(Editor’s Note: We are doing a seven-part series on Lenten Practices in an Age of Anxiety, which will run every Wednesday starting with MaryKate Morse’s reflection on lament to begin this Ash Wednesday. May this series help you enter more intentionally and thoughtfully into your Lenten journey.)
I have completed the thirty days of Sheloshim, a mourning period for the death of my dad.1 My grief journey began when the last two breaths passed from my father’s mouth to my face. And now during Lent, you and I are journeying towards the inevitable death of Jesus. I am also acutely aware that when Jesus died, no one had their arms around him, with their face to his face to comfort him. No one received his dying breaths.
So this year, walking the Lenten journey between Ash Wednesday and the cross2 is primarily for me a journey of grief and loss. I am more mindful of the inevitability of death and the futility of the world’s constructed vision for life. I am in solidarity with many of you who have lost loved ones, lost dreams, lost jobs or hope.
Learning How to Die
I stumble through each day. I’m trying to find my way with Jesus. So I think while finding my way, I have to learn how to die to the world’s false vision of life. Eugene Peterson said, “That’s the whole spiritual life. It’s learning how to die. And as you learn how to die, you start losing all your illusions, and you start being capable now of true intimacy and love.”3
All the amazing things about Jesus, his miracles, preaching, wisdom, humility, and perfect character were not enough to assuage evil’s determination to destroy him. We put him on the cross, and yet he still died in solidarity with us. All the amazing things about each of us will similarly not make a whit of difference in evil’s inexorable march to eradicate us.
So I suggest that ignoring his agonizing death to get to the celebration of the cross creates an illusion. It misses the reality of suffering and evil, in ourselves and in this world. It pretends that pain, injustice, death, and loss are not part of the fabric of our humanity. I do want to celebrate, but I also must take the slow journey with Jesus to his death. Without this, we pretend that we can create a garden of Eden in this world without recognizing the illusions we create for ourselves. This need to construct a happy, victorious face leads to our collective anxiety. Anxiety is an ancient fear, the root of all paralyzing emotions.This need to construct a happy, victorious face leads to our collective anxiety. Anxiety is an ancient fear, the root of all paralyzing emotions. Click To Tweet
I found that “anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S.,” affecting around 40 million adults—almost 1 in 5 people.”4 Even in this country and this age of accomplishments, wealth, and power, we are even more disturbed. We are more easily tricked to believe that somehow we can overcome death and evil even in ourselves.
Anxiety comes from believing we can succeed with our own cleverness or goodness, which is never possible. We all die, and then eventually we are forgotten. The sin in the garden was that we thought we could be as god and overcome evil ourselves, that we really don’t need God. The sin is the belief that we can create our own happiness, and Jesus blesses it. In the face of death, I find that I am tired of triumphalism and shallow celebration. I’m tired of our push to force political and social agendas on the necks of others, rather than lie alongside our suffering Savior and share in his grief and sorrow.
All our goodness, accomplishments, right theologies, brilliance, relevance, helpfulness, and wisdom are never enough. We march inevitably to the force of our own broken natures and thus our profound need for the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus first had to die.
Jesus knew he was facing a suffering death. Jesus carried alone in his body the truth that his death was the path to our life. Even his beloved disciples struggled to understand why he was talking about death and suffering when everything was going so well. I am sure they were wondering about this. We wonder about this all the time, thus our anxieties. Surely we can have a better outcome. Surely we can do better than our fathers and mothers. Surely we are able to resurrect faith in the church, in ourselves, and in the world when everyone else has failed. This is the lie. Only the cross, only this perfect man’s suffering and death, can purely overcome the darkness with the one Resurrection. Only our own deaths to self can lead to life.
The Lenten Journey
So how do we take this Lenten journey with Jesus as a remembrance of his obedience to death, even death on the cross? How do we die to our own illusions? I think we begin with grief and lament. We begin by companioning our Lord. He was a man of sorrow acquainted with grief. He relinquished his right to be God so that we might relinquish our anxiety-riddled striving to be as god. This is a journey of lament. We repent our need to appear successful and worthy, and the crippling emotions that go with that need. We repent our preoccupation with having it together, being accomplished, and mattering in this broken world. We repent our insecurities and fears. We cry out to God.How do we take this Lenten journey with Jesus as a remembrance of his obedience to death, even death on the cross? How do we die to our own illusions? I think we begin with grief and lament. Click To Tweet
On the cross, Jesus cried out to God with Psalm 22. Psalm 22 is a song, of anguish and then hope. It is also a psalm which presciently describes Jesus’ cruel death. I suggest that each day of Lent, we can cry out loud to God with this Psalm:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but I find no rest.
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;
I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!
—Psalm 22:1-2; 11-19
By saying these verses out loud as a Prayer of Lament, we companion our Lord as he journeyed to his suffering death. We also move from our anxieties to dependence on the only one who can give us true life.
 Catholics mark Maundy Thursday, the foot washing and last supper, as the end of Lent. Many other Christians end Lent on Saturday morning after the Crucifixion. I practice the latter.
 Peterson, Eugene. “Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons.” Interview by Mark Galli. Christianity Today, March 4, 2005. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/march/spirituality-for-all-the-wrong-reasons.html.