Memento Mori (1 Corinthians 7: 29-31)
The Second Reading for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians speaks about the shortness of human life and the certainty of death. This theme can be expressed in two words: memento mori. This is a Latin phrase which is translated as, ‘remember you will die.’ It refers to a category of artwork that aims to remind people of their mortality.
This phrase originated in ancient Rome. Coming home after a victorious military conquest, the Roman general would go around the city for a victory parade. Standing behind him was a slave, dutifully repeating the words, memento mori. The purpose is to remind the general that, although he is at the peak of his life and career, enjoying success and honor today, he could fall or die tomorrow.
According to the Christian writer Tertullian, in his work Apologetics, the complete statement that the slave utters is: Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori! (‘Look behind you! Remember that you are but a human being! Remember that you will die’).
This is the message that St. Paul tries to convey: Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short(1 Corinthians 7:29). Our life in this world is short. Hence, he urges us to conduct our affairs in this world with our full attention focused on what is most essential in life, namely, eternal salvation.
Aware then of this reality, some important resolutions are in order. The first is repentance. This is the core message that Jesus proclaims at the beginning of his ministry: The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Good News (Mark 1: 15).
Second, we are not to waste our precious time in this world. In our daily life, even when ‘staying home’, we are to always use every opportunity to do something good. Let this quotation be our guiding motto: I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again (attributed to Stephen Grellet).
Third, we have to follow Jesus immediately and unconditionally. This was how the first disciples responded to the Lord’s calling. They immediately left everything – their father, their boats and nets, their family and community. They exercised total detachment from material things and thereby were able to follow Jesus in total freedom and commitment. This does not mean we spurn material things. We are not to allow ourselves to be controlled by them in order to be free to follow Jesus.
It is not comfortable to talk about death or mortality, especially during this time of pandemic. However, death is a part of our life as Christians, of our life as Eucharistic people. While we cannot celebrate holy mass publicly right now, our life must always be ‘Eucharistic’. We are to be Eucharist with Jesus at all times.
We hear these words of Jesus at consecration: ‘Take and eat, this is my body; take and drink, this is my blood.’ Let me reflect with you what the Bible says about ‘body and blood’ in order for us to know what is being offered to us and, also, to understand what it means to be ‘Eucharist’ with Jesus.
The term ‘body’, as used by Jesus and St. Paul, indicated the whole human being in so far as it lives its life in a mortal condition. ‘Body’ indicates life in all its entirety. In instituting the Eucharist, Jesus left us the gift of his whole life, from the first moment of the incarnation to the very end, including all that made us his life: silence, sweat, hardship, prayer, struggle, joy and humiliations.
Then Jesus adds: ‘This is my blood’. We may wonder what He gives us with his blood that He hasn’t already given us with his body – He adds his death! Having given us his life, he now gives us its most precious part – his death. In the Bible, the term ‘blood’ does not indicate a part of the body, a part of the person. It indicates an event, an experience – namely death. If blood is the ‘seat of life’ as was thought at that time (Genesis 9: 4), its’ shedding is the sign of death.
The Eucharist, therefore, is the mystery of the Body and Blood of Jesus – that is, of the life and death of Christ!
When we totally offer our ‘bodies’ with Jesus at Mass, be it a ‘real’ or a ‘virtual’ attendance, we offer all that actually constitutes our physical life: time, health, energy, ability, sentiments and, perhaps, just a smile that only a spirit living in a body can give and that is so precious at times.
When we truly offer our ‘deaths’, we offer not necessarily our final death or martyrdom for Christ. ‘Death’ also encompasses everything that right now prepares and anticipates our death: humiliations, failures, fears, anxiety, debilitating illness and limitations imposed on us, everything that ‘mortifies us’.
Most of us are pretty good with offering our ‘bodies’ for Jesus and for our brothers and sisters. It is not easy to also offer our ‘blood’, that is to say, the inactivity and mortification that is imposed on us at this time. It is when we can no longer do what we want that we can be closer to Christ. Because of Jesus, the Living Bread of Life, there is no such a thing as a ‘useless life’ or a ‘useless time’ in the world.
No one can say, ‘what is the point of still living in this world?’ We are in the world for the most sublime reasons: to be a living sacrifice, to be Eucharist with Jesus.
We are to live and die with Jesus! Fr. Roselle