Death and resurrection are basic themes of the Catholic Lenten observance. The oblation of Christ on the Cross is the central image.
How then do we perceive death ? Hegel says that death can be interpreted as a mere natural fact, pertaining to man as organic matter, or death can be seen as the telos of life, the distinguishing feature of all human existence. In Hegel’s words:
If death appears as an essential as well a biological fact, ontological as well as empirical, life is transcended even though the transcendence may not assume any religious form. Man’s empirical existence, his material and contingent life, is then defined in terms of and redeemed by something other than itself: he is said to live in two fundamentally different and even conflicting dimensions, and his “true” existence involves a series of sacrifices in his empirical existence which culminate in the supreme sacrifice – death.
In other words, we choose, as followers of Christ, to give meaning to death. Death becomes a transcendent and transformative experience, as we are redeemed by the Redeemer. In a broad sense, we need to “die” to ourselves (our worldly desires, ambitions, values etc.) , before we can be reborn in Christ.
Thus, in Romans 6: verses 5 -11, we are reminded:
For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. If then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him. Knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him; as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, consider yourselves as being dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
The Resurrection liberates us from the bondage of sin, and we are free, if we choose, to live a new and sanctified life. But we have to choose to be resurrected with Christ. For me, this is the core of the Lenten experience. As explained by Fr. Thomas Keating:
Our experience of Lent is a renewed confrontation with our mixed motivation, weakness of will, and lingering bondage to the influences of our cultural conditioning and prepackaged values. Lent invites us to come forth from that bondage into the freedom that the resurrection of Jesus transmits to us.
And what does the Cross mean to us ? According to the controversial mystic Thomas of Kempis in his classic work on Christian devotion, The Imitation of Christ, it represents the Oblation of Christ on the Cross, and a Full Forsaking of Ourselves:
As I offered Myself willingly to God the Father for your sins with hands outstretched and body naked on the cross, so that nothing remained in Me that had not become a complete sacrifice to appease the divine wrath, so ought you to be willing to offer yourself to Me day by day in the Mass as a pure and holy oblation, together with all your 232 faculties and affections, with as much inward devotion as you can.
Offer yourself to Me, therefore, and give yourself entirely for God–your offering will be accepted. Behold, I offered Myself wholly to the Father for you, I even gave My whole Body and Blood for food that I might be all yours, and you Mine forever.
But if you rely upon self, and do not offer your free will to Mine, your offering will be incomplete and the union between us imperfect. Hence, if you desire to attain grace and freedom of heart, let the free offering of yourself into the hands of God precede your every action. This is why so few are inwardly free and enlightened–they know not how to renounce themselves entirely.
My word stands: “Everyone of you that doth not renounce all that he possesseth, cannot be My disciple.”
If, therefore, you wish to be My disciple, offer yourself to Me with all your heart.
I do not mean to imply that the foregoing beliefs and aspirations are not shared by the other branches of Christianity, Islam, Judaism or the other great religions of the world. We all aspire to one goal: Freedom. The late Trappist monk and social activist, Thomas Merton, eloquently expressed this longing and our frustrations in attaining it, and warns as of the consequences of not rising to the challenge:
Freedom from domination, freedom to live one’s own spiritual life, freedom to seek the highest truth, unabashed by any human pressure or any collective demand, the ability to say one’s own “yes” and one’s own “no” and not merely echo the “yes” and the “no” of state, party, corporation army or system. This is inseparable from authentic religion. It is one of the deepest and most fundamental needs of man, perhaps the deepest and most crucial need of the human person as such: for without recognizing the challenge of this need no man can truly be a person, and therefore without it he cannot fully be man either. The frustrations of this deep need by irreligion, by secular and political pseudoreligion, by the mystiques and superstitions of totalitarianism, have made man morally sick to the very depths of his being. They have wounded and corrupted his freedom, they have filled his love with rottenness, decayed it into hatred. They have made man a machine geared for his own destruction.