Today is Ash Wednesday, the day when the Church calendar leads us to remember that “we are but dust, and to dust we shall return.” Today also marks the beginning of Lent, a time when the devout sacrifice something or add something to their lives that might cause them to grow closer to God.
Lent is when we spend a period fixated on the descent into death. As this past year brought the death of my grandmother, this period of mourning and memento mori seems especially meaningful and easy to understand. The thing about death, though, and this was driven home to me as I watched my grandmother die last fall, is that it has no meaning without life. Our world is a world of defined contrasts; we understand what one thing is by putting it against what it is not. Good is meaningless without evil, love is meaningless without indifference, happiness is meaningless without sadness, etc. And it goes the other way too: the bad and painful things in our life gains definition from the good and healing things. When my grandmother died the emptiness and sadness was magnified by my experience with her life, causing her death to be much more meaningful and affecting than the death of a stranger I hear about on the news. At the same time, her death and the pain I felt from it caused me to understand my life with her in a deeper way. There is always a balancing, opposite entity that defines any experience and feeling, and the only way to understand one is to try to better understand the other.
So the church cycles through forty days of sacrifice and death followed by the ultimate understanding of life against death. Going in the other direction, our understanding of the life celebrated on Easter morning deepens our understanding of what it really means for that life to be extinguished, even for a short time. There is this tension-and-release, back-and-forth cycle of life and death in Lent, and that’s surely part of why we sacrifice things for these forty days. Our voluntary sacrifice, our voluntary small deaths, create a deeper appreciation for the contrasting life at the end of these few weeks.
With that in mind, I thought about what I can give up or take on this year that might cause me to appreciate life and death in a deeper way. Last year I tried to spend time meditating every night, but that didn’t last very long. I’m going to try to do that again when I can, but I’ve decided my abstinence this year will be from eating meat. Over these forty days, as I bring death into myself and internalize it as I try to understand it, I’m going to contrast that by not participating in the extinguishing of another life. I also won’t be eating fish, if you consider that different from meat during Lent like a lot of people do. As I dwell on death until Easter morning, I’ll contrast that by not bringing any physical death into my body. At the end of Lent, I’ll reevaluate my stance on eating meat in general and think about whether I can consciously consume meat from unknown and mass-market sources.