But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. ~2 Corinthians 4:7
In the liturgical year, there is no more striking reminder of our mortality than on Ash Wednesday. Our foreheads are marked with the cross and we hear “it is from dust you came, and to dust you shall return”. It never fails to be a strange experience, standing as you would for a blessing, and receiving such sobering words; yet it is also surprisingly comforting. It is a moment of release, a restoration of place. It is the first step in the long Lenten journey, and it starts with a word of truth; a reminder of our finitude.
I recently listened to a beautiful talk on “The Spirituality of Time” by Professor Sarah Williams from Regent College. In it, she explores the nature of time and our post-modern society’s view contrasted with the perspective of the church. She makes many profound observations, but the most striking among them was an emphasis on the word “finitude.” She reflects upon the reality of our limitations as creatures, but our society’s tendency to instead emphasize our infinite choices and freedoms as a way of overcoming this aspect of our nature. She offers that the true beauty and depth of life is found when we embrace and inhabit that finitude instead of trying to escape it.
During the Lenten season, I think the reality of our finitude is worth contemplating. It touches on the personal ideas of freedom that often keep us from realizing our true freedom in Christ. The dizzying “freedom” of endless possibilities can easily be an oppressive force in our lives, denying the givenness of life and instead placing the responsibility of self-determination on the individual. We often feel that we must, by an act of will, transcend our limitations and forge our lives into something significant. We try to make ourselves big in the world, taking on a mentality of conquest. Ultimately the pursuit of this kind of freedom results in a narrowing of our lives. The liturgical calendar of the church offers a different path. We enter into its structuring of time and allow ourselves to be slowly formed by it, accepting our our smallness and seeking to inhabit a reality larger than ourselves.
It is paradoxical that freedom would be found in limitation, yet we see in liturgical life the constant transfiguration of the finite into something of infinite meaning. The water in Baptism, the bread and wine in the Eucharist, the oil in anointing of the sick. Then there is the human body, which was made holy by the Incarnation. Professor Williams describes our limitations as a framework for the habitation of the infinite; and because Christ deigned to take on human form, to inhabit the dust, we need not fear emptiness and meaninglessness. Instead, by recognizing our limitations, we put ourselves in a position to receive from Him “who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). We are grafted into Christ who, as Professor Williams says, “links the temporal and eternal”. Then we find the freedom of inhabiting our original home in communion with God.
Lent is a time to deliberately embrace our finitude and rejoice in the freedom to choose Christ. It is through his grace that we have the ability to resist the constant pull of our various passions, desires, and compulsions. Through the revelation of the gospel, we realize that it is in narrowing our lives that we make them larger. In our finitude we can be filled with His love, and our substance, just like the loaves and fish, can be expanded far beyond what we thought possible.
One of the things I love about gardening is that plants provide such rich metaphor for our life in Christ. As I contemplate finitude, I find myself thinking of the towering oak trees that line the streets in my neighborhood. They are each rooted in one place for the entirety of their existence, yet somehow their finitude infuses our lives with a sense of the infinite and unchanging. Their presence spans generations and holds memories, yet infuses the present moment with the simplicity of shade, dappled light, and the gentle rustling of leaves. In the same way, a life submitted to Christ becomes rooted in eternity, constantly filled, never empty, overflowing to the world.
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. ~John 15:5