The End of Life Means Its Beginning
The End of Life Means Its Beginning: Reflections on Ash Wednesday and Lent
There is no reason beyond our human condition that we should be mortal, but we are. Some organisms have lived for thousands of years and some do not undergo the same aging process, known as senescence, as humans. Scientists are trying to extend life by extending the resistance of telomeres during the cell division process. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres, which retain important genetic information about each cell, is “clipped” and the chromosomes have difficulties replicating the next time. Eventually, the process leads to the death of cells and therefore the death of the organism. The biblical narrative about the expulsion from the Garden of Eden so that we might “not take and eat from the tree of life and live forever” is simply an ancient explanation of why we, as humans, die. Is there another reason that death is something that should be a necessary component to human life?
The myth of the vampire is the story of immortality at the cost of quality of life. It is trading length of life for quality of life, a kind of life that has an insatiable appetite for feeding off of others and not being able to exist during daylight. It is a gruesome kind of life. But life as mortal should be a life that not only understands our limitations and also sees those limitations as life giving. In other words, because I cannot live forever, I have the opportunity to flourish in this life. By flourishing, I mean to grow personally and to give to others. I am to value my own time, but also my time with others in whom I have the blessing to encounter. Each day is a day of welcomed opportunity to know someone and enter into the richness of the human experience. However, not every day is like that. Some days I just fight Houston traffic or have arguments with my spouse or clean up the mess the cats and dog have made. However, these days also remind me of my mortality, that my control is limited, that my life is limited.
Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent help us to sit with our limitations. In a culture that says we can do anything we want, Lent says it is all right that we can’t. It is not that we should settle for mediocrity or give up when we fail, but it is that we should know that we are mortal people, and not gods. This is a good thing; it helps us to embrace a quality of life that is given to us each day. In a society that does not welcome death, where we shun old age and celebrate youth, we have also lost the ability to live well. Because many youth think that they will live forever, their time is wasted on pursuits that do not last. However, the young people I know who have encountered death, disease, hardship, and other death dealing experiences have a chance to see their lives as valuable and make the most of their time. Their lives are not filled with trying to alleviate boredom or flee from difficulties.
As I enter this season of Lent, I am reminded of my failures as well as my successes. I am reminded of my limitations and the many opportunities that I have been given. I have been reminded that life does not only come with the consequence of death, but that even in death I can find a great gift. This life does mean something. It is given meaning because like any good story, it has a beginning and an end, and I have been given the chance to live out that story.
Also see TWOTP series “Forty Days: A Journey Through the Desert of Lent” and “Sitting in the Darkness: Growing Through” for more about Lent.