A few weeks ago my wife and I went to a Saturday evening worship service at a Roman Catholic church near where we live. The church building was well over a hundred years old and was built in the traditional, ornate style. It was a beautiful sanctuary with an elaborate, huge altar in the center, a smaller altar on each side, and statues of Jesus, Peter, Paul, and several other apostles and saints positioned in various places on those altars. On one of the smaller statues was what appeared to be a monk, and in his hand he held a human skull. After the service, my wife asked me about that. “Did you see the statue of the man holding a skull? What was that all about?,” she asked.
I told her I did not know who the monk was, but I thought that the skull might be a ‘memento mori.’ Memento mori is a Latin phrase which means “remember your mortality,” or, “remember you must die.” The term came to refer to a type of artwork that served to remind people of their mortality. It might be a painting of the Grim Reaper at the bed of one dying, it might be a carving of a skull kept on one’s desk, or it might be a skull shaped ring, pendant, or clock. This style of art goes back to antiquity, and it reached its greatest popularity in the Middle Ages, present at that time in many churches and even homes. The intent of the memento mori was very different from the cartoon-type skeletons we see all over the place at Halloween. The old memento mori served as an ever present reminder of approaching death and judgment.
So that skull high upon that altar in the front of that church has a message for all who see it. “This skull,” it means to say, “was once a living, breathing, speaking human being, but now that person is dead and all that is left of him is this skull. Pay attention, therefore, to what you hear in this sanctuary, because someday soon that is what you will be, and when that time comes, your only hope will be in Jesus Christ who is worshiped here. So listen close, and do not disregard or disrespect what is spoken in this place.”
The Church Year itself has another sort of memento mori, another ‘reminder of death.’ At Ash Wednesday services in many churches, ashes are put on everyone’s forehead as they hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and unto the dust you shall return.” This is a most unpleasant thought to be sure, but it is a most necessary reminder. The biggest mistake in life would be to forget that fact, and in forgetting, not make the necessary preparation for that inevitable end. But when you come to church, you hear a more hopeful message, and if you keep coming, you will give that hope the opportunity to sink in and take hold in your heart and mind, giving you courage and confidence even in the face of death.
Lent then moves toward Easter Sunday, and on that day we hear the words of the angels in the tomb to those looking for Jesus. “He is not here,” they said, “HE IS RISEN!” And so not only during Lent, but all year, do keep in mind that you will die (‘memento mori’), but then also remember the words of Jesus in John 14:19 to all believers: “Because I live, you also will live.”
Psalm 90:12 — Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Genesis 3:19 — By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.
John 11:25 — Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die”
Abide with us, O Lord, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. Abide with us, for the days are hastening on, and we hasten with them, and our life is short and transient as a dream. Abide with us, for we are weak and helpless, and if thou abide not with us, we perish by the way. Abide with us until the Daystar ariseth, and the morning light appeareth, when we shall abide forever with thee. Amen.