Second-century Christian writer, Tertullian, claims that, during his triumphal procession after battle, a slave would sit behind a victorious Roman general, holding a crown over his head, and whispering softly, “Respice post te. Hominem te memento.” Roughly translated: “Look to the time after your death and remember you’re only a man.” While there is scant historical evidence for this, Tertullian’s point is clear: Even the strongest among us needs to be reminded of his mortality.
In ancient Israel, Psalm 39 served as a memento mori—a reminder of human mortality. “Oh LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeing I am!” (v. 4). David understood the brevity of life and the insignificance of humanity in comparison to God’s eternality and glory. We tend to avoid the uncomfortable thought of death; David knew that godly wisdom sees life in the context of death. “Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah. Surely a man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!” (vv. 5–6). He knew that “all mankind is a mere breath” (v. 11) and that humans are mere “sojourners” and “guests” with God (v. 12) until they “depart and [are] no more” (v. 13). His reflections on death helped him to properly evaluate life.
The Dutch Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, similarly understood the importance of death in helping us properly cherish life:
But mortification—literally, “making death”—is what life is all about, a slow discovery of the mortality of all that is created so that we can appreciate its beauty without clinging to it as if it were a lasting possession. Our lives can indeed be seen as a process of becoming familiar with death, as a school in the art of dying…. All these times have passed by like friendly visitors, leaving you with dear memories but also with the sad recognition of the shortness of life. In every arrival there is a separation; in every reunion there is a separation; in each one’s growing up there is a growing old; in every smile there is a tear; and in every success there is a loss. In all living is dying and all celebration is mortification too.
Significantly, however, David’s reflection on death did not drive him to despair. Instead, it drove him to hope: “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you” (v. 7). Reflecting on our mortality helps us to understand the preciousness of life, but it also helps us to remember that our true and lasting hope—in life and in death—is in Christ alone. We pray with Walter Brueggemann,
God of our times, our years, our days,
you are the God of our work, of our rest, of our weariness.
Our times are in your hands.
We come to you now
in our strength and in our weakness,
in our hope and in our despair,
in our buoyancy and in our disease.
We come to pray for ourselves and for all like us
who seek and yearn for life anew with you, and from you, and for you.
So we pray with our mothers and fathers, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
We wait for your coming with all the graciousness we can muster.
Don’t give into the cultural trap of escaping every thought of death. Honestly face up to your mortality and then look to Christ in whom alone the hope of immortality is found.