By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
We know well enough that we are dust. Limitations, frailty, failures, and mortality all define our being human. This awareness, of course, is not convenient, especially when the alternative is so alluring: who wouldn’t want to “have it your way” and eat, drink, be merry, do what feels good, and avoid the depressing reality that you are more finite than the earth itself which will outlive you?
Two options are available to every human being in the light of this mortal knowledge. With the first, you treat your own inevitable end as the end of all things, and you live by outrunning the cruel dictates of destiny as long as possible. This is the option of noise and distraction, the drowning of reality in the elixir of endless entertainment.
With the second option, you recognize the end of Christ, a most inglorious death on a cross, as your glorious end AND beginning, with no end in sight. What He does to your skin and dust, the dry bones of your mortal self, is breathe spirit into them, the tonic of perfect love which banishes fear and dissolves the bonds of death. Your response to his love displayed on the cross is faith, a lifelong blend of silent prayer and joyful song.
At stake in our choice is our understanding of the nature of love. If love is simply an emotion which we feel and generate ourselves, it will remain forever selfish, an itch incapable of ever being balmed. And in the constant scratching of that itch, we will never think of anyone other than ourselves, except insofar as we calculate the pleasure we can get from them. This kind of love is always sterile and ultimately lonely, even if it excites for a time. If love, on the other hand, is the bond which unites different individuals into one body, it will draw us out of our frail ego shells and allow us to perceive that we love at all because God first “loved us, and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). A love of this sort, so perfectly expressed in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, cannot come from us, since it is “stronger than death” (Song of Songs 8:6). It can only originate in the God who IS the very love He reveals to us in Christ (1 John 4:16).
Our own end, in the light of Christ’s end on the cross, is the life-giving subject of our meditation this Lent. Our attention is drawn to the vantage point from which God gazes upon our human nature, so weak, so conscious of dust and sin. Even as you receive the mark of your mortality on your forehead this Ash Wednesday, the ashes themselves form the answer to our troubled search to overcome death: that answer comes in the form of the cross. The love which animates Christ to suffer and die for each of us is the only love which satisfies the human heart’s infinite desire for love. It alone shows us that we are precious no matter our dust, no matter the guilt of past sins and failings. It is often easier to be forgiven by God than to forgive ourselves; Lent provides the path away from selfishness and fear, and guides us gently toward the open arms of Christ, who forgives us in order that we might learn to love perfectly, without fear (1 John 4:18).
These 40 days of journeying with Jesus to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51; John 11:16) will at times be inconvenient, at times painful for the reminders they provide of our selfishness and mortality. When we abandon those at the foot of his cross, however, we will then be free to receive the love which he pours out of his pierced side for us, a love which conquers sterile selfishness and the cold tomb.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column will appear occasionally in The Texas Catholic.