In ancient Rome, military generals returning victorious from war would be paraded through streets in a chariot to inhabit the praise of the people in celebration. But behind the general, in the same chariot, a slave was placed whose sole responsibility was to whisper in the general’s ear sobering words that served to protect him from the delusions of grandeur that inevitably comes to those who find themselves at the center of human praise: Memento mori.
“Remember to die.”
It seems like an odd reminder, considering the fact that none of us have much ‘to say in the matter, and all of us will certainly prove equal to the task when the occasion presents itself’ (D.B. Hart). But of all the facts of life, death turns out to be perhaps the easiest to forget. Or perhaps all of life is oriented toward one long attempt to forget about death, because the moment we become aware of death is the exact moment we become aware of a uniquely human desire: not to die.
Life begins with a desire to eat, to drink, to touch and be touched, but one day we wake up with the desire to be gods, that is, to not die. But since that desire proves to provide little practical counsel for the day-to-day task of being human, we busy ourselves with lesser desires in a pursuit toward satisfaction, expanding our kingdoms, our influence, our bank accounts, our progeny, willfully forgetting that all we value as treasure today the moth will value as food for tomorrow. And eventually, even the moth will die. But we insist on willfully forgetting what we know to be true–that nothing less than immortality could possibly satisfy the most basic longing beneath all the rumblings of the human experience that drive us ‘to distraction from distraction by distraction’ (T.S. Eliot): not to die.
So we live our lives as though we will live forever, often using people likes steps on a Babylonian Zigurat, on an upward trajectory toward nothing other an infinite ‘more’, in all its arbitrary finite forms. But ‘more’ turns out to never be ‘enough’. Desire is always stronger that satisfaction. The abyss of the human soul and its appetite stretches to an boundless expanse. We are not like the burning bush Moses met on the mountaintop, whose fire did not consume; we are like every other fire: everything we consume soon vanishes. Indeed, with every met expectation we discover an unmet expectation that lies deeper in the gut, closer to the heart.
There is an essential desire to be filled with the fullness of God, but that desire of fullness is infested with the emptiness that comes from trying to fill ourselves to the fullness of ourselves (Eccles. 3:11). Adult souls are filled so full of sinful habits, too normal to call sinful, too constant to call habitual, like the sin of pride or the habit of self-preservation, that it becomes impossible to identify one’s own aching emptiness. We are protected by hidden attitudes, hidden from even ourselves, and hardened hearts.
Eventually life begins to feel like an endless pursuit of escalating goals, with each step up the ladder revealing more clearly only how high even the lowest rung of the Infinite truly is, and thus how low the highest rung of human striving gets us. Every promise turns out to be only half full because we are always left at least half empty. Youth are naïve; their grandparents are bitter. All are forgetful.
And so religion is born out of an ancient memory of death, but it is too quickly whitewashed into another resource for power. Every religious person simply becomes two persons, attending more or less to two essentials drives moving in geometrically opposite directions that tear away at the soul: the drive to hold on to life and the drive to let go, to remember to die and to forget.
Thus, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is our essential reminder—the story of the God who became a backseat slave to whisper into the front of our chariots: Memento mori. The season of Lent, beginning today, is our annual pilgrimage into the desert with Jesus (Mt. 4), where our subterranean temptations to forget rise to the surface with the serpent who seduces us to rise up in war against our mortality. “If you are the Son of God, then eat! (Mt. 4:3) Forsake death! (Mt. 4:6) Rise up in power!” (Mt. 4:9). It is the temptation of Son of God, because it is the temptation of every man: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life, indeed, the forbidden fruit—to be as gods—for the Son of God is the Son of Man.
And so we enter the desert today, where we confront the twisted shape of our two-pronged souls, fashioned after the exact shape of that tempter’s tongue. We desire God, yes, but we also desire praise, to love God and to be gods (Gen. 3); we desire peace but we also desire revenge; we desire community but we also desire exaltation; we desire love but we also desire self-gratification; we have at times a passion for the kingdom of God, but there are other gasoline passions; we desire God’s will but we never desire “not my will.”
And so we must return to the desert fast to search ourselves for areas of amnesia, reminding our obstinate wills to die, to remind ourselves of the direction we are all headed, lest we continue to chase empty upward promises that only push the deeper side of the soul out to the surface, thinning it out, so that life just becomes a series of unreflective actions and reactions, like a restless pinball with an impenetrable surface—no stability, no connection, no depth, no anchors, no stillness, no reflection, no transparency, no exposure of the heart, no communion of the spirit, no deep crying out to deep (Ps. 42): just a shell of a once-human existence in constant commotion.
By moving through this somber season of self-examination we are better prepared to see how fitting is the cross, not for Christ but for us. Indeed, as the thief at Jesus’ side confessed, it is our “just reward” (Lk. 23:41). In our unreflective world, fast-paced and on-demand, there is hardly a more urgent need for the life of faith than this kind of reflection, which inevitably leads us into repentance, since herein we discover no small attempt in our heart to rise up as gods—to live by bread alone, possessions alone, pride alone. Only then can our Good Friday Gospel penetrate to the level of the salvation we actually need—salvation from ourselves. Indeed, only then can we be properly prepared to utter the truth of our Sunday Morning confession: “I am crucified with Christ—nevertheless!”
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
~ The Son of God
- Of course, all creatures instinctively desire to survive, but only humans desire not to die. That is to say, only humans can conceptualize death as such and in so doing cannot avoid, if even only for a flinching moment, contemplating their own death. Human consciousness is plagued with eternal dimensions. We can travel in our minds beyond ourselves, modeling universes and genesises and apocalypses. But when when we try to travel into the dark void of non-being, of our own non-being, we indeed discover “a bourne from which no traveler returns” (Hamlet). We become aware of the judgment this world is under, for we know that end of my consciousness is for me the same as having never had a consciousness, and that is the same for me as there not being and never having been and there never going to be anything at all (cf. Jenson, On Thinking the Human). And since there is no life apart from consciousness, the inevitability of death leads to the absurd conclusion of a pure and utter negation of being as such.