Friday, December 12, 2008


Momento mori!

Remember man that you must die!

“Alas poor Yorick.”

There’s a cheery thought.

Yet for a Christian steeped in his faith this is not the worst thing that could happen. In fact we contemplate it, prepare for it, and if we gain any amount of spiritual maturity (while maybe still being afraid of the dying process) look forward to it. It is the idea of death that moves us to action. If we would never die, if we had not the idea of the passage of time, we might perpetually put all things off till tomorrow. Death is a motivator. And if it is a motivator in things of this life, it also reminds us to use this life to prepare for that glorious (or horrible) life in the next. It is not a morbid practice to think on death as long as the promise Christ reminds us of its meaning, fills us with hope, and fends off despair.

So if you see a beautiful picture of, say, Saint Jerome in his cave with his penitential rock (Oh! Jerome – if it weren’t for that rock!) and all of his writing utensils, a crucifix, his cardinal, robes, a lion resting at his feet like a pet dog and a skull sitting on his table, the skull should not be shocking or disgusting, it should remind us of the transitory nature of this world and focus us on the life to come. It was this that allowed Jerome to swallow his pride and seek forgiveness for his transactions.

Often saints, particularly monks, will have a skull symbolically placed by them showing their rejection of earthly enticements for the enticements of heaven. Conversely a person who does not pay head to these things but lavishes themselves in the delights of this world might be depicted with all of their “stuff” around them and in a corner or under a table or behind them on a shelf will be a skull giving the viewer the hint that while this may look awfully nice, it will all pass away and if the person has not stored up treasure in heaven they are in for mighty poor after life.

Sometimes too you will see a skull at the base of the crucifix. Remember that the place where Christ was crucified was also called, “The Place of the Skull,” or in other less poetic translations, “Skull Place” which sounds more like the latest dance club. Legend also says that the cross stood on the bones of Adam and that it is through the cross that all men would be redeemed.


Adoro said...

Funny you should mention death today...just got word that Cardinal Dulles has passed away.

Deacon Bill Burns said...

At the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, there's a window cut into the wall down below the place of the crucifixion and even a little chapel (the Chapel of Adam), the traditional grave of Adam.

My first guide, a Salesian priest who works in Bethlehem, indicated that most of these sites are traditional but purely commemorative. However, he indicated that Golgotha and the tomb are essentially real (although the tomb may not be precisely where the Edicule stands but within the vicinity).

My second guide, an official Israeli tour guide, said the tomb couldn't be there because it was within the Shabbat zone of the Old City of the time. However, a friend of mine ran that by Steve Ray, who pointed out the thousands of tombs just outside the souther wall of the city (including the traditional tombs of many kings and prophets).