The seeming goal of this life is to forget our mortality. We live dangerously to show we do not fear death. We treat death as something normal and natural and acceptable if we get in enough living beforehand. We trivialize death by treating grief with a few funny stories, some laughter, and a drink or two. At the same time we keep our children from knowing about death. We do not bring them to funerals and we even change our childhood prayers to omit "if I should die before I wake." It is all a vain attempt to control death, to make death meet us on our terms, or to make it go away by ignoring it.
In the Rule of St. Benedict, there instruction in chapter 4 simply says, “Keep death daily before your eyes”. It might seem a morbid request but it is not. It is the simple acknowledgement that our mortality must be kept before our eyes and upon our minds in order for us to know and appreciate the miracle of Christ's redemption. It is part of our daily repentance to remember that we are dust and unto dust we shall return. Though we are accustomed to hearing those words at the start of Lent, they are not only for Ash Wednesday.
We remember that we must be redeemed from death and the grave and we remind ourselves that this is exactly what Christ has done. Far from encouraging us to hold onto this life tightly, the miracle of the cross and empty tomb leads us to hold onto this life lightly -- not out of fear but in awesome appreciation of what Christ has done.
In the compline liturgy (evening prayers), there canticle
that is sung, the Canticle of Simeon, is all about death and all about the power of Christ's life. Simeon was so overcome with the joy of God's promised Savior, he was ready to depart and
be with God. The arms that held the infant Jesus could not hold onto life in fear any longer. “Lord, now
lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes
have seen thy salvation.” Luther's most distinctive remodeling of the Divine Service was the obvious addition of this as the Post-Communion Canticle which the people sing as they leave the Table of the Lord and head out into the world in His name.
The Benedictine wisdom to “keep death daily before our eyes”might seem dark, depressing, or morbid. After all, Jesus said He had come so that we might have life and life in the fullest (John 10:10)? What, then, is gained by being mindful of your own mortality? What about the Psalmist who teaches us to pray "Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom." Is it not precisely our appreciation of our mortality that allows us to live the abundant life of Christ's promise? Perhaps our awareness of death is key to living the new and abundant life of Christ's promise. After all ordinary wisdom suggested “He who has nothing to die for has nothing to live for”.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” What did Christ say in Mark 8:34-35, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the Gospel will save it.”
I have long suggested to my people that it is not morbid nor a denial of the goodness that is present even in this fallen life for us to acknowledge death and its awful reality. Death is never good even when it is merciful. Death is last enemy to be destroyed. It was for Jesus and it is for those who live in Christ by baptism and faith. But it will die, too. Death will not simply go away or surrender but it will be killed, erased from the memory of the redeemed in Christ, and replace with the abundance of a life that God will not allow to end. In the end it is good wisdom and good faith to "keep death always before your eyes."