Memento Mori: Facing Death in the Faith of Christ

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Many classical portraits, like Carravagio’s famous painting of St. Jerome (see above), depict great men at their desks with books or scrolls and a human skull. Siberdt’s painting of Martin Luther translating the Bible at Wartburg castle pictures the reformer with a skull as well as an hourglass and a partially-burned candle. It seems ghoulish to our modern sensibilities, but each is a memento mori, Latin for “remember death.” Like the sand trickling through an hourglass or the wax burning down on a candle, the days of your life are passing by. Soon, death will come knocking on your door.

My favorite painting in this tradition is The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein, which depicts two impressive diplomats surrounded by scientific instruments. The painting is best known for a strange, distorted image in the foreground. It is masterfully painted so that a precise mathematical transformation reveals a perfect skull. This cryptic memento mori reminds us that death is no respecter of persons. Even kings and ambassadors soon breathe their final breath and return to the dust.

“Forget Death”

The word “memento” has passed into the English language as a synonym for “souvenir.” Today we buy mementos to remember life’s best moments, like a honeymoon or family vacation. But the ancient call to memento mori, “remember death,” is largely forgotten. In fact, the motto of the 21st century could be, “Forget death.”

The ancient call to memento mori, “remember death,” is largely forgotten. In fact, the motto of the 21st century could be, “Forget death.”

John Behr argues that “one of the most fundamental transitions that occurred over the last century is a question of mortality. We no longer see death.” He explains that in past centuries, nearly everybody had a sibling die in childhood, and most had one or both parents die before they reached adulthood. People were with their loved ones as they died at home. They looked after them, mopped their brow, and read to them. They watched as the life drained out of their bodies. They prepared the body at home and kept wake, reading and praying until it was time to take the body from their home to the church. There, they commended their loved ones to the earth until the time of the resurrection. This was something that was seen frequently, all growing up.

Most are now shielded from the ugly face of death, and Behr suggests that it is the single greatest hurdle to evangelism in our day. When my grandpa Straub had a sudden heart attack, he was taken by ambulance before I could process what was happening. He died later that day on the operating table behind closed doors. It is increasingly common to forgo a viewing, especially as cremation becomes the norm. Funerals are being replaced with “celebrations of life” where the casket is often closed or hidden from sight. Some parents do not allow their children to see the body at all. Church graveyards are less and less common. And as medical science increases our capacity to prolong life, we are given the illusion that death is under our control.

A Mere Breath

Running cross-grain to a culture that has pushed death to the periphery, Scripture urges us to square with our own mortality. This is perhaps a small grace of the coronavirus. It has made it more difficult for us to forget death. The pandemic has been a challenging and painful but much-needed memento mori, reminding us that “all flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field” (Isa. 40:6). A microscopic virus can bring nations to their knees.

The coronavirus has been a painful but much-needed memento mori, forcing us to square with the reality of death.  

The frailty of human life is central to the Book of Ecclesiastes and to understanding its key refrain, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2); “everything…is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecc. 1:14). The vanity of life is seen most clearly in the light of death. No matter how hard you work, you have little to show for it in the end (Ecc. 1:3). Your body grows old and weak and pain-ridden (Ecc. 12:1–8). Finally, you die and are buried like the animals (Ecc. 3:19–20). Your body deteriorates, and you are soon forgotten (Ecc. 1:11). “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return” (Ecc. 3:19–20). No one escapes corruption and death.

As for the rest of the world, it’s business as usual. The sun keeps rising and setting. The world goes on “eating the bread of anxious toil” (Ps. 127:2). James rebukes those who forget God and say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit,” for “you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (Jas. 4:13–14). “Vanity of vanities!” 

The Hebrew word for “vanity” is hevel, a breathy word that is sometimes translated as “breath,” “vapor,” “mist,” or “smoke.” Ecclesiastes uses it to remind us that “life is first of all temporary or fleeting like a wisp of smoke,” and that “like smoke, it appears solid, but when you try and grab on to it, there’s nothing there.” The word hevel is featured three times in Psalm 39, the Psalter’s own memento mori:

4 Let me know how fleeting I am! … 5 My lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath [hevel]! 6 Surely a man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nothing [hevel] they are in turmoil; man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!” 11 …surely all mankind is a mere breath [hevel]!”

Tomorrow We Die

Ecclesiastes concludes that death comes for all, whether righteous or wicked, wise or foolish. “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead” (Ecc. 9:3). This does not mean, of course, that our choices in this life are without consequences: “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). But death is the great equalizer. As Shakespeare’s Macbeth came to understand, no one can stop the slow march of time which leads to certain death:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Without ultimate hope or purpose, some become sad and anxious nihilists. Some suppress the truth about death, and it often takes life-threatening circumstances to expose their fear. Others are more honest and restless. I was sad to learn that the great interviewer Larry King died on Saturday. Dave Rubin posted an interview where he asked King, “What’s it all about?” King responded,

“Every day I [ask] two things: ‘What’s it all about,’ and ‘What does it mean?’ What does it mean? A hundred years from today, who’s going to care? Right? John Lowenstein once hit a grand slam home run for the Orioles to beat the Yankees and the crowd went crazy. Someone said, ‘John, how does it feel?’ And he said, ‘A hundred million Chinese don’t give a damn.’ What does it all mean? The answer is, ‘I don’t know.’”

Because they don’t know or because they don’t care, some become hedonists and try to squeeze as much pleasure out of life as they can. Their motto: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). Ecclesiastes records how King Solomon walked this path for a time, using his royal power to secure all that his heart desired: harems of beautiful women, lavish homes and gardens, luxurious clothing, gold and wine. But in the end, he concluded that this too was vanity.

When Death Died

When we reflect on a world in the grips of sickness, pain, and war, we all have a sense that things are not as they ought to be. Romans 8:20, the only place where the New Testament uses the word “vanity” (mataiotēs, cf. Ecc. 1:2 LXX) to characterize life or creation as a whole, tells us that this is the case: “the creation was subjected to futility [vanity], not willingly, but because of him who subjected it.” God created everything “very good” (Gen. 1:1, 31), but his free creatures walked away from the Source of Life and found themselves in deep darkness. We have all followed Adam in the way of death; we have each turned to our own way. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Under Adam, death reigned, and “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom. 8:22). COVID-19 is one groan in a long line of groans going back to Adam.

God became man in the person of Jesus so that he could take our corruption and death upon himself.

It was into this world of bondage to death and corruption that Jesus came. He went about healing the sick and raising the dead. He claimed to have the power of life and death in his hands. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Jn. 11:25). But to the dismay of Jesus’s disciples, the Author of Life was seized by his own people and put to death by crucifixion. His body was buried in a borrowed tomb, and his soul departed to be with the dead ones. It seemed like the ultimate failure. But for those with eyes to see, this was death’s undoing. Hebrews 2 explains, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Athanasius explains,

For the Word [the Son of God], realizing that in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying, yet being immortal the Son of the Father the Word was not able to die, for this reason he takes to himself a body capable of death, in order that it, participating in the Word who is above all, might be sufficient for death on behalf of all, and through the indwelling Word would remain incorruptible, and so corruption might henceforth cease from all by the grace of the resurrection. (Incarnation 9)

This is the Christian faith: God became man in the person of Jesus so that he could take our corruption and death upon himself. As true man, body and soul, he died; his body was buried and his soul descended to the dead. As true God, he conquered death and the grave by his divine power. And on the third day, he rose from the place of the dead, putting death under his feet. In the death of Christ, death died.

Death, Be Not Proud

The angry monster of Death swallowed up Christ’s flesh, thinking that it had defeated the man Jesus. But as it began to digest Christ’s body, Death realized that the very Power of God was in its belly. Death was embittered, became sick, and died. And on the third day, like the whale which spat up Jonah, Death’s belly gave up our Lord. Putting Death under his feet, “He arose a Victor from the dark domain,” holding the reins of Death in his hand. And today, the conquered monster is a slave to his power, submissive to his purposes. John Chrysostom preached,

Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

When we say that Christ defeated death, we do not mean that Christians can avoid physical death. Rather, death which was a tool of Satan has become the tool of Christ. Because of the resurrection, death has become the door to eternal life for all who believe. The conclusion of John’s Paschal Homily, which identifies Christ’s resurrection as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (died in Christ), is taken from 1 Corinthians 15. When we taste the first apple of the season and find it crisp and sweet, it assures us of a bountiful harvest to follow. Likewise, Christ’s resurrection assures us that all who are in Christ will rise again one day unto eternal life. As the great John Donne put it, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally”:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Because of the resurrection of Jesus, life in this futile world is worth living. Creation is still groaning, but new creation has already begun in us (2 Cor. 5:17). The woman in labor will soon be delivered. “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God,” because “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19, 21). So fear the Lord Jesus, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man (Ecc. 12:13). When our restless soul finds its rest in God, we are free to eat and drink in the enjoyment of him (Ecc. 3:13), anticipating the day when we will enjoy him fully forever. The day is fast approaching when the dead in Christ will rise first, and the perishable will put on the imperishable, and the mortal will put on immortality. “Then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54–55)

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.