Whenever anyone entered my childhood home in upstate New York, they would see two framed black-and-white photographs on our dining room table. If they were perceptive, they would sense that ours was a home connected to eternity, in irrevocable and irreparable ways. The photographs were of my 37-year old mother, Hanna, and 10-year-old sister, Esther.
My mother died from a massive brain aneurysm when I was one year old, just seven days after giving birth to her eighth child. Five years to the day after Mom’s death, my sister Esther died of osteosarcoma.
After the loss of his soulmate, my bereaved father began a tradition of setting a place for my mother at every family meal. This would continue even after Dad remarried, and for as long as we kids lived at home. We always placed Mom’s portrait—she’s holding a rose and smiling—above the plate. After my sister’s death, her picture joined Mom’s. We set that place for them regardless of how many guests we’d invited; and if someone happened to join us spontaneously, we’d welcome them to “use Mom and Esther’s place.”
In this way, and without realizing it, I was raised with a daily practice of memento mori. Latin for “remember that you must die,” memento mori is a symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. Though as a child I could not have articulated it, I knew intuitively that by enshrining our mother’s and sister’s memory, we were acknowledging both the finality of their absence and the thinness of the veil keeping us apart. Some of my closest friends would later tell me it gave them pause every time they entered our house: two dearly loved family members were not there in body, but certainly present in spirit.
Growing up in the Bruderhof church community, which has a tradition of acknowledging the cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 12 as part of our living faith, I simply took for granted that those who had died remained part of the same eternal church of which we who went on living were a small part. My child’s heart, which had experienced deep loss very early, took comfort and inspiration from these words by German pastor and theologian C. F. Blumhardt in Now is Eternity which were often shared as a reminder of the transcendent nature of the church:
We must vie with those in heaven. Our task is to give light on earth, in earthly weakness; theirs is to give light in heaven, in eternal brightness. Who will do more? Let us be watchful, lest we are someday put to shame. It is the same race, though we are stationed at different posts, and the same goal. Let us press on together: they carrying out their duty above; we doing ours below.
It was a matter of course to me that my mother and sister (and numerous other departed loved ones) were linked to our here-and-now reality; I perceived them as a loving, guiding presence, never far from me.
That feeling has stayed with me, though I left the home in which I was raised a long time ago. In the years since, we’ve buried my father and stepmother. On their anniversaries or on special occasions, their photos grace the wall of my own home, in northern New South Wales, Australia. Beside them are occasional pictures of my mom, my sister, and my husband’s dad. There are no empty places at our table, but the lives of those I’ve loved who have gone on ahead inspire me every day. And I will always be grateful to my father for the lesson he taught me and my siblings: accepting and honoring the reality of death is a life-giving practice. Rather than agitate, it reassures. Rather than scare, it secures. It makes grief into a gift that provides a framework for a more fulfilled living.
Now, as I celebrate my twentieth Eastertide in Australia, I reflect on how natural it is to fear decay and loss—whether physical, moral, political, or relational. And how, at the same time, the season of Lent and Easter reminds us that sometimes things must die in order to bear a new fullness of life.
We mark Easter in autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, and the landscape around me becomes at this time of year a visible memento mori: it is the season of dying back and shedding and slouching toward winter rest. Gone are the snowdrops, crocuses, cherry blossoms, fluffy chicks, and hatching butterflies that gladdened my childhood Easters with new-life symbols and accessible resurrection motifs. Instead, I’m left with the peeling bark of regenerating eucalyptus trees, falling leaves from the deciduous varieties we’ve planted, departing songbirds, and shortening days. Easter in Australia asks me to enter into a deeper time of contemplation on the true meaning of Jesus’s words, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).
What is the “kernel of wheat” we should be willing to let die at this moment in history? This question should confront each of us personally, and all of us collectively, as a global church. We live in a time when, across so many of our communities, isolation and division have fueled the death of comforting connections and rich spiritual traditions and left us grasping for guiding handholds that just don’t seem to be there anymore. Or we chase after leaders (ecclesiastical and civic) whose charisma lures us in, and, all too often, is its own reward. We love our Jesus risen, not crucified and dying; exalted, not broken and entombed. We celebrate the harvest, but shun the sacrifice.
“He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). John the Baptist throws down the gauntlet, and shows us a place to start. Do we dare to use ourselves up, to our last breath, in service to Christ and to our “fellow-passengers to the grave,” as Charles Dickens put it, content to cross this earth-bridge without leaving a visible and heroic legacy? In a time when everyone has a voice on a vociferous platform of their choosing, are we content to sit with those in the margins, and simply to listen?
In my church, we sing the much-loved song “The Wisp of Straw” by Georg Johannes Gick at both Christmas and Easter, and it goes to the heart of the mystery of dying so that we might live. The song is written in the voice of a wisp of straw, grateful to have helped make a manger bed for the holy child. But that is not all:
When you bless the great broad world to its very end,
I shall be a ripened field
waiting for your hand.
Before you die for all men’s sake on the lifted cross,
I shall be the bread you break
to redeem our loss.
The ground wheat that forms the broken bread of the Eucharist, and the crushed grapes that blend into its wine, ask us to reject all that is glamorous and self-aggrandizing, to dispense with efficient models driven by numbers, growth, and slick marketing. Our Lord’s last deed of love before he died and the first after his resurrection were inglorious acts of service: he washed his disciples’ feet; he cooked them breakfast. The risen Christ asks us to go and live, walk, and grieve beside his wounded and weary brothers and sisters—and, when our time is up, to be joyfully content never to be spoken of again, knowing the work is God’s, not ours.
Theologian Eberhard Arnold put it like this in his essay “Obstacles” from Called to Community: “Only to the degree that all our own power is dismantled will God be able to give the fruits of the spirit and build up his kingdom through us, in us, and among us. There is no other way.”
As a global church, as a local congregation, as spiritual individuals, may we embrace the daily dying to self as our memento mori to lead us to deeper living and loving in this life, and into the one to come.
Then, released from the obsessive, primal drive to be recognized and feted, to be immortalized among mortals, we will truly be able to comprehend Jesus’ words that follow his analogy of a kernel of wheat dying in order to prosper: “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25).
Norann Voll is a farmer’s daughter from New York, and now lives at the Danthonia Bruderhof in rural Australia with her husband, Chris, and three sons. She writes for Plough on discipleship, motherhood, and feeding people.
This article is part of New Life Rising which features articles and Bible study sessions reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Learn more about this special issue that can be used during Lent, the Easter season, or any time of year at http://orderct.com/lent.
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