The taking up of our own individual crosses is the debt we owe, not merely for the gift of life we’ve been given but for the gift of life which Christ gives us in His act of love upon the cross. Life is lent to us, but the reality of the debt is accepted and embraced in the commemoration of Lent itself. It is because life is lent that Lent is life.
The Lenten season begins with Ash Wednesday’s memento mori, its reminder that we are dust and to dust we are destined to return. Nor are such sobering reminders of our mortality restricted to the liturgy. Literature is full of such reminders. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ masterful meditation on the mystery of suffering, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” sees us as “soft sift in an hourglass.” Each of us has our apportioned share of the sand of life and there’s nothing we can do to stop it slipping through our hands. Again, it is Hopkins who spells it out or, in the context of the hourglass imagery, spills it out:
“Some find me a sword; some
The flange and the rail; flame,
Fang, or flood” goes Death on drum,
And storms bugle his fame.
But we dream we are rooted in earth—Dust!
Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,
Wave with the meadow, forget that there must
The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.
The paradox at the heart of Lent is that life itself is lent. It is not owned outright by those who possess it. If it were, we would not relinquish it when our life’s sand is sifted softly away. “Off, off, you lendings!” Such is King Lear’s exclamation as he strips himself naked on the heath, the moment of madness being the moment when he comes to his senses. Lear, powerless in the face of elemental nature and stripped of his political power by unscrupulous treachery, realizes that the very clothes on his back are but lent to him. We can take nothing with us when we shuffle off this mortal coil. We will leave as naked as the day on which we arrived.
Shakespeare knew this, as the “lendings” scene on the heath shows, but most of his critics seem oblivious of this elemental fact of life. It is, for instance, all too common that Shakespeare’s use of the word “owe” in relation to human life is glossed as “own,” an egregious error that exposes the pride and ignorance of those who consider themselves experts. As Chesterton quipped, it didn’t matter how much he made the point of a story stick out like a spike, the critics would still go and carefully impale themselves on something else.
As Shakespeare affirms in his multifarious works and manifold ways, we do indeed “owe” our lives. And this stark reality has practical ramifications. It means that life is not simply a gift; or, in any event, it is not simply a free gift. It comes at a price that we are obligated to pay. To put it bluntly, if our lives are lent, we are debtors.
This aspect of life comes to the fore in the Lenten season, in which acts of self-sacrifice serve as a reminder to ourselves and others of the debt we owe for the gift of life we’ve been given. It shows us, in fact, the very paradoxical secret of life itself, which is that life is synonymous with love. To live is to love, and to love is to live. But to love is also to die. Love always dies to itself. It lays itself down for the beloved. It knows that in putting the beloved first, it must place itself second. It knows that the first shall be last so that the last shall be first. Love is, therefore, inseparable from a dying to the self, which is itself the life by which we live. It is the laying down of our temporal lives that we may live more fully in eternity. It is taking up the cross and following the via dolorosa which leads to heaven.
The taking up of our own individual crosses is the debt we owe, not merely for the gift of life we’ve been given but for the gift of life which Christ gives us in His act of love upon the cross. It is in this sense, and to employ a double entendre, that life is lent. It is lent to us, but the reality of the debt is accepted and embraced in the commemoration of Lent itself. It is because life is lent that Lent is life.
Nowhere has this been better expressed than in Siegfried Sassoon’s “Prayer in Old Age”:
Bring no expectance of a heaven unearned
No hunger for beatitude to be
Until the lesson of my life is learned
Through what Thou didst for me.
Bring no assurance of redeemed rest
No intimation of awarded grace
Only contrition, cleavingly confessed
To Thy forgiving face.
I ask one world of everlasting loss
In all I am, that other world to win.
My nothingness must kneel below Thy Cross.
There let new life begin.
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The featured image is “Christ Carrying the Cross” (from 1590 until 1595) by El Greco (1541–1614) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.