Immanuel Lutheran Church
Vicar Kaleb Yaeger
Ash Wednesday
February 22, 2023

Memento Mori is a Latin phrase that appears all throughout history. It translates to “Remember that you [will] die.” It’s an uncomfortable reminder that death is coming. These reminders of death would often end up on sundials and clocks. Imagine that every time you checked the time, a little friendly reminder pops up. “Hey, remember, your time is limited. Remember that one day, you will die. Memento Mori.

In one sense, the phrase says “Remember that your days on this earth are numbered. Remember that tomorrow will always come, but it will not always come for you. Remember that, so spend your life wisely.” 

Memento Mori, so go back to school this year instead of next. Memento Mori, so go after that promotion. Memento Mori, so don’t waste your time. How you spend your time is how you spend your life. There is much earthly wisdom in Memento Mori

We could do with this wisdom today. Our society avoids death. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to think about it or draw attention to it. ‘Death comes to us all’ isn’t a great conversation starter. But all this avoidance can’t change the facts. Death is coming. Whether we address it or not, it’s still there. 

But today, we don’t ignore death. Ash Wednesday is a time of Memento Mori. Just a few minutes ago, Pastor Jud and I put ashes on your foreheads, telling you:

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

You are dust, because God formed Adam from the dust of the earth. To dust you shall return, because one day you will die, and your body will turn to dust in its tomb. Time is the great equalizer. It takes both kings and paupers, ushering them all back into the ground. About a hundred years after death, even your bones have returned to dust. Our days on this earth are limited. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We live now, in this brief glimmer between dust and ashes. 

So what shall we do with this short breath of a life? Maybe we should eat, drink and be merry? That is what the world wants to do. The world wants to squeeze every moment dry of any happiness it could contain. It wants to grasp the grains of sand as they flow between its fingers, clawing every precious moment before it falls and is gone forever. 

To such a world, Memento Mori is just about the worst thing you can say. It’s no wonder that our world avoids talking about death. It is a reminder that life is limited, that fun won’t last, and the party eventually comes to an end. It’s the ultimate buzzkill. The world wants to hide from it, run from it, to stay as far away as it can from the inevitable reality of death. 

But the world cannot hide. Death is always just around the corner, ready to put a stop to the party. Some way, somehow, the world will be met with Memento Mori. When it happens, the world reacts in fear and in sadness. Which is fair. Mankind was not created to die. Adam’s sin made it necessary. In Memento Mori we find the strongest preaching of God’s law. It is only because of sin that we die, so every Memento Mori, every reminder of death, is also a reminder of sin. As God’s word says:

The wages of sin is death

Memento Mori, for you have sinned against God. Memento Mori, for you are a child of Adam. Memento Mori, your time is running out. The Last Day is coming. Your last day is coming. No man knows the day nor the hour of either. So what shall you do with this glimmer of a life? St. Paul writes

Behold, now is the favorable time; 

Now is the favorable time. ‘Now’ means while you yet live. ‘Now’ means in this brief moment between dust and ashes. No man knows how long he has left on this earth. Tomorrow will always come, but it will not always come for you. Do not spend your days in wickedness, eating, drinking and being merry. Do not spend them in sin, in open rebellion against God. Instead, as the prophet Joel writes: 

Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love

God is gracious. God is merciful. He will forgive you. Turn from your wickedness and you will live. Repent, and God will not condemn you. Repent now, while there is still time. Once you die it is too late. 

Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

God is slow to anger. He abounds in steadfast love. He abounds in so much love that He gave His only Son to die for you. Jesus, when he walked the earth, knew that He would die. No-one had to say Memento Mori to Jesus. He knew. He knew where His earthly journey would take Him, and He went to Calvary anyway. Jesus breathed His last on the cross for you. 

But death was not the end for Jesus. He rose from the grave three days later. By His resurrection, He has forever changed Memento Mori for you. Memento Mori, dear Christian, but death is not the end for you either. You too will be raised with Christ. You will greet all the saints who have gone before you. You will join in the marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom, which shall have no end. 

For you, dear Christian, Memento Mori is no longer a phrase of fear. Instead, Memento Mori means this: One day, dear Christian, you will rest in your tomb. One day, you will leave behind every trouble and trial here on earth. One day, you will have rest from your labors. Your life here will end. 

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return, but dust you will not remain. The word of the LORD is sure and certain. Even though the heavens and the earth may pass away, God’s word will remain. God promises a resurrection for you. The Last Day is coming. Your last day is coming. But as certain as death, your resurrection is coming too. The day will come when Jesus will return and take you and all believers in Christ to be with Him forever and ever. 

Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

Behold, Christian. Now is the day of God’s salvation. Today, this very day. Right now, God gives these great promises to you. Today, in just a few minutes, you will have a foretaste of the feast to come on this very altar. Today remember not just your own death, not just Memento Mori, but remember His death. Remember the cross of Christ, who by His death has destroyed death. Memento Mori holds no sting for you. Ever since Christ died, death has been made into a toothless dog. 

Remember that death is not the end. Christ died. Christ destroyed death, and He proved it. He proved His power over death by walking out of its toothless jaws that first Easter morning. In the words of St. Paul,

For if we have been united with Christ in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.