“Know that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” With these words, Lent began. I marked my congregation’s heads with dust, looked them in the eye, and told them that — in the grand scheme of things — they were not long for this world. To put it at its starkest: I told them to go home and prepare to die. That was only a month ago, on 26th February. The previous day the Heath Secretary had informed the House of Commons that 13 people in the UK had tested positive for the virus. No one had died of it, yet.
Lent was first created as a way of getting ready for Easter, especially for those preparing for baptism. Forty days of fasting and self-denial were supposed to mirror Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, which, in turn, was an echo of the forty years that the people of Israel had spent in the desert, searching for their promised land. In these empty, barren desert spaces, with little surrounding them to sustain life, human beings had to reckon with their own vulnerability and closeness to death. And this experience squeezed out various forms of wisdom that more comfortable periods of life tended to obscure.
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Above all, the daily reminders of human mortality were a way of focusing attention on the things that mattered most in life. Death’s presence burned away the trivial, like a refiner’s fire. Lent was supposed to mimic that experience.
This year, mimicry is not required. In locked down Britain, Lent has has universally become a period of isolation, scarcity and the constant reminders of death.
I wondered about beginning this column with the words: “The good news is that you are all going to die.” But I thought some may find this offensive, especially those who fear for their loved ones. Yet, as a clergyman, who has taken a great many funerals and so has lived up close and personal with death for over a quarter of a century, I have learned many important things from her. She has taught me to hold more closely the people that I love. That there is something so precious about the life we have, yet so often we take it for granted. That there is a beauty to the world made more vivid, more electrically alive, precisely because it is transient.
In 1994, Melvyn Bragg conducted an interview with the writer Dennis Potter who was dying of cancer. Potter was truly magnificent, flying with intellectual energy and characteristic defiance. Drawing on a fag in the studio and sipping from a glass of Champagne, Potter was doing the interview his own way. Quite rightly, he cared little about the sort of religion that offered God as some cheap way of avoiding death. But the presence of death enabled him to see things that he hadn’t properly seen before. It’s best to watch him saying it, but these are the words:
Below my window in Ross, when I’m working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying “Oh that’s nice blossom” … last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it.
Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance … not that I’m interested in reassuring people — bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.
This is not an especially ‘religious’ way of expressing the good news that we are going to die. But it speaks to me more than it usually does because the blossom is out now in my garden. The interview was conducted on the 15th March, so Potter was describing something that many of us can see at this time of year. And wondrous is the right word.
I had a similar experience this week with a tomato. I wouldn’t say that we are running out of food. But the present experience of scarcity certainly focuses the mind on the value of what we have. And this was the last tomato in the fridge, which I chopped up for our baby son. And I don’t ever remember chopping a tomato with such care, with reverence almost. It felt so precious. And — it’s a ridiculous thing so say, I know — but I almost felt like crying while preparing it.
But this sense of reverence is what I mean by the sort of wisdom that can be squeezed out by the whole Lenten experience. And if this is true of a simple tomato, or plum blossom, how much more true is it of our attitude towards the people that we love. Death is a pointer to who or what we value the most. And so we squeeze them tighter. And tell them once again that we love them. Or so we should.
Christianity has suffered a great deal from the idea that it is a sort of glorified life insurance policy, offering immortality in return for the measly premium of a little bit of religious believing. But that’s really not it at all. Not least because total freedom from death wouldn’t be worth having. Immortality is a desire driven by fear. It seeks, above all, the protection of me, on and on, into infinity. This sort of infinitely endless life could only ever end with suicide. Or madness.
See, for example, Janacek’s famous opera The Makropulos Affair — something that those who speak foolishly about transhumanism and uploading oneself into the ether, there to survive forever, could do with reflecting on more. That’s not salvation. It is philosophical trash talk and a theological version of hell.
Christianity offers the kind of salvation that takes place when everything is not all about me — when the me has been displaced from the centre of one’s life. And if that transition can be said to be an escape from death, it is to the extent that we have placed the centre of gravity in our life outside of ourselves; that is, in a place where our own personal death cannot reach it. This de-centering isn’t all about not dying. It’s about the sort of other-centredness that draws the sting from the fear of personal annihilation. And it is an extraordinary liberation.
This is a more philosophical way of expressing the good news that you are going to die. Another way is to speak of the thing that Lent is specifically a preparation for: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that takes place at Easter. When the earliest Christians were baptised at Easter, they were not just being sprinkled with a bit of holy water as if it were some sort of spell. They were being symbolically drowned. Baptism is death and resurrection imagery. The old person is extinguished, the new one born again. We are preparing to die so that we might more fully live. That, in Christian terms, is the good news.
Lent is not some morbid gothic fantasy about death and dying. The word itself comes from the old English word for the spring season, lencten. Lent, properly understood, is a celebration of life. Dennis Potter had it exactly right. It’s not so much about cheap reassurance — as he put it, “bugger that” — it is, as it were, about seeing the blossom. “Death is the mother of beauty” wrote the poet Wallace Stevens. And like Potter, I can see it from my window.
I know it might sound crazy. Offensive, even. But never before has the season of Lent felt so beautiful to me, so thrillingly alive.