The Freedom to Die: A Holy Week Reflection

Nature has the freedom to die.

Dead trees black. Branches of the tree was dead when the sunset

That was my reflection after spending an hour or so hiking among the trees that surrounded the retreat center, trees that were devoid of color, of fruit, of beauty. Nature has the freedom to die.

A little bleak, I grant you. My wife thought so, at least. But the exercise was to discover what nature might teach us about true freedom. And I, arguably a little too engaged in Lent, was already thinking towards Holy Week, the Triduum and Easter.

My wife and I were on a discernment retreat for individuals who had completed one or more years of service. Some of the retreatants were still in their service year; others, like me, had completed our service years ago. It was a gathering of young adults, a group that shared glimmers of a common experience that might shed light on what was to come.

I was not the only one there to comment on the apparent death so prevalent in the natural world around us. Many of my fellow retreatants commented on how the changing of the seasons expressed a freedom that we might all seek. Trees shed their leaves confident that, after a period of cold, dark winter, new life will bloom. This freedom—grounded in trust—is what we might hope to achieve, if we were to take a lesson from the trees—and from Jesus.

After all, that’s what we see in Jesus on the cross, right? We quite literally see the freedom to die. We see Christ who, shedding all trappings of riches, honor and pride, accepts whatever is to come—even if that is death, the apparent failure of his earthly mission. He freely gives his life, completely trusting in God.

As we enter Holy Week with our sights set on the cross, it’s worth reflecting on what keeps us from such radical freedom. After all, isn’t that what our Lenten fasting was all about? Don’t we enact some form of self-discipline so as to be more available to God’s call in our lives?

But it’s not all about us, right? It’s not all about me. Among retreatants who had dedicated years of their life to the service of others, that was abundantly clear. After all, Jesus freely gave his life for his friends, for all of us. And, if we return to those early Lenten readings from Isaiah 58, we remember that the fasting God desires is one that frees the oppressed, feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, has a positive social impact. Our Lenten fast—our quest for internal freedom—we discover is really a dying to self so that we might better lift others up.

Now, as we reflect on what our Lenten journey has meant for us, we hear the words of Isaiah anew while keeping our eyes fixed on Christ on the cross. How can we ensure that our own Lenten sacrifices will lift up those in most need?

A challenge, then, is this: As we look back on our 40-day journey, where have we been moved to lift up the needs of others over our own? How might we carry this radical freedom through Easter and beyond?

Eric Clayton

Eric Clayton works at Catholic Relief Services as part of the U.S. Church Engagement Division. He holds an MA in international media from American University and a BA in international studies and creative writing from Fairfield University. He currently lives in Baltimore with his wife and hedgehog.