Ancient scholars Jerome and Tertullian referenced stories of how in ancient Rome, after a general triumphed in an epic victory, he would be paraded atop a gleaming chariot down the capital’s central thoroughfares from dawn to sunset. The crowd would roar. The general would bask in the adoration, reveling in the greatest honor of his life. However, legend has it that a servant stood behind the general the entire day, whispering into his ear, Memento mori (“Remember you will die”). Amid all the adulation, the general desperately needed the humility that came with remembering that he was mortal.
James wrote to a community infected with prideful desires and an inflated sense of self-sufficiency. Confronting their arrogance, he spoke a piercing word: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (James 4:6). What they needed was to “humble [themselves] before the Lord” (v. 10). And how would they embrace this humility? Like Roman generals, they needed to remember that they would die. “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow,” James insisted. “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (v. 14). And owning their frailty freed them to live under the solidity of the “Lord’s will” rather than their own fading efforts (v. 15).
When we forget that our days are numbered, it can lead to pride. But when we’re humbled by our mortality, we see every breath and every moment as grace. Memento mori.
And that’s the Memo
By Winn Collier and Our Daily Bread