“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ “
This passage from the Revelation to John is one of my favorites in all of scripture, as it points to what Lent, and our sorry passage through this vale of tears is all about. Yes, we will all encounter suﬀering in our lives, and we all will die. But at the end of It is Easter, a new creation. At the end God will wipe away all our tears, and even wipe away death itself.
As someone who has witnessed my parents, my husband, one sister, and a number of good friends pass away, I can tell you that I am sick of death. And I know that more death is in store, as I try in vain to brace myself for the deaths of other people I love. I treasure this passage from the Revelation because I need this strong assurance that while death and grief are real, God has promised something new and better to us. New life, even if in my grief that seems unimaginable now.
The Revelation oﬀers us a vision of what is to come, but it also reminds us that we’re not there yet. I once heard a preacher say that God must love the ordinary—because he made so much of it. And as that is the case our job is to love it as well, because God made it. And sometimes we get there.
“God must love the ordinary—because he made so much of it ... our job is to love it as well...”
During the last year of my husband’s life my ﬁrst job every morning was to clean his bedside commode. That became much easier when I realized that as smelly and unpleasant as the job was, it was also good news, because each new day meant more time spent with him. And a used commode meant that while David often struggled to breathe and needed an oxygen machine at night, some of his bodily systems were still functioning well. He’s been gone now for 16 years, and I wouldn’t mind having that dirty old job back.
But even if we believe that God has good things in store for us, we are—here and now—struggling in a world that is full of evil and pain. And it is always our choice, a DAILY choice. We can choose to receive each day gratefully as a gift from God—no matter how diﬃcult things become for us. Or we can moan, as the poet Baudelaire did, about the weariness of having to live 24 hours a day. We can choose life, or we can choose a kind of living death. And many of us waver back and forth between the two. On some mornings we’ll wake overcome with gratitude for those we have known and loved and lost, overcome with joy at the gifts they have been in our lives. On other mornings that joy has vanished and the ﬁrst thing out of our mouths in the morning is a weary expletive. On those days it’s hard to keep going with the daily chores, whether it’s brushing our teeth or engaging in prayer. Prayer can seem useless on such a day.
“We can choose life, or we can choose a kind of living death. And many of us waver back and forth between the two.”
But the Christian message is that God is with us, always, and that prayer has a purpose even when we can’t see it. One thing that Lent can make us aware of is how to eliminate from our lives those things that tempt us to distraction, so that we forget even to look for God’s presence in our lives and in our world. It can help to remind ourselves of the people in our own church congregations who work selﬂessly to improve the lives of others, so many unknown saints in that great cloud of witnesses. We can look to others who are more well-known—I think of Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit priest who is helping so many former gang members to transform their lives, giving them meaningful employment so that they in turn can help others still trapped in the gang life. I’m sure you can think of many others—saints known and unknown—who are faithful witnesses to the new creation, whose ﬁdelity to God has helped bring God’s promises to life in the world.
Some of the most inspiring of these witnesses are those who practice forgiveness when it seems impossible. I think of the mother whose son was lynched—kidnapped while he was walking in his neighborhood and brutally murdered for the crime of being black. In the courtroom she faced his murderers and told them that she forgave them and would be praying for them. Many people remember the response of an Amish community who lost several little girls, senselessly murdered at their school, and how they forgave the killer and even helped his wife after her husband went to prison.
“Turn from the noise of the world and practice listening for what God has to say.”
If we choose, during the season of Lent, or in the continuous Lent of a Christian life, to turn from the noise of the world and practice listening for what God has to say to us, we can ﬁnd reassurance in some unlikely places, among the least powerful people in our midst. I’ve long been fascinated with how young children learn—they’re more or less puppies when they’re born, with not much more than a powerful instinct to eat and sleep—and within a year or so they’re walking and talking. Even when toddlers speak in nonsense syllables it’s clear that they’ve learned enough about human language to get the inﬂection right; we can tell that they’re asking a question or making an emphatic, declarative statement. And sometimes adults get it—especially mothers. When I was looking after one grand-niece, at 16 months, and she suddenly went from playing happily with a toy to crying, her mother called out from the next room, “That’s her water cry. She wants her bottle.”
Every child in a sense is a new creation, bringing new hope into the world. And most mothers would heartily agree that the pain of childbirth is well worth it—the joy of seeing that infant thrive and grow is beyond compare. Adults have the serious task of teaching children about the world but if we listen to children we ﬁnd that these feisty new creations also have something to teach us.