I did not attend an Ash Wednesday service this year. I am still trying to figure out some things about “being a pastor but not being a pastor” but I was thinking about it. Memento mori is the traditional Latin phrase that is spoken as the ashes are applied to the believer’s forehead. What does it mean? Remember death. Specifically remember your death. You see the ashes are to remind us of our ashes, to remind us that we are “but dust”. As God spoke to Adam in the garden following Adam’s rebellion and our fall: “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return: (Gen 3:19).
This is not the stuff of modern Christianity in America today. Today rather than think about our death we are encouraged to visualize “your best life now”. We think of death as little as possible even up to the end. As C. S. Lewis commented somewhere (Mere Christianity I think), even in the hospitals we surround ourselves with doctors and nurses who tell us nice little lies that everything is alright and that death will be ok.
But it is a really good thing to think about our death to “remember” it because that is one of the things that prepares us for life now. We will all die, no matter how much we go to the gym, no matter how much we watch our cholesterol, no matter how much we ignore it, it will one day find us all.
That is why the season of Lent begins with these words Memento mori because it begins the time that we walk the road remembering Jesus’ death. There are those who want to have a “modern Christianity” a “more civilized faith” a “less barbaric God” and want us to move on past the old story of Jesus dying in our place but that will never do. Sin and death are not civilized and are quite barbaric so they must be dealt with and were dealt with in a barbaric death. It leads me to sorrow but also leads me to joy because I am reminded once more (and I need all the reminding I can get) that my sins have been paid for, my death has been died.
So here on the second day of Lent, with no ashes on my forehead, I am nevertheless remembering my death because it pushes me to remember the death of my Older Brother, who unlike the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, not only welcomes me back but paid the ultimate price to make that welcome and eschatological reality.
Many of us are in a rush to get to Easter, to get to the resurrection because it is the promise of our own resurrection but we must first go by the cross, see our Savior nailed there for us, hear him saying Memento mori so that we might rejoice anew in the glory of this gospel.