Death as a sign of hope
Father J. Ronald Knott
I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live. John 11: 25-26
Over the last several weeks of Lent, we have been invited through the Sunday readings to conversion of life. We were invited to the desert for insight, to the mountaintop for perspective, to the well for satisfaction and to the doctor for healing. On the last Sunday of Lent, we are invited to the grave for hope.
When a priest blesses a grave, the designated prayer refers to the great paradox of the grave being a “sign of hope”:
“Lord Jesus Christ, by your own three days in the tomb, you hallowed the graves of all who believe in you and so made the grave a sign of hope that promises resurrection even as it claims our mortal bodies.”
For non-believers, the grave is the end of the line. For believers, it is a sign of hope.
On this final Sunday of Lent, we are invited to Lazarus’ grave for an important lesson. The raising of Lazarus from the dead, like many of the stories in the gospel of John, has two levels of understanding: one on the surface that is true and one below the surface that is truer still.
This intimate story is meant to reveal to us not only how close Jesus was to Martha, Mary and Lazarus, but also how intimate God’s relationship is with us.
By listening to their dialogue, we are taught what they were taught: about how much God loves us, about God’s willingness to give us new life and about God’s power over our worst enemy — death itself. By listening to their dialogue and exchanges, we are able to get a glimpse into our own futures — we are able to see where we are headed — toward a new life, life eternal, on the other side of this life.
“Memento mori” is a Latin phrase translated as “Remember death.” In ancient Rome, the words are believed to have been used on the occasions when a Roman general was parading through the streets during a victory triumph. Standing behind the general was his slave, who was tasked to remind the general that, though his highness was at its peak today, tomorrow he could fall or, more likely, be brought down. It is further possible that the slave said instead, “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” (Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!)
At the beginning of Lent, when we received ashes, we were reminded of our mortality when the priest or deacon said to us, “Remember, man, that thou are dust and into dust you shall return.” The prospect of death serves not merely to emphasize the emptiness of earthly pleasures and achievements, but also the prospects of an afterlife.
On this final Sunday of Lent, we are reminded moreso that “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.”