Memento Mori

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

All of us are going to die.

In the ancient tradition of the Church, there is a phrase that has sort of come back to life over the last few years. Memento mori. Remember death. It is a Latin phrase connected to the practice of remembering the unpredictable and inevitable end of our lives. This phrase and the symbols and sayings that are often associated with it were particularly popular in the medieval Church, when there was a lot of death that was happening all around the people of that time. But the practice of remembering death stretches back to the very beginning of salvation history.

In the Book of Genesis, in the story of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden after they fall into the first sin, they are told by God to remember “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). 

This invitation to remember our deaths is echoed throughout much of the Old Testament. We are constantly reminded about the brevity of life and are often called to remember that there is something beyond this life so that we can strive for holiness daily. In the Book of Sirach, we’re told: “In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin” (7:36). The Book of Psalms also calls our attention to it. We pray in Psalm 90: “Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (90:12).

In the New Testament, something that we heard just this week, Jesus also pays particular attention to this theme when He tells His disciples to pick up their crosses daily as they follow Him to the Place of the Skull. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

It is again a theme that we are reminded of in today’s readings as well. Our first reading from the Book of Wisdom calls us to remember the night of Passover, when the angel of death passed through the land of Egypt on the eve of the Jewish exodus from slavery in that land. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews seeks to remind the Jewish Christians of the faith of Abraham and our fathers in the faith, how they died in that faith and the expectation of something more on the other side of death. And finally, in the Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples: “at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (12:40).  

All of us are going to die. Memento mori.

For whatever reason, the thought of our death makes us a little uncomfortable. So many of us spend so much energy trying to avoid thinking about that reality, a reality that none of us can escape. It is often something that can bring a lot of anxiety to our hearts. It can maybe even introduce doubt in our hearts about the mercy of God and whether we’re “good enough” to make it into Heaven. But Jesus reassures us in our Gospel. He tells us to not be afraid (cf. Luke 12:32). In fact, He reminds us that is the will of the Father to give us the Kingdom of Heaven; it is the desire of the Father to dwell with us for all eternity.

God desires us. He longs for us. He wants that for us so much that He sent Jesus into the world to make it a reality, to make it possible for us to return to that eternal communion with Him that was lost as a result of the sin of our first parents in the faith. He does it because He loves us. All He asks us to do is simply have faith in Him, to be in relationship with Him, to trust in Him, to have the hope that He will be with us in all our endeavors and will call us back to Himself when our time comes.

All of us are going to die. Memento mori. Are we doing everything we can to prepare for that moment?

Jesus tells His disciples, “You also must be prepared,” like servants standing ready for the return of their master at any minute. It’s something that He tells us to do today as well. If we want to live in communion with God forever, if we want to experience the fulfillment that He promises in this life and in the life to come, we must make relationship with God the number one priority of our lives. We must strive to pray daily, to dive deeper into Scripture to foster that relationship with God, to seek the guidance of the Lord in every decision that we make, to follow the commands that He places on our hearts. We must seek God’s forgiveness for the times that we have failed to live up to that expectation. God wants us to strive for these things, He desires all these things for us because He has our best interests at heart, He wants us to experience the fullness of life.

The good things of this earthly life, its pleasures, challenges, and occupations, pale in comparison to the good things that we will enjoy on the other side of life if we remain faithful to God. The good things of this earthly life will come to an end one day when the Master returns. If we try to live as if those things were going to last forever, we would be incredibly foolish. Jesus wants to make sure that we aren’t fools.

Jesus finishes His parable by telling us that, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48). He reminds us that walking through this life is a task. Our mission is to know, love, and serve God in a unique way. Our lives will take on their true meaning when we seek to carry out that task and fulfill that mission, when we strive to find our “treasure” – the things that we value and desire the most – not in the passing pleasures of this life, but in the things of Heaven, in the things that truly matter.

All of us are going to die. Memento mori.

Jesus wants us to be ready for that moment. He wants us to be prepared. As we journey with the Lord this week, may we make that a priority. In our prayer this week, let’s ask Jesus the questions: Lord, am I doing everything I can to prepare for the inevitability of my death? What can I do to foster a deeper relationship with You? How are You calling me to follow You more intimately?

If we continually remind ourselves that there is something beyond this life, it will change how we live our lives. We will start to recognize what truly matters. So many things that happen in life will start to seem so trivial and we will begin to focus on striving for holiness and union with God. Ultimately, we will find joy because we will start to see that death is simply a doorway that we must walk through to get to our final destination: Eternity with God.

All of us are going to die. Memento mori. Let’s go out and live like it.

Photo: Ahmed Adly on Unsplash. Used under Unsplash license.

Published by Fr. Tom Pringle

Priest of the Diocese of Orlando. Parochial Vicar at Holy Family Catholic Church, Orlando.

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