I write these words during a week some predict new infections and deaths from COVID-19 may come to a peak in the United States. It is plain that for many this will be a very bad week. For Christians, this is Holy Week, the final week of Lent. For Jews, Passover in 2020 begins on the night on which I which I write.
“Memento mori.” One of the key aspects of Lent is remembering that we will die. During many years, I suspect this only receives passing attention while we go on with our lives. Not this year. This year has smacked us in the face with death. We have watched death tolls rise in country after country, and now in our own. Suddenly a trip to the grocery store feels like running a perilous gantlet.
“Memento mori.” I’m geeky enough to follow statistics. One of the interesting ones I’ve noticed in our state’s statistics is the median age of those who have died. At present, it is 78. What is striking is that 78.6 years is also the average life expectancy in the US. Now there is some difference between median and mean, but it was close enough that it strikes me that the distribution of deaths approximates that in normal life–some die at every age, but the older you are, the more likely you are to die if you contract this disease. Of course the truth is, the older you are, the more likely you are to die, period. The only thing that is different is that because of this disease, more people at all ages are dying at present. For all of us, this is real!
“Memento mori.” C.S. Lewis reminds us in his sermon Learning in War-Time that war does not increase the frequency of death–“100 percent of us die.” Lewis argues that the one distinctive thing about war is that it forces us to remember death. Young soldiers make out wills. How many of us have made out wills and advance directives in this crisis?
“Memento mori.” The practice of remembering that we will die in Lent is not an exercise in fear or hopelessness. It is an honest reckoning, that along with Christ, we must go through Good Friday before there is Easter. Passover, for the Jews remembers another plague, the death of the firstborn throughout Egypt, sparing the Jews only because of the lamb’s blood on their door posts. Good Friday reminds us of “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Death will take us from this life and this world, but it will not take us from God. As death did not hold Jesus, we believe that death will not hold us. Beyond Good Friday is Easter–Resurrection Day. One day, “he (or she) is risen” will be said of all of us who hope in Christ.
“Memento mori.” I do not think we can truly live with joy in each day without coming to terms with our death. To suppress it, to ignore it, to fear it, to obsess over it robs us of the deeper richness of life’s most ordinary joys. I recognize and respect that not all who read this embrace what I believe. What these times confront all of us with is the real possibility of our death, or that of someone we love. It poses, if we will face it, perhaps the most important question of human existence, which is how we will come to terms with our mortality. Remembering that we will die, and determining how that will shape the way we however many years are yet given us may be the great gift of this pandemic.
Stay safe, my dear friends.