On Saturday, I watched good friends carry a miniature white casket up the aisle of our parish church, to be laid before the altar for a funeral Mass. Their son was stillborn last week. Our parish had come to the church to pray for them as they laid their son’s body to rest.
My friends have entered the season of Lent in a profound way.
During Lent, we remember Jesus, fasting and praying in the Judean desert. We remember that Jesus was weak, and tired, and alone, and that, relying on the word of God, he overcame the empty promises of Satan.
Like Christ, my friends will likely feel weak, tired, and alone this Lent. C. S. Lewis said that grief feels much like fear, and I suspect they’ll sometimes feel afraid. He also said that grief is an amputation, and I suspect they’ll sometimes feel crippled.
And like Christ, my friends will face temptations. They may be tempted to turn on each other. They may be tempted to turn from God. They may be tempted to pretend they don’t need help—human or divine—when, in fact, they surely do. I suspect my friends will overcome those temptations, by grace. But if they don’t, I know they’ll seek God’s mercy, and I know he’ll give it freely.
During Lent, most of us offer up small sacrifices—pittances, really—to spend more time in prayer. We limit our comforts, just a little. We give alms, usually from our excess, and rarely from our need. And somehow God, in his mercy on us—his pity for our pitiful sacrifices—gives these tiny sacrifices meaning, and uses them to draw us closer to him.
Sometimes, though, we see Lent as a proof of our endurance, an annual test of our strength and resolve as believers. It is easy to think that during Lent, our little sacrifices take us out into the desert to be with Christ. We don’t readily see that Christ is the one who has come out into the desert, to be with us.
We often have trouble admitting that we are already in the desert, already weak and without food, and already tempted. Often we forget that Christ conquered temptation not for himself, but for us—so that we can rely on him to conquer Satan’s lies, which are whispered to us in the moments of great suffering, in the desert of this life.
Lent, at its best, is a discovery that Christ is already next to us. We silence our distractions to discover the Lord’s love, his steadfast presence, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
My friends have been driven into the desert of loss this Lent; I hope they will find that Christ is there with them. I hope that in their weakness, they will encounter the savior who can “sympathize with our weakness,” who “in every respect has been tempted as we are.”
Many of us are in deserts of loneliness, or mourning, or despair, or fear. We are thirsting for living water. I hope this Lent we will find the Christ who has come out to the desert to meet us.
J. D. Flynn is a canon lawyer in Lincoln, Nebraska.