Life and death—two of the topics we think about more deeply in Lent—came into sharper focus for me at the very beginning of the Lenten season. That was partly because of the ashes that we receive. Mine were pressed onto my forehead by a priest who said, “Remember, woman, you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
There’s no escaping the stark message in that, but there was another reason that my thoughts turned to my mortality. On Ash Wednesday, I signed my will.
I didn’t choose the day deliberately. It had been a long time since I set the process of making a will in motion; I had postponed and then wrestled with the decisions that I needed to make for my will to become a reality. Now the will was complete except for my signature. I wanted to get it done, and it happened that Wednesday was the only day that week that worked for me and for my lawyer. I was delighted. What better day than Ash Wednesday, I thought, to take the step that sets my affairs in order and makes an important statement: I know that I am going to die.
A will makes that message clear. So does Lent. As we hear the Gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus’ earthly life, the Church calls us to think about our own journey through life and our own spiritual destiny. We’re called to ask ourselves where we are on our spiritual journey, where we need to be and what we need to do to get there.
I had to put thought and effort into making a will. Making decisions does not come easily to me. I know that when I make a choice, I reject other choices. When I take one road, I leave other roads behind. Signing my will was not the hard part; it didn’t make me nervous or sad. On the contrary, I felt the relief that comes from finishing an important task. The hard part was making the necessary decisions. Those decisions, and my Ash Wednesday signature, made me think more about Lent, my own life and the life of Christ.
I had fretted over how to divide what I own. Then I mused: What material goods did Jesus leave behind? Nothing, apparently, except a tunic that was woven in one piece; the soldiers who carried out his execution gambled to determine who would get it.
I will leave behind whatever money and material possessions I have acquired. A holy person—I can’t recall who it was—said that when we die, we will hold in our hands only what we have given away to the poor. That brings a new, sharp focus to the practice of giving alms.
And what of the commodity that I value most because I can never create more of it: time. Jesus spent hours in prayer with his Father. I’m looking at my own prayer life and asking myself how well I use the time that has been given to me.
The self-examination of Lent is not intended to leave us mired in self-recrimination and guilt. Its purpose is like the purpose of making a will: to lead us to focus on life beyond the present, and to make plans so that we will arrive where we want to be. The purpose of Jesus’ coming to earth, after all, was not only his sacrifice on Calvary. It was also the miracle that followed: his Resurrection. He came to walk through death into life, and to make it possible for us to follow him. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving—the practices that we are called to in Lent—are not burdens to bear, but sacrifices that end up enriching us and drawing us closer to God.
When I signed my will, I did so in the hope and belief that my death would not be an end, but a new beginning made possible by the Son of God, who left all of us an inheritance beyond price: his love.