April 3, 2015, Good Friday – Lent Is Not About Giving Things Up – Or Is It?
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Five years ago a woman named Sarah Gray, who was pregnant with identical twins, found out that one of her unborn sons had a serious defect that would mean he would certainly die at birth. It was still early in her pregnancy, and she had to carry the sick baby to term to protect his healthy twin. And while she carried the two children, she began to do some research on organ and tissue donation. “Instead of thinking of our son as a victim,” she said, “I started thinking of him as a contributor to research, to science.”
When the two baby boys were born on March 23, 2010, Callum was perfectly healthy, but his brother, Thomas, was born without part of his brain – a very rare condition called anencephaly. Thomas only lived for 6 days, and in that very brief time Sarah held and nursed and loved him just as she cared for his healthy brother. And when Thomas died, his eyes and his liver were recovered and sent, along with umbilical cord blood from him and his brother, to researchers.
Two years later, Sarah began a journey to find out what had become of her son’s sacrifice. She visited the eye institute at Harvard University, and found that Thomas’s corneas had provided much-needed information for a study to cure corneal blindness. Fourteen different studies had used the information gathered by the scientists who had received the gift of her son’s eyes.
A few months later Sarah and her husband, Ross, and Thomas’s brother Callum went to the Center for Human Genetics at Duke University in North Carolina, and found that researchers there had found differences in the blood from the identical twins that provided clues to the cause of Thomas’s rare condition, clues that might someday help doctors prevent the condition that took Thomas’s life.
Sarah says that along with her grief at losing her son, she began to feel real pride in the gift that he was giving to so many people.
Just last month, the Gray family visited the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, where samples of Thomas’s retinas were being used for research on retinoblastoma, which is the most common form of eye cancer in children. The gift of his tissues is so rare and valuable that they showed Sarah the tiny vials that had been frozen to preserve every bit for future research. The director of the genetics laboratory gave the family a tour, where Thomas’s parents saw the log book registering their donation, and the vials labeled Med 360 that were tiny pieces of their little son. “The way I see it,” Sarah Gray said, “our son got into Harvard, Duke, and Penn. He has a job. He is relevant to the world. I only hope my life can be as relevant.”
Sacrifice seems to getting a bad rep these days. I think I’ve heard at least a dozen different people during Lent this year say things like, “Lent isn’t about giving things up.” Usually, I think they mean they want to put a positive spin on something that seems like a negative idea – surely God wants us to get out there and do stuff. What good can it really do for us to make sacrifices? Isn’t giving things up a pretty meaningless practice, just an empty tradition? But sacrifice, giving things up out of love, is never meaningless; it never fails to bear fruit.
We certainly don’t want to reduce the holy season of Lent into an excuse for going on a diet. I know how easy it is to do that. And we certainly don’t want to promote the idea that we are better than someone else because we deny ourselves something we like. Hunger and deprivation and sadness are not the secret to holiness and righteousness. God doesn’t love us better because we make ourselves unhappy. That is all certainly true. So far, so good. Score one for this popular new maxim.
And most people, when they say, “Lent isn’t about giving things up” mean, I think, that we serve our world and one another much better by actively doing things than by simply denying ourselves something. That makes sense. It is so much better, so much more productive – isn’t it? – to dedicate our Lenten energies to reaching out in compassion and promoting justice and providing for those in need, than to spend forty days fighting our fleshly desires for chocolate or pastries, or in wrestling, and not always successfully, with the discipline of fasting. It just makes sense to us that God wants us to do good works and help people.
The problem is that this idea misses the heart of what Lent is all about, because Lent is NOT about our good works; Lent, and most especially, Holy Week, is about following Christ into the mystery of his sacrifice. It is all about what Christ gave up for us. In Lent, this past month and a half, in our prayers and in our Scripture readings we have followed Jesus Christ out into the wilderness of testing and pain and shame and death. For those who have come to make the Stations of the Cross each Friday, we have walked the steps of his Passion and death week after week.
And today, this day we call Good Friday, of all the days of Lent, we can’t help but be keenly aware that Lent is ALL about giving things up, because today we honor our Lord who let go of everything out of his great love for us, who even gave up his equality with God, who emptied himself of all glory and all privilege and all power and all honor, becoming a mere servant; giving up everything he had – even to the point of giving up his own life.
Today of all days we celebrate the holiness of giving things up. People like Sarah and Ross Gray show us that sacrifice, even the most terrible and painful sacrifice of their son, can be a source of new life for generations to come. Their gift is a reflection of the gift of God’s own Son, whose death on the cross became an offering for the life of the whole world. It was because Jesus Christ gave up his place in heaven, that we have inherited a place, a true home with the Father. It was because he despised the shame of the cross, that we have all been delivered from the reproach of our sinfulness. It was because Jesus willingly laid down his life, out of his great love for us, that death has forever lost its grip on mankind, and new life has begun to spring up from the ashes.