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The 1662 Prayer Book’s Burial of the Dead service says, “In the midst of life, we are in death.” In the midst of life, we are also in Lent, a time when the Church thinks about repentance in a heightened way and when the church fathers encouraged us to look towards death. In a time when our phones constantly keep us in the present, thinking purposely about death in the Church becomes counter-cultural. We know that it is death that we will be raised to new life, to real life. What we see on our screens isn’t real life but ninety-second snippets of a staged reality.
Lent is that time where we lean into this reality, contemplating death so that repentance and judgment can be before us. We disengage just a bit more from the false life around us, and we contemplate the true life of resurrection that only comes when we face the cross together with Christ.
Being mindful of death is a virtue that ordinary people rarely practice. As that old spiritual goes, “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die.” People are afraid to think about death because, overall, they are afraid to really live. To live mindful of death is frightening because it means changing everything. Facing death, we begin to treasure every moment, to spend every hour productively, filling it with profound significance, and looking inward to see how prepared we are to meet our Maker. Facing death often deepens relationships with others or with those who we have not appreciated in the past. What is the point of taking offense if we are living our last day; it is better to forgive and to fill the time with kindness and love. When we find the courage to live this way, our life becomes productive, purposeful, and fulfilling. Joy can be born here. We can treasure every minute and every person. Whether praying, or talking with others, writing poetry or painting pictures, inventing or building, we understand that perhaps this is our final opportunity to do something useful on this earth, to work for the good of our neighbor.
Remembering death also deepens our relationship with God. Especially during Lent, this is our greatest goal. If today is our last day, it is, of course, foolish to sin. It is foolish to waste time on YouTube or arguing over politics on social media. It is foolish to curse or argue. It is foolish to take offense at other people. It is foolish to withhold mercy, when we will require all the mercy we can get the very next moment. It is foolish to avoid prayer.
Being mindful of death can invigorate and fill our prayer life, and even our prayer book reminds us of that daily. Since sleep is a form of death as a departure from waking life, our evening prayers are those of repentance and reconciliation before bedtime. “Guide us waking, Oh Lord, and guard us sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in peace.” The connection between sleep and death is stark. It’s a moment to pause and remember our frailty before God and our dependence on God. During Morning Prayer, in the Collect for Endurance for Fridays, we read: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.” On the following day, the Collect for Sabbath Rest reads, “Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in Heaven.” That is what being mindful of death is in light of Christ—having his death, resurrection, and second coming before us. If we don’t stop to think on these things, death will catch us as a thief in the night.
These poetic and profound prayers in the Book of Common Prayer have many counterparts in the liturgies and prayers of churches around the world and throughout Christian history. They all contain a very important thought —how man is to approach the Judgment at the Resurrection. These prayers are eschatological exclamations, the call of the Kingdom of Heaven, that all men may repent and find the mercy of Jesus Christ before the curtain closes on the world. The Bible concludes with the words, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus,” (Revelation 22:20) and in the Lord’s Prayer we ask, “Thy Kingdom come…” The principal idea expressed in these prayers for each morning is that a Christian prepares to both meet God and stand before the Judgment. We must understand that each and every time we begin a new day, we move towards God. In drawing closer to him, we become more and more like him as we behold more and more of his glory. But this movement Godward requires true repentance and real faith, fed each day by the Scriptures, by prayer, by love, by grace. It is this death to ourselves and the letting go of the superficial life around us that brings us to resurrection life on the other side where we will meet our Savior face to face.
Of course, no one lives like this every day, living for God in the light of death. Only Christ did this perfectly. He set his eyes on Jerusalem and was fixed on the Cross even before his incarnation. It was for the joy set before him that towards the Cross he went, nonetheless. In the same way, this is a season when we can join Christ on that mission to Golgotha, fasting and praying and contemplating death, so that we may be ever more prepared for the joy set before us, the joy of Easter, of eternal life.
Francis Capitanio is the Communications Director for the American Anglican Council and served in the same role for the Anglican Diocese in New England (ADNE) for almost six years. Before working in the ADNE, Francis worked as a fisheries biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he got a lot of time to read and write books while floating out at sea on fishing boats. His first novel, Mariner’s Hollow, was published in 2014 and won the Benjamin Franklin Award for Young Adult Fiction.