Ever since the global pandemic of COVID-19 had its coming out party in the United States, people from all walks of life have responded differently. What’s been particularly noticeable are the viral videos, songs, selfies, and (thankfully) smatterings of kind gestures from famous athletes, celebrities, and various other cultural V.I.P.s.
One of the earliest celebrity statements in response to COVID-19 was also one of the most bizarre. Madonna released a short video, sitting in a bathtub, surrounded by candles and rose petals, ruminating on the novel Coronavirus. She was clearly trying to be unique and artsy; but she ended up making just about everyone who watched the video feel uncomfortable.
However, once you got past the awkward imagery (and the creepy piano music in the background) Madonna’s words had some truth to them:
“The thing about COVID-19, it doesn’t care about how rich you are, how famous you are, how funny you are, how smart you are, where you live, how old you are, what amazing stories you can tell. It’s the great equalizer, and what’s terrible about it is what’s great about it. What’s terrible about it is that it’s made us all equal in many ways. And what’s wonderful about it is that it’s made us all equal in many ways.”
Madonna may not have realized it at the time, but she was getting perilously close to making a valuable and timeless theological and philosophical observation. It’s an observation that many wise men and women before her (both Christian and non-Christian) have already made. It’s an observation that was true LONG before COVID-19 burst onto the scene. Really, it’s a fact of life in a fallen world that we’d often prefer to not think about, but has bullied its way to the forefront of our minds in recent weeks.
COVID-19 is not the REAL great equalizer; it’s just one of the true great equalizer’s many forms. DEATH is the real great equalizer.
There’s a long tradition of the old saying, “Memento Mori” – Latin for something along the lines of “remember death”. It’s why a great deal of architecture and artwork from earlier eras of history have prominently featured skulls. Many from previous generations found wisdom in intentionally reminding themselves that one day, they will die. None of us is immortal.
One of my most prized possessions is a copy of an 1853 Book of Common Prayer (mine was printed in 2013, but the content is an almost identical copy of the 1853 version). I use it for my own daily prayer, and reference it when I prepare for sermons, weddings, funerals, and other significant events in my life as a Christian and as a pastor.
In the back of the book, you find all 150 Psalms. But along with the (sometimes challenging) old English words, there are images like these:
Why all the skeletons, you ask? To remind the reader of death. Each page of psalms features an image of someone from almost every walk of life being escorted by a skeleton: from the emperor to the peasant, the lawyer to the baker, the elderly to the young. It was understood in 1853 that death is the real great equalizer, and that there was great wisdom in remembering that truth.
Why would someone purposely dwell on something as morbid and unpleasant as their own death? Well, there may be more wisdom to it than we think. Remembering our mortality can remind us to focus on what truly matters, rather than getting caught up in trivial pursuits. It can humble us when we’re tempted to believe that we’re invincible. Perhaps most of all, it can challenge us to think about the eternal truths of our faith – sin, judgment, grace, and salvation – when we’re distracted with worldly concerns.
Death has been the great equalizer ever since the Garden of Eden. God warned Adam that he must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) Of course, Adam failed to obey God’s command, and ever since that first sin, death has been the universal experience for Adam and Eve’s children (with few notable exceptions – Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament, for example). Whether you’re old or young, rich or poor, famous or unknown – one day, unless Jesus returns first, you will die. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
While we know this deep down, generally speaking, we are still quite good at not thinking about death. We imagine that we’ll all live to a good old age and die peacefully in our beds (though we know that’s not necessarily true). We get in our cars and drive on the interstate without even thinking twice about how one wrong turn of the wheel (by us, or by one of the other thousands of cars we pass) could instantly kill us. We go to funerals, and might be shocked by the reality of death for an afternoon – but then quickly return to our old ways of pushing that unwelcome realization back under the rug where it belongs.
In Psalm 90:12, Moses asks that God “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom”. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes 9:12 observes that death can strike suddenly: like a fish caught in a net, or a bird caught in a trap. In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus tells the story of eighteen people killed unexpectedly when the tower in Siloam fell. Jesus does not encourage speculation about why those people died so tragically; rather, he tells their story to spur his hearers on to repentance before they too perish.
The point is this: wisdom demands that we remember death as the great equalizer (and it shouldn’t take a destructive and ruthless global pandemic to remind us of that). While we live, we should not forget that one day, we will die.
And of course, we must ask: are we prepared to face that reality?
Ironically, the only way we can be truly “prepared” for our own death is by looking to someone else’s death. This week of Easter, we’ll do just that. We’ll remember Jesus’s broken body and shed blood on the cross, and celebrate what he accomplished on our behalf: forgiveness of sins, and reconciliation with God. We’ll also remember Jesus’s resurrection, and what it means: that Jesus is the living, victorious Son of God, sitting at the Father’s right hand – who will one day return to rule and reign forever.
Jesus’s resurrection also reminds us that though death is still the universal experience for mankind, it does not have the final word over those who believe in him. As Paul says in Romans 6:5, “For if we have been united with (Jesus) in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” As Jesus himself told Martha as she wept for her dead brother Lazarus: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)
So, in short: while the delivery and setting were odd, Madonna’s bathtub speech wasn’t entirely wrong. There is a great equalizer every human must face. But it’s not death by COVID-19; it’s death in general. And the only way we can overcome this great equalizer is by faith in Jesus Christ – the one who overcame death himself.
So, remember your death. Doing so will help you live with more wisdom. But remember Christ’s death and resurrection as well. Doing so will help you live with hope and confidence, even in the face of the great equalizer.