An Untimely Death

By Nate Dunn

Published November 1st, 2020

            Death is awkward. We spend the majority of our lives avoiding the big questions, but when someone close to us has died, there is no longer any way to avoid them. Sadness pulls them in, the silence filling the void left by death begs for an answer. Inevitably, people turn to awkward, underdeveloped ideologies and empty platitudes to fill the deathy silence. They neither make us feel better nor answer the burning questions deep within our soul.
            I recently had a coworker die suddenly. His name was Bob and he loved to talk. He spoke of his children and grandchildren and about the people who lived in his apartment building. He would complain about how his supervisor had messed up or how the warehouse had not sent him the right product. I would sit and listen to him go on a rant about how he had gained ten pounds and how he planned to attack that weight, taking extreme measures like fasting in order to shed the fat. When he was alive, I found it comical how upset he would get at the littlest things. I do not find it so funny any longer. Bob is dead, and those ten pounds to which he was so committed, are ash in a wooden box. 
            It is not so very novel that someone would spend their life worrying about such trivial issues. Too afraid of human rejection to share Christ with his coworker for example. You see, I see myself in Bob’s preoccupation with the inconsequential. Bob’s death has been a reminder of my own mortality and that each person who dies is out of my reach. They have entered into eternity. 
            Historically, the Church has used a Latin imperative in an attempt to capture this sentiment, “memento mori.” In English, this means “remember your death.”[1] This has been a major ecclesial theme since the conception of the Church. You can find it in the fundamental practices of the Church as well as in the scriptures. Themes of death are found in the great basilicas of Italy and in the Churches made from human bones like the Sedlec Ossuary of the Czech Republic. Death is an intrinsic archetypal and historical reality in Christianity. 
            It is understandable that the peoples of past generations would have such a connection to death. People died much younger, they buried their own dead, they walked past the dead and dying on the street, and almost every few years, a new plague would come along and wipe out large numbers of people. This is not so today. Death is just as much a reality as it has always been, but the average person has not formed the language nor a theology to cope well with such harsh realities. Instead, we have created a wall between ourselves and death. We do not interact with these visceral realities.  
            When I was talking to a friend about how I was writing a paper on death, he told me to read a book called Tuesdays With Morrie, so I did. The book is a true story of a former student attending to his elderly teacher in his final days. The professor Morrie says that his own death brought the “big questions” so close that they necessitated interaction.[2] It tends to do that. Death has a way of taking the big questions and rubbing our face in them. These are questions with which we must contend. Too often they are not answered, or even asked. This leaves us terribly vulnerable when tragedy strikes. If we hope in unsturdy ground, or build a house upon sand, we will fail (Mt. 7:24-27).
            It is not in our nature to question the ground underneath our feet unless there is an obvious reason to do so. Only once it is shifting or has vanished do we question its integrity. The floor we choose to stand upon is called hope. We must hope in something, or else face the grave consequences of despair, nihilism, or else intentional blindness. In Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie places his hopes in two things, relationships, and perhaps more fundamentally, existing in memory.[3] Morrie feared being forgotten, a fate that cannot help but be actuated. It seemed obvious that materialism would not satisfy, but Morrie ended up placing his hope in something just as meaningless. All but the incredibly famous and important survive in the consciousness of the public for a few generations and eventually even they will be obliterated. Like the famed poet Thomas Hardy wrote in his poem, To be Forgotten,


I heard a small sad sound,
And stood awhile among the tombs around:
"Wherefore, old friends," said I, "are you distrest,
Now, screened from life's unrest?"


"O not at being here;
But that our future second death is near;
When, with the living, memory of us numbs,
And blank oblivion comes![4]


            Ultimately, you will be forgotten. Do not attempt to extract your meaning from that ill-placed hope. Your second death might be closer than you might think. Most of us know this. Even the geniuses will be swallowed up in the ever growing sea of geniuses.
            It was Albert Camus who said that there are three ways to interact with the only question of consequence: is there meaning?[5] The first is to commit suicide. Camus dismissed this as being a poor reaction. It understood the meaninglessness of a world that will pass away but he thought that it was an incorrect reaction. The second is to commit philosophical suicide. One did this by believing anything that gave a false sense of meaning. He would lump Christians and existentialists together here. Lastly, one could embrace the absurdity of it all and seek good anyways. Camus saw many things; He was obviously a genius, but Kierkegaard taught us to be wary of geniuses. Kierkegaard communicated that while a genius will always be improved upon and thus surpassed, an apostle is an agent of revelation and thus, authority.[6] 
            What do the apostles have to say about such things? I do not know if there is a better answer to this question than the one given by the apostle Peter, “for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:24-25). Add to this the words of the Lord himself, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:19-21). 
            It is only in the transcendent that we might find hope for meaning despite death. The existentialist philosophers would have us create meaning ourselves and the nihilists would have us despair, but in the Lord we find hope and purpose. Put all your hopes for life and death on the Lord God for his shoulders alone can bear the weight. All other religions will crumble into a heap of wood and all other philosophies will lead you to despair.
            We are consistently called in the Scriptures to turn our eyes on our death and the return of the Christ. This means forming a robust imagination of death, living out our beliefs and convictions with integrity, to their logical ends. But forming an imagination is not an easy task, it takes ritual, tradition, and relationships. All three of these mold our hearts and our minds. In an attempt to be practical, I will give three ways to form such an imagination in your heart and mind, prescribed by the Church and Scripture. 

Participation in the Sacraments

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’”
- Mark 14:22-24


Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’
- Mark 10:38-39

            Whether the sacraments bestow grace or if they are “mere” symbols, they usually have us enacting our own death. To drink the cup is to drink the blood, to share in the sufferings and death of our Lord. Every week, when we drink of the cup again, we are reminded of our death and the only true life that resulted from that death. We remember that we are not our own and that death has lost its sting. Now, we may look at death with defiance and power. The wine and the bread remind us of that. When we drink of the cup, we promise to share in Christ’s suffering.
            To be baptized, is to be buried. We see over and over again in scripture that we are called to lay down our lives.[7] People often ask why they should be baptized, I have frequently known Christians who have been in the Church for many years without participation in this sacrament. The reason given for this sacrament is usually that it is an act of obedience. This is correct, but it falls short of filling the whole frame. It is a public declaration of Christ’s kingship and your death to yourself and resurrection in Christ. We are buried with Christ in order that we might have life. Therefore, baptism has historically marked the entrance into the Church and thus into salvation. Without the baptism of Christ, there can be no forgiveness. 
            Next time you participate in communion realize the weight of that cup and loaf. Realize what you are doing and remember your death. When you are baptized or you watch someone be baptized, see your mortality in that act of faithfulness, and welcome another Christian to the family. 
Follow the Church Calendar
            “Isn’t it incredible saints” started Professor Michael McDuffy one class period, “how all of eternity is contained in a single day?” I remember this statement being a bit too much for a morning class. The Psalmist says it well “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). Nature cries out God’s glory if only we would have eyes and ears to see it. The morning proclaims God’s persistent faithfulness and the evening our eminent death. The Church has long recognized this truism and has sought to see God everywhere he would reveal himself. This means that you don’t have to pave a new path! There is an ancient one to follow. 
            The Church calendar begins on December 25, Christmas Day. It goes through Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and all the way back to Advent. It teaches the Gospel narrative to those who observe it. Easter represents new life as new life springs up within yourself, but Ash Wednesday and the subsequent season of Lent teaches you that you will die. So you better repent and clean up your act while you can. 
            An ash Wednesday Service goes like this. The congregation enters in silence and silence is kept until the beginning of the service. The officiant prays, asking God to forgive the sins of the congregation and lead them to true penance. A series of passages are read that remind the congregation of their need for repentance. Then, the imposition of ashes with the saying “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Next, Psalm 51 is read with confession following in the Litany of Penitence
            During the season of Lent, there is a tradition to pray the Stations of the Cross. The fourteen stations are the events of the final day of Jesus, and they lead us from the condemnation of Christ through his crucifixion and finally, to his burial. It is prayers like these that remind us of our own death and place our ever wandering eyes back on he who is ultimate. They help us to enter into the narrative. 
            With the substance and sign of their death on their foreheads, the congregation is ready to enter into a season of fasting, repentance, and prayer. The kingdom of God is at hand. This season leads us into the death of our Lord and only ends at the break of dawn Easter morning, the rising sun reminding us what comes after death. 

The Church is a Family, Watch How They Die

While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”
- Matthew 12:46-50

            Up to this point, you might be wondering why an article on death would be included in a magazine with the theme of discipleship. I will turn back to Professor Morrie to answer that one.

“We’re so wrapped up with egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it breaks—we’re involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going. So we don’t get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?” He paused. “You need someone to probe you in that direction. It won’t just happen automatically.” I knew what he was saying. We all need teachers in our lives. [8]

            The Church has always been meant to be a family. Jesus consistently replaces the old family structures with new loyalties placed in the Church. “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” he says. The Church is a family, and as one, it transcends the usual defining markers for a social group. The old and the young are joined in one body of believers, the sick and the healthy. When we live in community as a family, we will naturally see death creep near to our loved ones and see how they face death. 
            I have had two close family members die, both grandparents. Their deaths reminded me of my own mortality, and gave me an example of how to live well. It is the same with the Church. It has been my spiritual parents who have most often reminded me of my mission, when I had been caught up in life’s monotony. I think of my priest in Chicago placing ash on my head and telling me to repent for the kingdom of God is near. I think of my current pastor welcoming me to live in his home, despite the possibility that I had the coronavirus. They have their eyes on the risen savior and do not fear death. Rather, they are motivated by it. I remember my pastor one Sunday saying that because we are in the family of God, we inherit our Father’s career. That career is reconciliation. We do not know how long we have on this earth, but we do know what we are called to do with the time we have: be about our Father’s business. I doubt that when we are dead we will wish we could have one more vacation. It is far more likely that we will wish we would have proclaimed the name of God a little bit more effectively. 
            It would be incorrect to assume that we might keep our eyes on Jesus and his life and death without his Church. As we watch those who are older or who are close to death follow the life of Jesus with such attention, it reminds us how absurd this world is without God. Jesus did not hold on to life, but gave it up freely. We can look at his life and his death to better understand how we might live and die. 
            Jesus performed his entire ministry with the understanding that he would be put to death at a young age. Throughout that time, he was instituting a new family, healing the sick, and teaching his disciples what it looks like to follow their Father. It was in the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus is seen most clearly contemplating his impending torture and death. We can learn from Christ as he nears the time appointed. 
            First, Jesus was distraught. He says “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mt. 26:38). There are those who would keep us from mourning death or pain. Both here and in his reaction to the death of Lazareth we see that death’s reality deeply troubles our Lord, even when it will ultimately be reversed. Second, Jesus invites his family into his pain. “He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled” (Mt. 26:37). Jesus brings those closest to him with him. Thirdly, Jesus prayed to the Father. “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will”’ (Mt. 26:39). Jesus leaves his fate up to his Father but he does not resist sharing his fears and his desires. When we are overwhelmed with the weight of death or of pain, we would do well to follow our Lord’s example. 
Conclusion
            In this time of fear caused by the coronavirus, it is all the more important to always be ready to give account for the hope that you have. Those without hope will be taken aback by your hope. The Christian faith is one surrounded by death. Our rituals, calendar, narratives, and hopes are all found in death. To loose sight of ones death is akin to spiritual suicide, for it is in our death that we find life. When death entered the world through sin, God was issued a challenge. The Biblical story shows the grand narrative of God redeeming death and bringing life. Because of Jesus, we do not have to fear death like those with no hope. As it has been said in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Place your hopes in God alone, for all else shall pass away. 
Memento Mori

________________________

Footnotes:

            [1] Merriam Webster (Online), Accessed Oct. 27, 2020: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/memento%20mori 
            [2] Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie: an old man, a young man, and life's greatest lesson (New York: Broadway Books, 1997, Online), 47; Accessed 10/28/20: https://www.stcs.org/view/7786.pdf
            [3] Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie, 38.
            [4]  Thomas Hardy, “To Be Forgotten” (Poetry Foundation, Online) Accessed Oct. 27, 2020: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44333/the-to-be-forgotten
            [5] Albert Camus, The Myth Of Sisyphus And Other Essays Translated by Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage Books 1955), 4.
            [6] See: Søren Kierkegaard, The present age: And Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle. (New York: Harper & Row, 1962)
            [7] Gal. 2:20, Luke 9:23, and Mark 8:35 just to name a few. 
            [8] Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie, 19.

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