As Catholics, we encounter few more ominous phrases than the one we will hear today, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. It’s one of the most overt in a grouping of Catholic phrases we can collect under the heading of “self-evidently true and deeply unpleasant” along with “memento mori”.
Of course we know we will die, and that we will return to dust. How could we not, especially after this past year? Between the pandemic, the accompanying isolation, and the regular, but tragic accidents and events of life, many if not most of us have lost someone we love.
It can be tempting, and I think for many of us, normal, to retreat from this reality. When we are confronted with loss, mourning, and our own suffering, the natural reaction is to retreat, to consolidate what we have, and protect ourselves from further harm.
But, as I am often reminded when I go to confession. We aren’t called to do what is natural. We’re called to the supernatural. We are called, in all things, to become like Christ, to conform ourselves to his life.
This means that we cannot run from our dusty-ness, or our suffering. Instead, we are called to imitate the One who, with the free choice not to do so, chose to be dust. In Lent, much as in Christmas, we remember the incredible truth that God became incarnate, only now we recognize why.
Christ came to suffer. He came to feel hunger, loss, boredom, betrayal, and abuse. He came to mourn a loved one’s death and to thirst, and experience mental anguish at an intensity the vast majority of us will thankfully never even approach. Incredibly, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos and Son of The Father, chose to live as one of us so that he could die. Jesus Christ not only chose to suffer, he chose the most suffering available.
Why did he do this? As St. Paul acknowledges in Romans, it seems to make no sense. He says that “even for a good man, a person is not willing to die”, except in extreme cases, and we who constantly betray, reject, and take for granted the One who Suffered would not, in the cosmic sense, count as “good”.
Christ entered the world to suffer purely out of love, and out of an acknowledgement of the seriousness of our situation. He chose our suffering because he understood the depth of our sin, not in spite of it.
So, how do we, flawed and frail as we are, conform ourselves to this man? How do we follow the path of the suffering Christ? The Church offers us some guidelines, which I want to commend to you here.
1. Confess your sins.
Returning to the beginning of this article, there is another self-evidently true and deeply unpleasant phrase that I did not mention: I am a sinner (and so are you). In order to follow Christ’s example, one of our first steps has to be to acknowledge the reality and weight of our sins, and ask for God’s forgiveness. The Church demands precious few things from Her children, but one of them is to make a Confession during the season of Lent for exactly this reason. If we are going to follow Christ to his Cross, we have to understand why he must go there. We have to come face-to-face with ourselves yelling “crucify Him” during the passion. We need to know our sins, and to have them forgiven. So find an examination of conscience (like this one) and receive our Lord’s forgiveness.
How else can we follow Christ? The only thing that makes sense is for us to enter into suffering that we otherwise would not experience. This means that we, as the Church says, should give of our need, not of our excess. This will look different for each of us, but it’s helpful to ask “does this fast or practice of giving force me to make decisions I usually don’t have to?” For a college student, that may look like giving money until we can no longer eat out regularly, for others, that may mean something entirely different. No matter what we give or give up, we should do so to follow Christ taking on “unnecessary” burdens, rather than simply to check a box comfortably.
3. Offer it up.
While Lent is famously a period of mourning, penance, and fasting, there are still many graces to be received. One of the best ways to enter into Lent and build a habit of generosity for the future is to offer the graces you will receive for another, whether it be a loved one, a relative, or even someone who has hurt you (or all three, as is often the case). We can imitate Christ not only in our suffering, but in the way and the why we follow God, always for others, never for our own benefit.
We here at Konza Catholic wish you, dear reader, a very grace-filled Lent. We will be praying for you all, please be praying for us and for the work we are doing here at St. Isidores.
Andy Brandt is a Staff Editor, Producer, and General Ne’er-do-well at Konza Catholic. You can find his writing on Catholicism, Justice, and Politics here.