Why Does Lent Call Us to Remember Death?

“Remember that you are dust and into dust you shall return.”

– Eccl. 1:20

“I’ve had this premonition,” my dad began musing as my family gathered together to share a holiday meal, “that when I die, it will be sudden, like in a car accident or heart attack.” My father has always been introspective and a deep thinker, but this caught everyone off guard. He isn’t the type to believe in premonitions or abstract ideologies, instead being the pragmatic and logical engineer we all love.

I noticed everyone sitting a little straighter in our seats as our attention turned to my father, who was then swishing his glass of red wine — at that point half consumed — and furrowing his brow. “It’s not a morbid sense,” he continued. “I’m not scared to die. I just get the feeling I won’t linger.”

I wondered in that moment whether God, in His great mercy, had given my father a warning of sorts, some intuition that would help him prepare for a sudden death. In my experience, God has always done this for me when something very drastic or significant was on the horizon in my life: finding and marrying Ben, who lived fifteen hundred miles away; preparing myself for the birth of a daughter with a disability; detaching myself from our beloved parish shortly before I discovered we would undergo a major move.

Thoughts swirled through my imagination further about the importance of pondering our death without fear or preoccupation with the macabre. Each of us should approach death with humility, gratitude for life and all we’ve been given, and readiness to greet eternity.

I’m not sure I will ever feel worthy of heaven, nor that my father feels he is. Maybe none of us really believes we are worthy, because inherently we are not. But we carry the flame of hope inside our souls, which is what drives us to keep striving for it. Lent grants us the opportunity to refocus our efforts at growing in virtue when it is all too easy to think, “I can try to work on that tomorrow.”

No one is given the guarantee of tomorrow, let alone the next breath. Lent whispers, “Remember who you are – dirt and dust, ashen earth and nothing more.” God breathed man into being, and it is He who takes man’s last breath from him.

“Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy.” – Pope Francis

One of my favorite Advent readings (yes, Advent) is “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life…” (Luke 21: 34). Like St. John the Baptist who paved the way for Jesus, Advent does this for me so that I am more alert when Lent rolls around shortly after the Christmas season officially and liturgically ends. Spiritual drowsiness, or lethargy, is a sort of drunkenness.

It’s easy for me to settle into a stupor of comfort and routine, but I know I need to be rattled awake, sometimes unexpectedly, in order that I might not fall asleep like the foolish virgins who missed greeting their Bridegroom. Vigilance, attentiveness, listening — these are the hallmarks of entering into Lent with the mindset that I can find God anew, even and especially in subtle ways.

Ashes symbolize penance and the frailty of human life

If you’ve ever heard of the phrase memento mori, it loosely translates into “Remember your death!” There’s a sense of urgency, almost an imperative for us to be cognizant at all times that we are finite creatures whose earthly bodies will certainly perish. Traditionally, many Catholic artists have depicted memento mori with human skulls in their work, not as a morbid fascination but as a reminder of our mortality.

Because Ben and I are raising a medically fragile child whose condition is nebulous and lifespan uncertain, I often tell others that we straddle the fence where life and death meet. It is a constant in our life that death could be waiting for us – for Sarah, mostly – any time, without warning or reason. As a result, I am keenly aware of the dying and all the ways death present opportunities for me to live and love more fully the moment I’ve been given now.

I feel Lent gifts us with the invitation to meditate on our life and death and the ways in which the two converge on a daily basis through the hidden sufferings and small resurrections we surely experience. Remembering my mortality and that of every person in my life grants me newfound appreciation for the time I’ve been given with each of them, knowing that time is certainly another facet of God’s mercy – that I might change, repent, forgive, and ask for forgiveness.

Lent is about becoming, doing, and changing

One of the practices that has resulted from my acute awareness that death waits for me and my loved ones is that of praying for the dying and the dead. When Ben and I moved to a new city, we didn’t realize that we’d pass a cemetery nearly every day while driving. In the past, I’ve nominally acknowledged tombstones as I’d whiz past their silent monuments of real people who once walked the same earth I do. Now, I always, always pause to pray, “Eternal rest, grant unto them, O Lord…”

It stems from that urgency of paying attention to everything around me – the living and breathing aspects of creation I otherwise ignore, like my houseplants and dog and children. I appreciate and value life more robustly, because I notice death, too. I see the languishing bird who mistakenly flew into our storm door. I find the patch of tulips in the front yard wilted and brown. My heart breaks when our dog limps into the family room from age and arthritis.

Time is a gift, just as life is a gift. Lent brings me back to the place in my heart where I am able to weep with God over those who are lost and lonely while still rejoicing at the reality that nothing and no one is ever truly hopeless, that even after death, life still awaits.

Photo by Ralph Darabos on Unsplash


JEANNIE EWING is a Catholic spirituality writer and national inspirational speaker. Among her eight books, From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph, is her most popular. She is a frequent guest on podcasts, radio shows, and has appeared on EWTN, CatholicTV, and ShalomWorld. Her deepest desire is to accompany those who suffer and are lonely. Visit her website at jeannieewing.com for more information.

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