“Momento Mori” (Or Learning to Live Between the Altar and the Grave)

There is an occasion for everything, and a time for every activity under heaven: a time to give birth and a time to die.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

Your eyes saw me when I was formless;
all my days were written in your book and planned
before a single one of them began.

Psalm 139:16

Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his saints.

Psalm 116:15

Memento mori means to remember or bear in mind that you too will die. These are not words which are welcome in our current cultural context. Instead, on the one hand, we idolize youth and youthfulness (and are told to do everything we can to maintain it); and, on the other hand, we have largely separated or sheltered ourselves from the reality of suffering and death.

This wasn’t always the case. To cite an example from the context of church life, in generations past church buildings were often surrounded by or placed next to cemeteries. Simply walking into the church was a reminder of your own mortality but also of the source of life and hope. It was a reminder that God was the author of life, that he has numbered our days and we ought to do likewise. Psalm 90:12 counsels us to pray that God would teach us to number our days carefully so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts.

The truth is, death haunts us. It casts a long shadow over our everyday lives. Some, unaware or not, live out of a fear of death. They avoid hospitals or visiting loved ones in nursing homes. Funerals (funeral comes from the Latin fūnus, meaning “dead body”) are now celebrations of life. And while, yes, we should celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us, the shift in language is not without significance. According to the author of Hebrews, human beings are held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14–15). Such a fear drives and motivates, shackles and imprisons. It is from this fear—and the power of death itself, Hebrews tells us—that Jesus came to free us.

We hear about trusting in God in the midst of suffering in Psalm 23, where David likens God to a shepherd:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4

Notice how the psalmist contextualizes the reality of suffering and death. He acknowledges that this life involves pain and death but he frames this within the larger reality of God, of a source of meaning and identity that transcends what we experience and feel.

But what happens when we lose such contextualization? What happens when we try to make sense of and deal with suffering and death without recourse to the divine, to a transcendent Creator who made us, knows us, and loves us?

What happens is that in my home country of Canada, there is a health/political policy known as MAiD (Medical Assistance in Dying) that is presently expanding to include those who are not terminally ill but are experiencing mental health issues or other problems unrelated to dying.

So it’s not only a matter of alleviating the suffering of someone whose death is inevitable, but of hastening the death of someone whose suffering, while not terminal is chronic and is not physical, but emotional or mental. For example, at least 4 Canadian military veterans have been offered medically assisted death. There are also those seeking MAiD for economic reasons, including one woman who was unable to find safe, affordable housing.

I get that there are multiple layers to these stories. I know that these are profoundly personal circumstances that people end up facing and decisions are often not only difficult but gut-wrenching. I also understand that families and health-care workers are often doing their best to care for loved ones and patients in need.

What concerns me, however, is how our practices are informed by our attitudes about what makes life valuable and meaningful, about what makes persons valuable and meaningful. Ideas matter. How we use words matters, especially when we take something like euthanasia or medically-assisted suicide and call it “medical assistance in dying.” Such euphemistic language has a way of hiding what it is we’re really talking about. And it seems to me that we are now more willing than ever to eliminate an increasing number of people who serve to remind us of human fragility and mortality. Not only that, we are communicating more than ever that some lives are more valuable than others because of their ability or lack thereof to contribute to our economy and society. Yet we blanket our public conversation about this with words like “compassion” and “dignity.”

All of this is a stark reminder of what happens to our view of human life at the intersection of what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls “expressive individualism” and the limiting of personal meaning and identity to what theologian Andrew Root refers to as the “immanent frame.” That is to say, “a reality in which the world is closed off from transcendence” (the belief that there is no God or divine power that is present to and acts in the world).

Within this immanent frame the meaning of life and of who I am becomes what I make it as a subjective, self-determining individual. Meaning and significance largely emerge from my internal sense of self. Think of the Disney-esque aphorism, “Follow your heart.” The average person in our culture, as Carl Trueman explains, “sees the world as so much raw material out of which meaning and purpose can be created by the individual.”

When this is the case, how we understand and deal with the reality of suffering and death shifts dramatically. It means that if all that exists is this life, our brief time in the here and now, then this life is also the only source of available purpose and meaning. And if life is more meaningful and we are more of who are supposed to be the less we are suffering and the more comfortable we are, then we will inevitably conclude that it is impossible for suffering to have any meaning or purpose.

However, we can only avoid suffering for so long or to a limited extent. And none of us can avoid death indefinitely. Given this, how then are we to understand suffering and death? Do we simply ignore it, put it out of our minds, and try as hard as we can to focus on our most life-giving and joyful experiences in this life?

To put it another way: is my life only about what I make of it while I am here? Should I live out of the narrative of expressive individualism within the immanent frame? Is the meaning and purpose of my life entirely up to me? Is there is no source of meaning, value, and purpose outside of myself upon which I can depend?

Many, having imbibed the cultural narrative like a fish in water, are more or less living out of a worldview shaped by expressive individualism. Because it is in the air we breathe, it is seen by many as obvious, as the common sense understanding of human life.

Is not Canada’s MAiD legislation merely the logical extension of this? Understanding that there are medical situations where perhaps allowing someone to die is the most compassionate option, have we not gone far beyond that and done so because of a profound shift in the way we see suffering and the value and meaning of human life?

Theologically, it is equivalent to making an idol of our own desires. Human beings are designed to worship, and if it’s not God we worship it will simply be something or someone else. In this case, there is a kind of idolization of self going on. We create our own meaning and purpose. We decide what gives or does not give human life its value. We have the power over life and death. We are in control. The sovereign self — not the God revealed in Scripture — sits on the throne.

Scripture makes clear that we do not determine the number of our days. In Psalm 139 the psalmist points this out prayerfully: Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all my days were written in your book and planned before a single one of them began. Think about God’s words to the prophet Jeremiah (1:5): Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. While the words of God’s prophetic call to Jeremiah were specific to him, of course, God’s complete knowledge of him apply to all of us.

We did not bring ourselves into existence. Nor are we actually in the position of manufacturing the reasons for our existence from whole cloth. And our worth and dignity as human beings is also not subjectively determined. The creation account of Genesis is of profound importance in this regard: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Humankind is the crown of God’s creative work. Indeed, we are given the responsibility and privilege of tending to the world in which he has placed us as his representatives.

All of this is to say that the meaning of human life, including that of suffering and death, comes to us from a source outside of us. In other words, the biblical narrative runs altogether counter to the cultural narrative of expressive individualism within an immanent frame. For this reason, Christians ought to be profoundly uncomfortable with legislation like MAiD. Because its accounting of the value of human life, and our understanding of suffering, falls profoundly and disturbingly short of the biblical standard of human dignity and purpose. And it does so while using language that claims to be the most compassionate and sensitive to those enduring great pain and difficulty.

As persons in this broken world, we live between the altar and the grave, between that which (or whom) we worship and the reality of our eventual death. And the former is what gives meaning to the latter. When such meaning is confined to the subjective self, to what we feel we want or ought to have or deserve, then death becomes a reality to ignore at all costs. Or death becomes our ultimate attempt at self-control, of exiting this mortal frame on our terms rather than those set by our Creator.

Yet this is why the psalmist can utter words that sound as strange as this: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. Only within a worldview where not all meaning and purpose and value is confined to this life, where there is the hope of eternity in the presence of the one who made us, are such words encouraging rather than off-putting. Because the Lord no more delights in death than we do. And so, as the Christian tradition has always taught, confessed, and believed, God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, entered his own sin-soaked creation to endure death in order to defeat death. And the Lord’s saints, upon breathing their last, then enter into the presence of the very one who formed them in the womb and gave them breath.

Knowing this, living into this, ought to mean that in the face of very real suffering and the inevitability of death we adopt a very different and distinct posture and attitude. In particular, our decisions in these profoundly painful and emotionally sensitive times of our lives ought to give witness to the beautiful dignity we have as persons made in the image of God; to the value each person has no matter their physical condition and mental health; and to the reality that the meaning of life, and therefore that of suffering and death, is not determined by us nor is it limited to the immanent frame.

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