Common as in communal, not ordinary or humdrum or boring. Prayers of the community. Prayers of “the great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us and, by God’s grace, who will come after us. Borrowed words from Scripture and from Saints long gone spoken in moments when our own words fail us.
Tonight was one of many chaplain shifts that relied heavily on these rites. The Holy Spirit works instantaneously in a thousand different ways. But the Holy Spirit also works slowly and steadily over the course of many centuries to give the church gifts like these prayers.
There are three sheets of paper that I own which weigh far more than their physical makeup would lead you to believe: my marriage license, my daughter’s birth certificate, and my ordination license. When I was given the later of these three documents, a pastor told me that the rest of my life should now be spent preparing everyone I meet for those two services that I was now licensed to perform: weddings and funerals. I have a high view of the call to celibacy within the Christian tradition, so I do not see my task as preparing everyone I meet for their future marriage (though my students will tell you that I do enjoy offering the occasional bit of dating advice). I have felt, however, a lingering desire to study, teach, and model a better understanding and embracing of the role of death in the life of a Christian.
What I have found along the way should come as little surprise to those who have studied the history of our faith—or the history of the human race for that matter. We are far less prepared for our own death than those who have come before us. We believe the myth that we are invincible, that death happen to others, and that our own will only come after we accomplish all that we think we must.
Most of our Protestant traditions no longer celebrate days or seasons of the year that have historically been used by God to remind us that we will die, that our deeds in this life are not hidden from God, and that the holiness prescribed in our Scriptures is more than a suggestion. Like a young child given the freedom to take dessert at every meal at the expense of their vegetables, we have chosen the happier seasons of Christmas and Easter to the neglect of the anticipation, reflection, and conviction that come with Advent and Lent.
There is great victory and joy in our faith: our King faced death and arose victorious, and God has promised one day to do for us the very thing that He has done for Jesus. But this victory cannot be understood apart from the agony and despair that death brings: Why, my God, have you forsaken me? Can’t you allow this cup of suffering pass from me? The great victory of God on behalf of humanity comes through death itself. John Owen captures this reality in the title of his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Our hope is that throughout this collection of articles on the importance of remembering our own mortality, the death of Jesus is seen as the reason that we are able to prepare for—instead of fear—our own death.
This piece was originally published as the introduction to Issue 4: Memento Mori of the Coram Deo Academy Journal of Theology.
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