Lent: Dying That We Might Live
Lectionary readings and guidance on using the lectionary
Fifth Sunday in Lent: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24
I’ll never forget walking to lunch with several young leaders after a teaching on the season of the spiritual life in which God is dismantling the false self in order for the true self to emerge more fully. We had talked about the fact that this season feels like death, and in fact it is—the death of that which is false in order for something truer to come to life.
Clearly the teaching had unnerved them, for as we walked together one of them asked, “Does everyone have to go through this painful place in the spiritual life?” I stopped and thought for a moment and finally said the only thing I could think to say: “Well, even Jesus had to die in order for the will of God to come forth in his life.”
We, Too, Must Die
This week’s lesson brings us face to face with one of the great paradoxes of our faith—that in order to really live, we must die. That before we can reign with Christ we must first share in his sufferings. That when God begins to do a new thing, old things must pass away. That in order to experience resurrection we, too, must die.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the only thing we stand to lose is the false self, which is not real anyway. The only thing passing away is that crusty old thing that is no longer useful.
Fr. Thomas Keating in The Human Condition writes, “The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of small humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come and heal. What prevents us from being available to God is gradually evacuated as we keep getting closer and closer to our Center”—the place where God dwells within us as redeemed people. Oftentimes it is suffering that initiates these necessary “evacuations”; even Jesus learned obedience through the things he suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)
A Time to Practice
Lent, then, is a time to practice dying in small ways so that when the bigger deaths come, we will know how to let go of that which is no longer needed. It is time to learn obedience in and through the things we suffer, just like Jesus did. It is a time for experiencing what it is like to have our outer nature wasting away while our inner nature is being renewed day by day.
Yes, Lord, I have to die—with you, through you, and in you—and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess. O Lord, I am self-centered, concerned about myself, my career, my future, my name and fame. Often I even feel that I use you to my own advantage.
Yes, Lord, I know it is true. I know that often I have spoken about you, written about you, and acted in your name for my own glory and success. Your name has not led me to persecution, oppression, or rejection. Your name has brought me rewards! I see clearly how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it. O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones.
Let me find you again.
Henri Nouwen, “Spirituality of Waiting”
© Ruth Haley Barton, 2018. This post is an excerpt of Lent: A Season of Returning, Ruth Haley Barton (2015, Transforming Resources).