Mortality

Fugue W. Zeitler [PIANO]

"The Church of Christ in Every Age"

Improvisation

One of the big themes of Lent is "ashes to ashes, dust to dust … to dust you shall return." In short, Mortality.

Our bodies are of course comprised of cells, each with its own lifespan. The cells lining your stomach live about two days, red blood cells about four months, pancreas cells for a year or so, bone cells for decades. We tend to think of our bodies as almost static objects (aging slowly), but in reality we’re more like walking hotels of cells with constant churn, some guests staying a night or so, and others for years.

In addition to the individual cells, my living body is a super-structure of these living cells, with my own lifespan. And one sub-community/structure of cells – the heart, say – can go awry and take out the rest of the cell hotel that is`me’.

This notion of Life as living structures built out of other living structures can be extended to countries: the United States is a community/structure of individual people immigrating or being born here, and emigrating elsewhere or dying here. So our country as a whole is its own ‘hotel’ of people with its own churn. So perhaps even our country is mortal.  (The notion of our country as a whole entering ‘senility’ would certainly explain a lot of the six-o’clock news!)

Some have argued that civilizations as a whole are also massive ‘living hotels’ and as such have their own life cycle; that a civilization is born, has its glorious youth and golden middle age, and barring catastrophe (like a meteor or an invading army) eventually sinks into senility and dies. Including Western Civilization as a whole. After all, every country and civilization before us believed they were ‘immortal’ but they turned out to be mistaken.

Even Humanity is not necessarily ‘immortal’. About 75,000 years ago in Indonesia the volcano Mount Toba exploded (on the site of modern day Lake Toba), ejecting some 670 CUBIC MILES of ash and lava. It was the largest known explosive event on Earth in the last 25 million years. (On the Volcanic Explosivity Index — something like a volcano Richter Scale — Krakatoa measured 6, and Toba 8.) Toba’s eruption covered South Asia with about 6 inches of ash and enormous volumes of sulpher dioxide, suffocating virtually all life in its reach. And the resulting Volcanic Winter lasted a century or so, wreaking profound havoc on the Earth’s entire ecosystem. Anthropologists are pretty sure that the global human population was reduced to a few thousand people.

And the Solar System is mortal. The Sun was ‘born’ about 4.5 billion years ago, and has an estimated 4.5 billion years to go. (And when it goes, so does the Earth.) So in human lifetime terms, the Sun is ’middle aged’.

Even the Cosmos as a whole is ’mortal’. The scientific community generally agrees that the Big Bang ("Let there be light!") occured some 14 billion years ago, and the Cosmos has been expanding ever since. The ultimate fate of the universe is not so clear, however. Cosmologists are divided between a Universe which will ultimately collapse back on itself in a ’Big Crunch’, or a Universe that will continue to expand until it tears itself apart (the ’Big Rip’) or it spreads itself so thin that concentrations of energy are no longer possible (e.g. stars) and everything sinks into a ’Big Freeze’. Estimates vary greatly, but are generally in the tens of billions of years, making the Cosmos as a whole roughly ’middle aged’.

In short, everything we know on this earthly plane is mortal — including this earthly plane itself. But instead of wasting our finite lives being gloomy about their finiteness, we can harness that knowledge to make the most of the Gift we have been given…

All of us have a ’last day’. If I knew that "Today is it!" … how would I treat those around me differently? Would I not savor the gift of my next breath, my next meal, of birds and trees, and loved ones, and music, and…?

To me it’s yet one more Paradox of Life — that mindfulness of our mortality, and death all too soon can help us live TODAY far more deeply and fully. That’s Lent for you, I suppose.