Memento mori. Remember your death.
In the old graveyards of New England, these ominous warnings are carved alongside skulls into tombstones as a perpetual reminder of the lurking imminence of death.
Our own Rule holds a similar reminder in the Chapter on Holy Death. “We are called to remember our mortality day by day with unflinching realism, shaking off the sleep of denial.”
And the writer of Ecclesiastes has a strong sense of the changes and chances of life that will ultimately bring us to a point of return to the dust.
Each of us exists with a certain level of awareness of our own ultimate death. Some are more keenly aware than others. There are the natural consequences of advancing age. Genetic predisposition to disease, or the diagnosis of incurable ailment. And then, there are those who because of poverty, race, and exposure to violence are made aware of their death by friends and neighbors suddenly and tragically dying.
Fear can make us death avoidant. But it cannot ultimately prevent the inevitable. Neither can love or faith cause us to escape death. Our mortal bodies will die.
But faith does point us to the greater reality of what Christ has done to death.
In this account from Luke Jesus has just healed a boy with an unclean spirit, something that seemed impossible to cure. His father had begged Jesus to heal him after the disciples had been unable. And when Jesus accomplished the seemingly impossible it says that “All were astounded by God.”
Perhaps the feeling was that now they had found someone who could not only heal the sick but prevent death altogether. But in the very midst of that amazement, he turned to his disciples, and I can just imagine him grabbing me by the shoulders and holding my gaze as he says with firm conviction “Let this sink in, I’m going to be handed over to human hands.” And, like the disciples I probably wouldn’t have understood his meaning. Then, faced with his sudden execution I probably would have consider this a failure. To succumb to death after displaying power to heal seems like a paradox. And it was exactly this that the chief priests and scribes threw in Jesus’ face as he hung on the cross. “He saved others, let him save himself.”
But perhaps it wasn’t a paradox that Jesus could heal the sick but not prevent his own death. Rather, it was a continuation and magnification of the healing miracle that Jesus could meet death, go through it, and defeat it.
In that reality, we can face death in a different way. As our Rule says, “only those who remember that they are but dust, and to dust they shall return, are capable of accepting the presence of eternal life in each passing moment and receiving ever fresh the good news of hope. The anticipation of death is essential if we are to live each day to the full as a precious gift, and rise to the urgency of our vocation as stewards who will be called to give account at Christ’s coming.”
In this faith, when death eventually comes we can approach with confidence saying, “Where, Oh Death is your victory? Where, oh Death, is your sting.” Amen. Alleluia!
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.