this basic spiritual disposition. It is not just a sentimental commitment to "nice thoughts and kind vibes" toward our neighbor, but a nod of mutual understanding between one beggar and another.
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.
We look to the cross and realize that God 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. 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 also is buried once and for all.
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.
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Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services. She wrote this column with her son, Justin E. Bartkus.