Melbourne, Australia

With all that is going on in the world at the moment, it feels like Lent is the perfect season for these times.

Just off the top of my head, I think of course of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the continuing struggle of Palestinians, the floods in the Australian states of Queensland and New South Wales, and the recent passing of Australian cricketer Shane Warne. And then, of course, there is the continuing impact of COVID-19.

The world is in dire straits, and it feels like things couldn’t get much worse. 

Cross draped in cloth

PICTURE: Alicia Quan/Unsplash

Recently my church gathered for Ash Wednesday. It was a time of facing the reality of death, and it seemed so pertinent. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. From the dust we came, and to the dust we will return. 

Lent is a period of solemn, sombre reflecting. At this solemn, sombre time in the world right now, Lent is the perfect season to enter into the current mood in the world. It is a time to lament, maybe even to mourn, as we remember during this Lenten period that the Son of God Himself wasn’t even spared death.

"Lent is a period of solemn, sombre reflecting. At this solemn, sombre time in the world right now, Lent is the perfect season to enter into the current mood in the world. It is a time to lament, maybe even to mourn, as we remember during this Lenten period that the Son of God Himself wasn’t even spared death."

Some years ago I wrote an article on death, and why it is that Christians need to feel sad when it comes. Even Jesus wept at the death of his good friend, Lazarus, and He knew He was going to raise Him just minutes later. But still he wept. Facing the reality of life means facing the reality of death, and it means feeling deep sadness at the passing of a loved one.

For Jesus’ disciples, it wasn’t meant to be this way. It was never meant to be like this. From the very beginning, but certainly during those confusing, solemn weeks leading up to that first Easter Day, things weren’t going to plan for the closest followers of the Man of Sorrows. 

The Jewish people had been waiting literally hundreds of years for a messiah-figure to release them from oppression, to liberate the captives. And when Jesus gave his first public sermon in Luke 4, talking about that very topic: releasing captives, preaching good news to the poor, the year of the Lord’s favour, the disciples’ hopes must have soared. But it didn’t last. It was no wonder that when Jesus started talking about His upcoming suffering and death, it just doesn’t sink in to the disciples’ confused minds.

As we hear the terrible news of suffering in Queensland and New South Wales with the floods, it is interesting that a common image for difficult times is that of dark clouds. We are told that dark clouds were over the cross at Jesus’ crucifixion, dark clouds of course bring flooding rains, and people talk about the dark clouds of war. It is an appropriate expression. Dark clouds signify a grim mood; they are depressing, sombre, and often indicate death. 

These 40 days of Lent are a time to remember how our lives are set up to try to deny the undeniable. The dark cloud of death is inevitable for all of us. But our culture constantly tries to cover it over. We cover it with entertainment, with all sorts of pain-killers. But nothing works in the end. We all face death.

When I was 16, I genuinely believed for a time that I would never die. When you are that age, you can tend to feel invincible, and I genuinely thought that there was no reason why I had to go through death. I certainly don’t feel that way today, at the age of 52, the same age as Shane Warne who he died recently.

The New Testament theologian, NT Wright, talks a lot about the necessity of suffering for salvation. In his book, The Day The Revolution Began, he makes the point that it is through suffering that salvation comes. He goes further to say that it is not in spite of, but actually because of, the suffering of Jesus that salvation comes into the world. This is why Jesus had to suffer and die. Moreso, it shows the almost unbelievable and outrageous love of God that He willingly went through this suffering and death, just for us. It was the greatest act of love in history. That’s why He said “greater love has no one, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). He of all people knows this because He demonstrated it.

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The other good news to come out of this is what Martin Luther King, Jr, said, that unearned suffering is redemptive. Good can come out of anything. It did, of course, come  from the death of Jesus. And it can even come from what is happening now in Ukraine.

War just causes a whole lot of needless suffering. Millions of refugees streaming into neighbouring countries, tanks invading cities where people lived peacefully, even Russian soldiers questioning why they are in Ukraine in the first place. As I write, I hear the words of Bruce Springsteen ringing in my ears: “War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing”.

The fact is that war is based on fear, and fear can never hold a candle to love. Talking about love can sound hopelessly naïve and simplistic in international relations. But when you see that much of the resistance taking place in Ukraine at the moment is non-violent, it is easier to see that love has more power than fear. As Dr King said, “hate [which is rooted in fear] cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”.

Yes, Lent has never seemed more relevant than it is this year. Death seems to be all around. We cannot deny it, and we must go through a period of facing it. 

In the leadup to Easter though, death is of course not the end of the story. In the end, the resurrection of Jesus answers all our questions about suffering. As NT Wright states, to the question of what is going to be done about the suffering in the world, God has already done it. The resurrection is the answer. It is the death of death and the hope of the world. And it is all because God so loves the world, including you.

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