Reading Flannery O’Connor & Reflecting on Lent, Part 1
This is the message of Lent. We are not called to sacrifice for Jesus in order to earn our salvation. Rather, we are called to remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us.
In many ways, Lent is a time to confront the reality of our own mortality. We are finite beings, and we will one day die. This can be a frightening realization, but it can also be a liberating one. When we acknowledge our own mortality, we are forced to confront what really matters in life and to seek a deeper relationship with God.
A powerful literary illustration of Jesus’ sacrifice comes from author Flannery O’Connor. In her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a family is on a road trip when they encounter a group of criminals. The grandmother, who is a deeply flawed character, tries to manipulate the situation to save her own life. In the end, she is unable to escape the violence and is killed along with the rest of her family.
This story is often interpreted as a commentary on the human condition and the ways in which we are all flawed and vulnerable. But for O’Connor, it is also a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice. Like the grandmother, we are all flawed and imperfect. We try to save ourselves through our own efforts, but ultimately, we cannot escape the violence and suffering of the world.
In Martin Luther’s theology this is known as the “theology of the cross.” Luther believed that the cross was the ultimate expression of God’s love for humanity because it showed that God was willing to suffer and die alongside us. Unlike the “theology of glory,” which focuses on human achievement and success, the theology of the cross recognizes the depth of our own sinfulness and the power of God’s love to give us hope of a new life in the midst of death.
In the Gospels, we see this theology of the cross in action. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was not a triumph of human achievement but a radical act of love and self-giving. He did not save himself but instead offered himself up as a sacrifice for the salvation of the world. As he said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
The darkness and violence of the world are a reminder of our need for redemption and of the power of God’s love to change the life of even the most self-destructive and wounded people.
This sacrifice is at the heart of Lent. We are called to remember Jesus’ death and resurrection and to reflect on the ways in which this sacrifice has changed our lives. As O’Connor wrote in her essay “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” “The Catholic writer sees the human being as a creature in search of redemption, and Christ as the one who offers it.”
In our own lives, we often struggle with the tension between faith and the reality of life. And we may sometimes be criticized by others for focusing so much on dark and violent subjects such as suffering and death and for not portraying a more optimistic view of the world. But the darkness and violence of the world are a reminder of our need for redemption and of the power of God’s love to change the life of even the most self-destructive and wounded people.
This is the message of Lent. We are not called to sacrifice for Jesus in order to earn our salvation. Rather, we are called to remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us and to receive that sacrifice through the work of the Holy Spirit, who sends us preachers to announce the good news of Jesus’ sacrifice and death for our sin, even if they have to shout it out to the world and draw startling pictures of Jesus for their hearers.
As O’Connor wrote in her essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”
Also, during Lent, we are called to remember that Jesus’ sacrifice was not just a one-time event but an ongoing reality that shapes the course of our lives. Jesus is and always has identified himself to us as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
In O’Connor’s story “The River,” for example, a young boy named Harry Ashfield is taken to a river by a babysitter who hopes to baptize him. Harry is initially hesitant, but when he is plunged beneath the water, he has a profound spiritual experience. The river, which had previously seemed dangerous and frightening, becomes the place where Harry experiences the cleansing power of God’s forgiveness and love through baptism.
This story, like so much of O’Connor’s writing, is a reminder that God’s love is always present, even in the darkest and most challenging moments of life. That’s why Christians continue to observe Lent year after year until Jesus’ return.
As we reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice during Lent, then, we remember that we are not alone in this world. God is our Emmanuel, which means he is with us every step of the way, showering us with his grace, forgiveness, and peace even in the midst of our sin and death.
Finally, O’Connor offers this profound statement that encapsulates the season of Lent:
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
During Lent, we confront the truth of Jesus’ sacrifice and receive it as a gift that changes our lives. We remember that even in the darkest moments of our lives, God’s forgiveness and love are always present, offering us hope, redemption, and salvation. May this Lenten season be a time of profound reflection for all who read, reflect, preach, and focus on Jesus’ path to the cross, which reveals to us sinners the profundity of his sacrificial love and grace.