It is known as a memento mori. A tangible reminder of the brevity of life.
The name comes from a practice of the Romans. A slave would accompany a victorious general in his chariot as he rode along in the triumphal celebration. As the crowds cheered the warrior’s return, the slave would stand behind him and whisper, “Memento mori.” The phrase means, “Remember that you must die.” It was a reality check intended to relax the grip of dangerous pride and point toward the passing nature of human glory. It also clearly stated that life is short.
Over the centuries, memento mori have taken many forms. In some instances, it was a skull kept on display or an image of a deceased person. The clockmakers of Europe created mechanical images of the Grim Reaper to come out on the hour and ring the chimes marking the passing of irretrievable moments. Still other cultures used trinkets and jewelry to remind them of how life moves swiftly along.
For me, it’s the milk display in grocery stores.
Every time I stand there and try to determine if it’s a whole milk, low-fat milk or chocolate milk kind of week, I check the expiration dates and think, “I have one of those too.”
I don’t stare at the label on the gallon jug and think, “Calcium, protein and ensuing death: all parts of a healthy diet.” Nor do I contemplate my mortality over every bowl Cheerios, but the ritual of looking through the dates is a strong reminder for me.
I have an expiration date, and you do too. One day that date will arrive, and it will not be printed on a carton in ink, but it will be chiseled in stone.
It’s just that none of us know when that date will come.
In Galatians 6:10, Paul writes, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
The Greek word for “opportunity” in the verse means a “fixed period of time.” It is a season for action that you will not get again. In fact, we get our English word “opportunity” from another Latin phrase: “ob portu” or “toward the port.” Sailing ships would sit offshore facing the port and wait until the tides were high enough so that they might land safely.
Your fixed time, your opportunity, is the span of your life. It is not so much that your life is dotted with, or even full of opportunities you should take, rather your life itself is the opportunity. We all are to redeem, or “buy back,” time to make the best use of it.
“See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).
“Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time” (Colossians 4:5).
I don’t know about you, but I ask myself often, “How are you spending this life? Is it redemptive? Are you making the most of it?”
The next time you stand at the dairy case, scanning those dates that soon will be firmly in the past, pause for a moment, inhale and exhale slowly once or twice, then remember how that breath is a gift with a purpose.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
William Shakespeare – Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3
(Photo from http://www.macyhome.co.nz)