“Remember, you must die”
While today’s celebration begins with the triumphant entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, that changes rather quickly. Almost immediately, we are plunged into the reality of Jesus Christ’s suffering and death. Even the official title, Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, includes this shift. On Easter Sunday, of course, our focus is on life—the new life, the eternal life of the Resurrection. But now the subject is death, and we can ask, what do we learn from death—both Jesus’ and our own?
Some years ago there was a novel written by Scottish author Muriel Spark, entitled Memento Mori, which is Latin for Remember, you must die. The story is about a group of friends, all over the age of sixty-five, who one by one receive anonymous phone calls telling them, “Remember, you must die.”
The novel explores how different individuals come to terms with the telephone message. Of course, one of the common responses is fright. Still, the anonymous call causes the characters to think back over their lives and assess how they have lived—about the good they have done as well as the not-so-good. The message about death forces them to come to terms with the meaning of the life they have lived.
One true-life example happened during the latter part of the nineteenth century. A man picked up the morning newspaper and read his own obituary. Like most people, he was curious about what people would say about him after he had died. So he went to the text, which had the caption, “Dynamite King dies,” and he was taken aback and shocked that the obituary referred to him as the “merchant of death.” You see, Alfred Nobel had invented dynamite and amassed quite a fortune from the invention of weapons of destruction.
That shocking newspaper mistake led Nobel to re-assess his life. From that point on, he devoted his energy and money to works of peace and human betterment. Today, he is best remembered, not as a “merchant of death,” but as the founder of the various Nobel prizes, including the Nobel Peace Prize. The untimely mistake that reported his death made Alfred Nobel completely change the focus of his life.
The opening prayer of our Liturgy today invited us to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death and what it teaches us about how we are to live: “Almighty ever-living God, who as an example of humility for the human race to follow caused our Savior to take flesh and submit to the Cross, graciously grant that we may heed his lesson of patient suffering and so merit a share in his Resurrection.” Humility, patience in suffering, love to the very end: this is how the Church asks us to remember Jesus’ life and death.
As we remember Jesus death, and the significance of his life, we are invited to reflect on the significance of our own life. Our death, meaning that our existence is finite, is like the punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. It enables us to know when the sentence is finished and the thought expressed is complete. So, death, as the finishing punctuation mark on our life, bids us to look at how we have lived. Like Alfred Nobel, we might ask how we want to be remembered. Because our time is limited, we might ask how we have spent our time. It is reported that those facing the end of life seldom say that they should have spent more time at the office. Because our time is limited, it means that the opportunity to make things right will not go on forever. We have only a limited time to forgive someone who has hurt us, or to ask forgiveness of someone we have wronged, or to patch up relationships that are not all they should be. So, while it may be uncomfortable, death serves an important purpose, forcing us to realize that time is precious, opportunities are limited, and unfinished business can’t be put off indefinitely. At the end of his life, Jesus was able to turn everything over, saying, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” That was the punctuation mark at the end of his life: he had lived well, done everything he was asked to do, completed his mission. How blessed we will be if, one day, we can do the same.