Gratitude in the Ashes

Reflection for the first Sunday of Lent
This story is included in these collections
Benjamin West, ‘Moses Shown the Promised Land,’ 1801 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James W. Fosburgh, by exchange, 1969)

 

My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as an alien.” –Deuteronomy 26:5

Last week I was on the set of a movie my husband and I developed and produced. We needed pictures of deceased family members for a few scenes, and instead of having production design source stock images, I brought in photographs of my own family members. My maternal grandfather made a cameo by way of one of these photographs. As a crew member admired the images, he asked if my grandfather had ever visited the States. The question gave me pause, because visiting implies a vacation. My grandfather had come many times throughout his life from Mexico, for a long time as a bracero, working the fields in central California, and in his later years to work service jobs during summer. He vacationed only once, visiting us when I was in high school, and my family fondly remembers his jokes about his experience of “doing nothing.” I know that my mother, who immigrated to this country and sacrificed a life with her ten siblings and parents, remembers his visit tenderly and is grateful that she could give him that. I was caught off-guard by that crew member’s question, because giving a detailed response can cause sadness—sadness over my grandfather’s life of difficult labor, and over my own growing up away from him and the rest of my family. Answering a question like that can also raise feelings of guilt, a guilt felt by many like me who grew up separated from their families because their parents chose to leave Mexico for a chance at a better life.

Thoughts of my grandparents and my parents’ immigration and labor stories always trigger my generational traumas, but within that pain there is also a deep sense of gratitude and wonder at what love is capable of. On this first Sunday of Lent, the first reading from the book of Deuteronomy 26:4-10, Moses expresses the collective wounds of exile and oppression:

My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as an alien…When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us, imposing hard labor upon us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers (Deuteronomy 26:5-6).

Moses reminds his people that God heard their cry and saw their affliction.

In his sermon, Moses reminds his people that God heard their cry and saw their affliction, toil, and oppression, and that God brought them out of Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey. It is on this basis that Moses exhorts us into worship. These can be difficult words because in many ways we do savor the life-giving “milk and honey,” but in so many other ways we are still calling out to God. As I reflected on Moses’s words, I thought not only of my own family’s immigration story but of the more than 1.2 million refugees who have left Ukraine, and who will now bear the pain that comes with leaving their home, the place where their culture is fully experienced, and family members who have stayed behind. This on top of the trauma of war. They mourn a great deal, and we are yet to see the repercussions of their exile. Their experience will become part of the collective trauma of human history.

This first Sunday of Lent begins with the end of the season of Lent already in mind, and perhaps that’s exactly what we need to hear at this moment, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues. At the Easter Vigil, we will hear proclaimed in the readings our salvation history, which promises God’s liberation. Moses in his sermon in Deuteronomy does the same. Our salvation story doesn’t promise that we will not suffer, but it does promise that God’s grace is always present.  The Kingdom of God is still promised, and the Kingdom of God is still here.

Moses reminds us that returning to the moments of deep consolation leads us to rest in the presence of God. This Lent, amid the ashes of my own family history, of what we have lived in the past two years, and of the war that is unfolding, I choose gratitude for what God has done, and I trust that the Spirit will inspire in us the wisdom to know what is needed to process our trauma and how to bring about peace.

This is the first in a series of reflections for each Sunday of Lent. You can read the others here.

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Also by this author
In Awe of All People
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