Word of the Day: Memento Mori

Word of the Day

Today’s word of the day is actually a phrase of the day, and it’s in Latin: memento mori. The Latin phrase means, according to www.dictionary.com, “1. remember that you must die; 2. an object, as a skull, serving as a reminder of death or mortality.” According to www.etymonline.com, the phrase entered the language in the “1590s, a decorative object, usually an ornament for the person, containing emblems of death or reminders of the fleetingness of life, common in 16c., a Latin phrase, literally ‘remember to die,’ that is, ‘remember that you must die.’ From second person singular imperative of meminisse ‘to remember, recollect, think of, bear in mind’ (a reduplicated form, related to mens ‘mind,’ from PIE root *men- (1) ‘to think’) + mori ‘to die’ (from PIE root *mer- ‘to rub away, harm’ (also ‘to die’ and forming words referring to death and to beings subject to death).”

Today Christians around the world are celebrating Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the liturgical season called Lent “(late 14c., short for Lenten [n.] ‘the forty days of fasting before Easter’ in the Christian calendar (early 12c.), from Old English lencten ‘springtime, spring,’ the season, also ‘the fast of Lent,’ from West Germanic *langitinaz ‘long-days,’ or ‘lengthening of the day’ [source also of Old Saxon lentin, Middle Dutch lenten, Old High German lengizin manoth]).” It is called Ash Wednesday in part because many Christians undergo the “imposition” of ashes.

Lent, which lasts 40 days (Sundays are not included, which is why it can last all the way to a Sunday), is a season during which Christians are supposed to contemplate the nature and extent of their sins in preparation for Holy Week and Easter. Many Christians do something special for the period of Lent: some give up something, like sweets, while others take on something, like reading more from Scripture. For denominations that do not normally have a midweek evening service, Lent features a Wednesday night service.

On the day of Ash Wednesday, some churches have one or more services that culminate in the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the parishioners, along with communion. The imposition of ashes leaves a smudge on people’s foreheads, which sometimes appears there again the next day. The original imposition puts the ashes on in the form of a cross, but often the smudge just looks like a smudge. When the pastor crosses the parishioner with the ashes, s/he says something like, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is clearly a memento mori.

I’m a little bit short tonight, but that is because I went to the Ash Wednesday service at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Pendleton, SC. And yes, the pastor put ashes on my forehead.

The image is from https://airmaria.com/2016/02/10/some-things-about-ash-wednesday/.

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