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home : opinion : perspectives

2/8/2018 9:00:00 AM
The message of Ash Wednesday

Surely, 16-century English martyr and learned bishop St. John Fisher knew of the proverb "Momento Mori."

The Latin words mean, "Remember, thou must die." The holy bishop gave serious consideration to the mystery of death throughout the course of his priestly life. According to one of his biographers, St. John Fisher kept on his desk a skull as a reminder about the fearsomeness of death, so that he might be fearless when facing it.

Still, as death approached, he wavered momentarily as he walked from the Tower of London to the scaffold. Then he opened the Book of Gospels he carried.

He saw the passage, "Eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Him you have sent, Jesus Christ" (Jn. 17:3), and his fears suddenly vanished.

Distinguished English novelist Muriel Spark, a convert to the Catholic faith, weighed in on death in her 1959 novel, which was titled, "Momento Mori." In that imaginative and insightful story, the author took aim at one of the most censored subjects of contemporary society, one we do not care to discuss: old age.

The mythical fountain of youth is mercilessly lampooned by the author, who undoubtedly was deeply influenced by the wisdom of the Scriptures. Perhaps she had in mind the 39th psalm, which reads: "Lord, let me know my end, the number of my days, that I may learn how frail I am. To be sure, you establish the expanse of my days; indeed, my life is as nothing before you. Every man is but a breath."

The shadow of death looms large as we begin the penitential season of Lent. The many who have ashes smeared on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday can recall the sobering words spoken by God to the first man, Adam: "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return."

What may seem a morbid preoccupation with our mortality is actually a healthy acknowledgement of an inescapable reality: Whether one likes it or not, life always appears against the background of death.

To live is to die eventually. Nothing can change that fact. Science can postpone death, but it cannot eliminate it. Death is, as St. Paul reminds us, the enemy.

But, is the message of Ash Wednesday all doom and gloom? Far from it!

In an essay he wrote in 1963, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton pointed out that even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday is a day of happiness, a Christian feast. It cannot be otherwise, as it forms part of the Easter cycle.

Merton deserves to be quoted in full: "The cross of ashes, traced upon the forehead of each Christian, is not only a reminder of death, but inevitably (though tacitly) a pledge of resurrection.

"The ashes of a Christian are no longer ashes. The body of the Christian is a temple of the Holy Ghost, and though it is fated to see death, it will return again to life in glory. The cross, with which the ashes are traced upon us, is the sign of Christ's victory over death.

"It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity. The declaration that the body must fall temporarily into dust is a challenge to spiritual combat, that our burial may be 'in Christ' and that we may rise with him to "live unto God."

The novelty of the Church's teaching on the so-called "last things" is revolutionary. It is the quiet assurance that death has been overcome: that death is not the end, but a new beginning. Death as the beginning of eternal life becomes an emphatic point in the teaching of our Lord.

One reason we turn to the saints is their extraordinary witness in the face of death. Rev. Stanley Jaki, OSB, recounted this tale of his "spiritual father," St. Benedict: Benedict enjoined his fellow monks to keep before their eyes as an enemy to be suspected at all times the approach of death. On sensing that his own days were numbered, Benedict ordered his monks to make a grave for him in the church.

Then, as he felt that the hour of his death had finally come, he asked his monks to carry him to the grave and help him keep his arms lifted up, so that he might die in the classic posture of Christian prayer. Thus, Benedict gave up his soul, with no fear of death.

(Father Yanas is pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Troy.)

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