February 18, Ash Wednesday:
Merton, Thomas, Seasons of Celebration
Draft copy of the homily, please do not cite without permission
Memento mori, or remember death, or remember that you are to die.
In philosophy the concept of memento mori traces it’s roots to at least Socrates, and probably earlier, then to the Stoics who were fond of meditating on death and the vanities of this life.
In the medieval world, following the horrors of the black death a whole genre of literature grew up around preparing for death, dying well, and recognizing the fleetingness of this life.
Think of all the still life painting’s you may have seen with skulls in them.
Think of the Dance of Death.
The gravestones and tombs that depict a skulls, bones, or a decayed corpse.
One of the most stunning I’ve seen online is the sculpture of René of Châlon, Prince of Orange who died in 1544 at the age of 25. His widow commissioned a monument at the church of Saint-Étienne in Bar-leDuc to represent him as a decaying corpse “offering his heart to God and set against the painted splendor of his worldly estate.”
By the Jacobean period, in the early 17th century, a whole cult of melancholia had arisen which gave birth to European Romanticism.
The earliest know self-portrait done in America is of the Puritan artist and mariner, Thomas Smith.
It is a memento mori. Smith is shown holding a skull under which is a poem he composed meditating on death and the vanities of life.
Why Why should I the World be minding
therein a World of Evils Finding
Then Farewell World: Farewell thy Jarres
thy Joies thy Toies thy Wiles thy Warrs
Truth Sounds Retreat: I am not sorye.
The Eternal Drawes to him my heart
By Faith (which can thy Force Subvert)
To Crowne me (after Grace) with Glory. (source)
The Victorians had their own cult of death. And the advent of the new technology of photography opened up a whole new way to meditate on death.
Victorians were a bit obsessed with photographs of the recently deceased, often with artifacts of the dead included in the portrait.
My sister (an American History teacher) had for years in her classroom a portrait of Henry Clay (The Great Compromiser) with human hair woven into the head of the picture—whether it was actually Henry Clay’s hair, no one knows but this sort of memento mori was not uncommon in the mid-nineteenth century.
We view a lot of this as morbid, macabre, or possibly just twisted.
But the liturgy we enact tonight is very much in this tradition of memento mori, remember that you are mortal.
The interest in Ash Wednesday has increased in the last few years, with “Ashes to Go” becoming a thing…clergy stand on the street or at subway stops and offer anyone who passes a chance to have ashes put on their heads and be reminded that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
It’s an interesting phenomena because America in the early 21st century has a much different relationship with death than our ancestors had.
You can still see memento mori images in certain teen and adolescent sub-cultures.
And I wonder if our whole cultural fascination with zombies and the popularity of shows like The Walking Dead aren’t somehow part of a recognition of—a retention of—this deeply ingrained memento mori tradition.
I wonder if there isn’t something profound at work here.
A desire that is trying to be spoken, but hasn’t quite found it’s voice.
Not a desire for death.
But a desire to take the reality of death seriously, and to try to find meaning and hope and life in the midst of it.
But we live in a culture that simultaneously glamorizes violence and death (in video games, and TV and movies—even on our 24 hour cable news channels), and yet also pushes the unglamorous reality of death out of view.
Most human generations up until our grandparents died at home.
Now 70% of us will die in a nursing home, or a hospital. We hope surrounded by loved ones, but largely out of sight of all but those few on duty.
Our conflicted relationship with death and medicine is the topic of Dr. Atul Gawande most recent book, Being Mortal. In it he describes how out of sync the medical community can become as people approach death. With the underlying drive in medicine being “how to fix a problem” death is seen as a failure. Rather than something that is inevitable. Gawande is trying to change the conversation to focus on “how to have a good life right to the very end.” I commend his book and the recent Frontline documentary on it to you.
It seems to me that this is a conversation the church can and should be in on, and maybe Ash Wednesday is a place to begin that broader conversation.
Our yearly practice of having ashes placed on our heads and being reminded that we are mortal—that we are dust and to dust we shall return—is a very tangible memento mori practice.
The church should be a place where conversations about how to have a good life right to the very end can take place.
After all, Christianity is not about escaping or denying death, it’s about recognizing the reality of death and still proclaiming that in spite of that reality that life has meaning.
In spite of death’s reality, death does not have the final word. God in Christ has triumphed over death and so will we all.
Thus the ashes we spread on tonight are more than just a memento mori, a reminder of death, they are a promise of life.
And as much as tonight’s service is about repentance and self-examination, and being invited into those often uncomfortable conversations. It is not morbid. Lent, as Thomas Merton reminds us, “is not a season of punishment so much as one of healing.” (Merton, Thomas (2010-04-01). Seasons of Celebration (p. 115). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.)
The focus of this service, which includes a deep and profound meditation on mortality, is not a morbid fixation on death but rather a commitment to living life more fully, and deeply with God and in God.
We receive the mark of our mortal nature, and kneel in penitence, but the overall theme of Ash Wednesday is on God’s mercy and saving grace.
Listen again to how we begin…Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made. You are the God of all mercy, through whom we have obtained perfect remission of our sins.
And St. Paul echoes: See, now is the acceptable time—now is the day of salvation…we are treated as dying and see we are alive.
Ash Wednesday, and Lent are really full of hope, not because we get to ignore the reality of death, but because we can look it in the eye and know that “if we live, we live unto the Lord; and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.
And to that, let the people say: Amen!