“So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
– Psalm 90:12
Here’s a light and breezy question for you to ponder: Is it morbid to think about your own death? Is there anything positive to be gained by meditating on the certain and inescapable fact of your eventual demise? My guess is that your initial response is something like, “Eww, death. Yuck! Why would I want to dwell on such a depressing subject?” It’s an understandable response!
And yet, on this week in history when Jesus made his “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, only to be crucified on Good Friday, I want to make a case for the ancient tradition of “Memento Mori.” This latin phrase means “remember that you are mortal” or “remember that you must die” and the idea can be found in Plato, the Stoics, and Seneca. A second century Christian tradition told of how a Roman servant was given the task of repeating these words to a victorious general as he paraded through the city.
In medieval Christian practice, spurred on by the high mortality rates during the Black Death, Memento Mori was practiced as a way of considering the vanity of human pride and the transient nature of earthly goods and pursuits. The idea was (and is) to turn one’s thoughts to one’s eternal prospects and one’s relationship with God. When you see Christian art with a skull placed somewhere in the painting, the artist is making a gesture toward Memento Mori.
For more than a decade, I’ve made it a practice to participate in an Ash Wednesday service at the start of the season of Lent. One of the most memorable moments at such services is going forward for the imposition of ashes, when a cleric rubs ashes in the form of a cross on my forehead and intones, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is a Memento Mori gesture, but far from being morbid, it provokes in me the ardent desire to live my life well, to be God’s person in the present moment, to love my family better, to minister with greater faithfulness, to seek reconciliation and grant forgiveness, and to more deliberately honor God in all I do. When I remember that today is precious because I am not promised tomorrow, that I am mortal and that I will indeed die, I’m motivated to make the most I can of today. I’m also moved to let go more quickly of petty grudges and peevish feelings that cease to feel important in the light of my mortality.
May I invite you, in light of what this coming week represents in Christian history, to take some time this week to practice Memento Mori, to remember what a gift life is, and to consider well how to wisely spend for the Lord what remains of your days.