The ONE Thing Necessary: Lent is for Love

"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return," the priest said. He was swiping ashes in the shape of a cross on my baby's forhead. I was 23 years old, holding my firstborn, and I think I was a little offended that anyone should suggest my little red-haired bundle was mortal.

I'm used to the idea that people die, that old people and sick people die. But sweet little babies?

Well, a few years have passed since that particular Ash Wednesday, and meanwhile I have been to innumerable funerals ("to dust you shall return"), mostly for older people, but some for young people, and even, tragically, a few for newborns. I also know many couples who grieve for babies lost in miscarriages. We are mortal, after all. Funerals and Ash Wednesday make sure to remind me of that.

I was at a funeral yesterday, in fact. I cried during the service, but not out of a sense of personal loss; I had never met Paul, the man who died. I attended the funeral to support Paul's brother, a dear friend of mine. I was a little surprised at my tears, and even more surprised to realize their cause: sweetness and joy. I cried because of the sweetness pressing in on my heart, the sweetness of seeing Paul's large family all together in church, the sweetness of hearing the Scripture readings, the sweetness of knowing the unconditional love of Christ.

The Gospel reading was from the second chapter of Mark.
When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home. Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and he preached the word to them. They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”
That Scripture passage mesmerizes me. Often in prayer, if I ask for the grace to do it, I can easily place myself in that story. I can smell the hot crowd pressing in around me; I can hear Jesus preaching; I can see the slats of sunlight breaking through the dim, stale air as the friends open the roof. I watch Jesus as he looks upon the paralyzed man, and I melt as he calls the man (and me) "Child."

The story of Jesus and the paralytic, already a powerful story, struck me anew at Paul's funeral because Paul had spent the last few decades of his life in a wheelchair, paralyzed in an accident as a teenager. Although we had never before met, I recognized Paul's family, friends, and caregivers: they are the friends I have watched so often in prayer, the friends who pry open the roof. These are the people from the Bible who offer personal sacrifices to bring their friend to the arms of Jesus. In so doing, they find themselves in the presence of the Lord. I imagine some of the friends actually being surprised to see the face of Jesus; they had been so intent on getting their friend to the healer, the obvious had never occurred to them, that they too would encounter Jesus.

Parents (and godparents, and grandparents, and teachers, and caregivers) may discover themselves on a similar journey this Lent. As we carry our children to the Lord, we suddenly realize how close to Jesus we have come.

In a flurry of activity before the anti-Internet Lenten promises kick in, the Web has been awash in Christian memes, blog posts, status updates, and websites providing wonderful suggestions for observing Lent. Frankly, I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all. The sweetness of yesterday's funeral brought peace, as it reminded me to focus on the "one thing" necessary. As Jesus says to the fretful Martha, "There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her" (Luke 10:42). That one thing is to set aside distractions to be free, free to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him, love him. Mary frees herself from other concerns to pay attention to the Lord. A couple of days ago I was fretful, tempted to think my family and I are not planning enough for Lent. Ironically, Lenten preparations were distracting me from the love of Jesus. I am grateful Paul's funeral reminded me of that love.

The "ashes" of death and Lent encourage us to free ourselves from distractions so we are available to love the Lord. Those distractions come to us in many forms, and we give up what we need to. But austerity itself is never the goal. The goal is freedom--the freedom to love as Jesus loves, with no distractions, no preferences, no conditions.

Ultimate freedom is where Paul is headed, now that his earthly life has ended. He is free from his wheelchair now, free to stand before Jesus who calls to him, and to each of us: "Child." The Old Testament reading at yesterday's funeral was from Isaiah 35. I want to keep it in mind as I strive this Lent to discover more and more the freedom to love with joy.

Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
With divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall see,
and the ears of the deaf be opened;
Then the lame shall leap like a stag,
and the mute tongue sing for joy.
. . . .
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
They meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning flee away.

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