“Keep death before your eyes daily."
This is one of the “tools of good works” listed in chapter four of the Rule of St. Benedict. Though it is only one of over seventy, it jumps off the page. It is how we begin this season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, being reminded “that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Lent has death at the start as well as the destination.
At this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has “set his face toward Jerusalem” in chapter 9, and everything until his arrival in chapter 19 is moving him slowly but surely to his destination. If I were directing a Jesus movie, this part might involve a montage of teaching and healing set to Hank Williams yodeling, “no matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive,” with Jesus repeatedly looking past the crowds over their shoulders to see Jerusalem in the distance. He knows the cross awaits him there.
And yet he tells the Pharisees—who may or may not be looking out for him—“I must be on my way.” He will not be discouraged by danger; he continues despite the cost. Jesus' single-mindedness echoes in the psalm: "One thing I asked of the Lord, / that will I seek after: / to live in the house of the Lord / all the days of my life, / to behold the beauty of the Lord, / and to inquire in his temple.” Only Jesus seeks the temple to embody "the beauty of the Lord” that we might behold it in his crucifixion and conform our lives to it. Even though we won’t get out of this world alive, we believe that we will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of living.
But the cross is not an escape from the world. In fact, it plants our feet more firmly on the ground as we journey. Christ does not long for death in order to get away; he accepts death as the way of sacrifice that truly shows God’s love for the world. And this is the way we walk, taking up our cross daily and "keeping death before our eyes.” The fact that “our citizenship is in heaven and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” means that we simultaneously belong here and do not belong here. Paul and Jesus do not scorn but weep for a world still hostile to God. Jesus’ sharp rebuttal to Herod is immediately followed by lament over Jerusalem, showing that his determination is driven by a desire to embrace those who are at odds with God. Especially during this Lenten season, we remember that we have joined Jesus on a determined journey through danger, standing firm and seeking his face. And this changes the way we are willing to give ourselves to others.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.