“So teach us to number our days that we apply our hearts to wisdom” — Psalm 90: 12
In the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we are reminded that we are formed out of the dust of the earth and that unto that dust we shall return. Even when we live our lives in faith, trusting God each and every day, we cannot know the exact hour of our death. One day, your life and mine will end. That is not idle speculation, but a truth we cannot avoid.
It is possible, of course, to live much of our lives blissfully unaware of our own mortality, that is until someone close to us dies and we are harshly reminded of our own finitude. We live in a culture that, for the most part, acts as if life goes on and on forever. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argues that the fear of death is the mainspring of human activity. The rush of our activity is the very mechanism that we employ to deny the reality of our own mortality.
Ten or twelve years ago as I was reading, an unexpected quote from the French literary theorist Roland Barthes struck a chord within me. I still remember it. In a lecture Barthes gave in 1978, he remarked:
The middle of my life is nothing other than the moment when I discover death as real. And then all of a sudden is produced this evidence, on the one hand, that I no longer have time to try several lives. I have to choose my last life, my new life, my vita nuova; and on the other hand, I must leave this tenebrous state where the wear and tear of repeated work and mourning have conducted me.
Barthes’ words spoke to me in a number of ways. The first was to remind me that I am beyond middle-aged. To this time, I have lived the life of parish priest and professor and, like most people I know, I still wonder at times what it might be like to try a completely different profession. When I was young, I could dream of all my possible futures, now in the years past middle-age I must endeavor to live the life I now have — the only life I have — to its fullest.
Second, I realized how important is it to take time to reflect on the life we now are living. When we purposely remind ourselves of our own mortality, it helps us to become better stewards of the life that we have been given. Because we have a limited life on this earth, we must learn, as the psalmist says, “to number our days,” striving each day to live the best life that we can with what we have been given.
The good news of the gospel is that death is not our final end. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead inaugurates the possibility of both a “vita nuova,” a new life, in the present and of eternal life with God in our future. St. Paul recognized this when he wrote, “…If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”(2 Cor. 5:17).
What would it look like if you were to claim the new life that God has in store for you? What would it take for you to live the life that God has given you to the fullest? “
“Awake O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light” (Eph. 5: 14) and life.