Remembering Death at Advent

Friday, Dec. 03, 2021
By Marie Mischel
Intermountain Catholic

I’m meditating on death this Advent season.

No, this isn’t as grim nor as unusual at it might first seem. Advent is a time not only to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but also to ready ourselves for the parousia, when Jesus Christ will return at the end of the world and judge humankind.

The Second Coming was the focus of the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent; in it, Jesus tells his disciples to “be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Even were I to focus my Advent contemplation only on the birth of Christ, I couldn’t escape the undercurrent of death. First was the possibility that Jesus could have died in the womb, had Joseph allowed Mary to be stoned – the punishment for adultery under Mosaic law. Then came the threat from King Herod, who ordered the death of all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of 2 as a means of preventing a challenge to his crown.  

Then, too, there is the symbolism of the wood of the manger foreshadowing the wood of the Cross as well as echoing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the fruit of which Adam and Eve ate, thereby bringing death into the world.

But mostly I’m meditating on death this Advent season because I’m reading Memento Mori: An Advent Companion on the Last Things, the most recent in the Memento Mori series by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP. (For those who don’t recall their catechism, in Christian theology, the Last Things are death, judgement, heaven and hell.)

I’m only a few days into the book, but just based on the first couple of chapters I’m wholeheartedly recommending it for Advent reading. Sr. Noble starts with a history of the phrase memento mori, (“remember your death”) pointing out that it “has been used for millennia in the Christian tradition” and noting that “For Christians, death is illuminated by the hope that comes to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

She acknowledges that “Advent might seem like a liturgical season associated more with the joyful anticipation of Christmas than meditation on death and the other Last Things” but “Advent would mean nothing if Jesus did not come to save us from death, humanity’s most intimidating enemy and impossible adversary. Jesus was born to die. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus brought us life. … Of the many beneficial ways to celebrate Advent, meditating on the Last Things trains us to recognize what is truly important: God.”

 The introductory chapters appealed to me immediately because I found them educational while being easy to read but not condescending. Then, too, Sr. Noble is my kind of retreat master; her advice is “Don’t feel like a failure if you are unable to read [the book] every day. Do what you can, and God’s grace fills in the gaps. In fact, that is the point of this practice. Memento mori is centered on God’s grace, not our abilities.”

After the introductory chapters, the book is divided into two-and three-page chapters, one for every day of the Advent season. Separate chapters on Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell begin the sections for each week of Advent. The daily chapters contain Scripture passages from that day’s Mass readings, a reflection, quotes to use as a basis for the Examen, and prompts to use for journaling and prayer. The beautiful works of art that open each chapter are perfect for visio divina.

For me, reading the book has paid off immensely; I already am more conscious of my behavior in the light of this quote from the Book of Sirach, which appears in the first chapter of Sr. Noble’s book: “In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin.”

Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. Reach her at marie@icatholic.org.

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