Snow has covered the ground all winter. All this snow, layers of snow. So this is what winter is like for residents of northern climates.
It’s not just the snow. The dripping icicles form a hump of ice at my back door. Underneath the snow is ice, so that walking on it is a feat of diligent flatfootedness.
And so it begins, these 40 days of Lent, in the bleak, the cold, the darkness of winter. In the cycle of the four seasons, winter is death. Necessary death.
In religious lingo, there is a phrase: death to self. It is a paradox because, you see, we have the freedom to choose: life or death. Yet in choosing one we choose the other. For instance.
Yesterday, as I walked along the black ribbon of tarmac that winds its way between the wide white fields of my neighborhood, the wind bit my face, tried to slither up my sleeves and down my zippered neck. But there I was, out there walking, in spite of the desire to stay warm inside my house, a cup of tea steaming in the palm of my hand, candles aglow.
I had deliberated, as I do every time I walk in the cold. I chose to exercise my limbs, work my muscles, force my heart to beat harder, breathe deeply of the fresh clean air, bring more oxygen into my blood. I chose life.
In doing so, I chose not what I want, not to cater to my craving for comfort. Instead, I chose the cold and the wind, to die to my transient desire for warmth. I chose death to self. Do you see that?
We have the freedom to choose.
Every time I step out the door to take a walk, I choose life.
Every time I tell the truth, instead of a white lie to protect myself, I choose life.
Every time I write someone a letter, rather than go on with my busyness, I choose life.
Every time I take the time to prepare a meal with fresh foods, rather than the convenience of something instant, I choose life.
Every time I stay in relationship with someone I love who has hurt me, I choose life.
If there is a choice, why choose to indulge and protect the illusion of my self? Each of these choices represents death versus life. If I lie to protect myself or leave a relationship, is that not a death? Yet it is an eroding, decaying, destructive death. A death of character, integrity, compassion, nobility. I am choosing to preserve some self-glorifying illusion of my self.
Millions of girls every year are faced with a choice: to abort or give birth to their baby. It is scary, the feeling of losing control of the self, the life they had planned for themselves. It is unfortunate that the term “pro-choice” actually means “pro-abortion.” The recent scuffle over the Tim Tebow ad during the Super Bowl made that obvious, that it’s not about choice at all. If it was, women everywhere would have rejoiced in his mother’s choice to give birth to her child.
It is not easy to choose death to self. I am not very good at it. There is a faith that must go along with it. Faith that in choosing “not my will but thine,” I am choosing life. We cannot see, at the moment of our choosing, what will happen next, how it will all turn out, the promise. It’s inward stuff.
Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal (John 12: 24-25, The Message).
What a paradox!
It is hard, on this Ash Wednesday, to even recall a time when the ground was not covered with snow. These 40 days (not counting Sundays) of Lent will end at Easter, on April 4.
April! The very word is a promise. It is one which I cannot now see, looking out my window.
Yet beneath the snow, there is earth. And beneath the surface of the earth, there is life.