Mardi Gras: Lean into Lent

It was the first Mardi Gras after Katrina and, we did not know at the time, our last before heading to Penn State. Our departmental staff assistant had a house right on St. Charles and so we joined our colleagues there every year for the parades. One little girl was lifted up on the shoulders of our department head to give her a better view and access to beads. She is now 17 and we certainly could not get her on our shoulders without serious damage to one or both of us.

A lot has changed in 9 years for us and for New Orleans. Not everything is for the better, but this is the inexorable nature of life. It continues to move on, no matter how hard we try and hold back the tide.

Mardi Gras is “Fat Tuesday” a day of excess before contrition and dedication that is supposed to follow on Ash Wednesday. This month I have been leading a Sunday school class at the local Presbyterian church on “Sacrifice and Atonement” as a means of preparing us for Lent and hopefully to help provide us with a better understanding of Good Friday. E and I have been reading the Magnificat as a daily devotion. It is obviously an RC source, but the reflections and devotions are often quite insightful and in the lead up to Lent they have focused quite a bit on healing, suffering, and sacrifice.

In one meditation on the problem of evil, Fr. Kevin O’Reilly commented that

Suffering, when accepted in faith and in unity with Christ on the cross, can earn indescribable graces of healing and salvation for us and others. …the unrivaled power to bring solace to those who suffer: that Christ’s suffering won our salvation and that we can share in his redemptive work by uniting our suffering to his.

I suspect, as a good protestant, that there is some theology behind this statement that were Fr. O’Reilly and I to sit down and talk about it I might disagree with, but that having been said, it has driven me to some fruitful contemplation.

I have often said with respect to the loss of innocents like my son that I do not believe that God as caused such tragedies to happen for some “larger purpose” that we don’t yet understand. On the other hand, I do believe that we can redeem these tragedies through our responses to them or, perhaps to put it another way, by allowing God to do so after the fact, with our agency.

Yet I do not think this is what O’Reilly means when he writes about our sharing “in his redemptive work by uniting our suffering to his.” At the same time, I am not sure that I understand what he means at all, at least in any sort of mechanistic way. If my salvation has been won through Christ’s suffering and sacrifice (I know, a hotly debated topic in its own right) then how can my suffering contribute to that redemptive work? It would suggest that my salvation is not complete without some suffering of my own.

On the other hand, I certainly know that I have a different and new appreciation for sacrifice and suffering today than I had two and a half years ago. As my wife said in a recent essay, Lent is often about doing without in order to remind ourselves that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” We live in Lent all the time now, we do not need any reminders of our mortality.

It seems to me it is the work that I do to try and overcome the suffering that brings change, healing, and (perhaps) redemption. Suffering without a point is just suffering. So perhaps this is redemption in the sense not of freedom from sin, saving grace, but rather freedom to continue to live with Mack. I am not saved through my suffering, but our loss of Mack can be transformed, redeemed. We benefit from that ourselves, it is grace to us, in that the burden is easier to carry, it helps us to find new paths forward than the ones we had hoped to walk with our complete family, it enables us to “live fully beyond” his death. Thus it is redeemed.


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