Maybe it’s because it’s Lent or maybe because I played for a funeral on Saturday, but I’ve been thinking a lot about death.
Okay, actually, I think that’s just my personality. I’m a joyfully melancholic person with a bent toward the Medieval. Memento mori (“remember that you must die”) has always been more appealing to me than carpe diem (“seize the day”), even though they should ideally amount to the same thing. Both encourage us to number our days and to live with intentionality. Unfortunately, carpe diem has been appropriated by YOLO culture in a way that memento mori has not, and I therefore prefer the latter phrase.
A friend of mine once told me that, at the end of each day, he asks himself, “If I died tonight, would I be satisfied with how I lived today?” This self-examination views carpe diem through the lens of memento mori, giving greater weight to the days of our lives by holding them against the pending day of our death. This line of thinking may seem morbid, but it is also mature. By asking himself this question each night, my friend presented each fully-seized day before his Lord, thus surrendering to sanctification.
But how does this relate to the life of the Church?
As Christians, we love to use the phrase “doing life together.” Although it may be overused or used flippantly (I think back to freshman orientation when I was assured I would “do life” with a cohort I never spoke to again), this phrase is important. In the Church, we are supposed to do life together because are supposed to be one body. We are not an organization but an organism, living and feeding and growing together into Christ our Head.
And so, “doing life together” is rightly central to healthy churches. As with the original community of man and wife in Eden, this is a very good thing. We should commit to this shared life—a life of potlucks (or “pot-Providences” if you prefer), small groups, Bible studies, accountability partners, meal trains, nursery duty, pre-marital counseling, hospital visits, and so on. “Doing life together” is essential to our flourishing; this need for meaningful relationship is encoded in our creation and reinforced in our recreation. The Ruach Spirit that animated the first man and woman now knits believers together not only in community but in communion.
But there is something unique about our recreated life. We may not have been originally created for death, but we are recreated through it. Christian communion (and any true community, when you get to the heart of it) is not only about “doing life together” but “doing death together.”
I’ve written before on dying arts and the art of dying. It’s been said that philosophy is about preparing for death, learning to live wisely so as to die well. Similarly (but more powerfully), Christianity is about living in the death and resurrection of our Savior—of facing mortality that we might have immortality and of dying to ourselves every minute of every day as Christ lives in us.
But the Christian life is also about “doing death together.” It is a life of attending funerals and being present through drawn out illnesses and after sudden accidents. Less overtly, it is a life of intervention, lamentation, and repentance as we put to death our sins and welcome the help and correction of others. It is a life fraught with the pain of forgiveness, which requires us to put our pride and hurt to death as we share the mercy we have received through our crucified Lord.
Before you think I am all dust and ashes (even though that is exactly what I am, and what you are too, for that matter), I should clarify: death together is a blessing. It means that none of us die alone either at the end of our lives or in the daily “deaths” required by sanctification. And, moreover, this communal life of death together is an honor.
In college, I was singing in the Biola Chorale. Making beautiful music alongside friends and siblings in Christ, I had the sudden thought: “It would be an honor to die with these people.”
That thought strikes me now and then, especially when I am doing something good and beautiful in the company of believers. During a game night with my best friends, for instance, or leading the final verse of a hymn, or sitting in a prayer meeting. In each of these situations, I’ve felt totally and utterly alive even while thinking how it would be a privilege to die in such company.
I suppose the whole point of this post is to bring an awareness to the fact that, to really “do life together,” we must also be prepared to “do death together,” in all that that entails. We must ask ourselves whether we are prepared to die alongside one another—whether through the daily deaths of sanctification, the various ends of our natural lives, or, God forbid, the ultimate peril of persecution. We must remember that we are called not only to share in Christ’s resurrection life but that we must also be crucified with Him.
Beautifully, mercifully, though, we remember that we are not called to die alone.
Memento mori, for believers, is a shared endeavor. We look together to Christ crucified as we live and die together in Christ victorious.
As “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” concludes, “who dieth thus dies well.”