Why do skeletons have permanent smiles? “The Grateful Dead” connected with this question, and make smiley, dancing skeletons iconic. Lent is upon us, and perhaps is a time to look deeper into the question of death. We hear right away, after all, those words, “you are dust, and to dust you will return”, a phrase that evokes mortality, yet immortality as well.
But one of the challenges with Lent is that we already know the story, the outcome. It’s a very happy story overall, although we know that to get to the Resurrection of Jesus at Easter, we have to first meditate, and then strive to imitate, his death, a death we are grateful for because it means our salvation.
Jesus’ death was a witness to the truth about God, the human race, and salvation. It proves God’s creation of Adam and Eve (and us) was not a mistake. Through his obedience to the Father’s will, Jesus’ death offers us a way out of the ugliness of sin and despair. The hard part is that we have to imitate this generous gift of Jesus. The Lord made this clear, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Lent, therefore, is a time of death, or as has theologically become known, a time of “mortification”, of death to oneself, to one’s whims, to one’s frivolity of life. It is a kind of self-imposed martyrdom, a witness of, in the words of Augustine “the sacrifice of reconciliation”. And because it is conciliatory, this death implies joy.
We need the Lord’s words on Ash Wednesday to reverberate at high volume through these forty days “When you fast, do not look gloomy…” (Mt 6:16) But back to the “Grateful Dead”. Though some criticized the lifestyle of the “Deadheads” (the committed fans of yesteryear), no one was ever able to call them gloomy. May our “death-focused” joy this Lent reflect in some way (albeit less psychedelically) theirs. Happy Lent 2015!