I try to read Lent books every year and spent the afternoon browsing my local Waterstones for this year’s selection. En route to the religion section, I chanced upon a table full of books about death: death from the perspective of a surgeon; the memoirs of an undertaker; collections of writing about death etc. The notice on this table had as its central feature a quotation (I can’t remember who it is from): “it is only mortality that gives meaning to life”.
Like Death Cafes, these are secular attempts to terms with the reality of our mortality. As such they are no bad thing, and certainly good deal better than the culture of repression and euphemism that has been a stable feature of particularly English and American culture for centuries. Yet there is a sense in which we can never fully come to terms with death. Built into the fabric of our materiality, it nonetheless confronts us as something alien. It is an end: the frustration of hope, the fracturing of relationships, the loss of the familiar. There is ultimately no sense to be made of it, because it marks the absence of sense. To move on from here would take a miracle, which is precisely what Christianity holds out to us.
Lent is, I think, a way of practising death. Its denials are lettings go of the things of life in anticipation of that final letting go which, in virtue of our baptism, we can now undergo trustfully. Whilst our faith points beyond death, our nature still fears it, and we cling superstitiously to possessions and position, in the hope that we might somehow cheat our own cosmic irrelevance and make a permanent mark on the universe. Through giving up time, food or comfort during Lent we try, under grace, to break the grip of these attractions. Indeed in a way we attempt to loosen our grip on life itself. For anyone who wants to save their life must lose it.