Memento mori. “Remember that you must die.” On Ash Wednesday Christians are reminded of this unavoidable outcome as ministers of the Church trace a cross of ashes on their foreheads while commanding them to remember the words from Genesis, “Man, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
During Holy Week we focus our attention not on our own deaths but on that of Jesus. Many people attend various church services throughout the week that center on the Passion and Death of our Lord - things like Stations of the Cross, Tenebrae, and Veneration of the Cross are well-known examples. Many people read the Passion Narratives from the Gospels, and watching a film like The Passion of the Christ has also become a common practice.
It is fitting that once the fire has been lit for the beginning of the Easter Vigil the focus of the Church and all who practice their Christian Faith is no longer on death, but on life - renewed life on earth and, beyond that, life eternal. And once families gather for Easter brunch or dinner all of the penances of Lent are left behind and a feast ensues on this liturgical Feast of Feasts.
But even amidst the proper celebrations of the Easter season the specter of death remains - thoroughly in the background, but it remains. In fact, it never, ever goes away. Despite our best efforts to live as if it only reared its ugly head on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the danse macabre never ends.
In her wonderful lenten devotional guide Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, F.S.P., writes in the introductory chapter (“Remember Your Death - Change Your Life”) not only that we all must die, but that Jesus gives very specific instructions about that fact - instructions that are most often misunderstood.
She quotes Jesus from Luke 9:23, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” That idea of “carrying one’s cross” is a common one in Christian circles and is usually seen as directions on how to face the difficulties of life. When someone says, “Well, I guess we all have our crosses to bear,” no listener imagines that the speaker is talking about death. Yet, Sr. Theresa is pretty sure that Jesus was talking about death. In the verse just prior, Jesus mentions the Passion for the first time, and in the verse just after, He says “whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.”
It is the word “daily” that tends to throw people off, and it is absent from the story as told by St. Mark. In Mark it is totally clear what Jesus means and it has nothing to do with putting up with life’s daily difficulties. Jesus is proposing something much more radical: “Pick up your cross and follow Me.” Following Jesus, Who is carrying His own cross, means walking to Calvary in order to die. Memento mori.
In Matthew’s rendition of this dialogue the statement about bearing one’s cross is bracketed by, on the one hand, a discussion of persecution and division, and, on the other, a promise of rewards. In the middle is a statement much more chilling than that which appears in either Luke or Mark: “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” Either follow Jesus to Calvary, with all of its persecution and division, or forfeit any claim on heavenly rewards.
Putting up with life’s difficulties is essential to our existence, but there is nothing specifically Christian about it. All philosophical and religious outlooks have an opinion on overcoming life’s struggles and trying to attain happiness, yet Christianity proposes something much larger and much more universal. For Jesus, His followers are called to carry death with them wherever they go. The cross is much more than “hard times”, the cross is a constant reminder of the path one walks when one follows - rather than admires - Jesus.
Ultimately, we are called way beyond the pondering of death on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Jesus harkens us to a higher path, one that leads all the way to Calvary. This path that beckons us to follow Jesus is the only path offered by Him to His followers, and so, as Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., used to say, “If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood.” Memento mori.