The Shadow of Death

Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. “And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go” (John 11:39-44).

This summer marks 31 years since I sat first by the bedside of a parishioner and watched him die. It is an experience that I’ve now repeated hundreds of times. Some things are similar, while some are different – we do not all die in the same manner. But there is an existential quality shared by them all. To a great extent those who surround the dying and the dead make a great rush for the “second-storey” of the universe, uttering words of deep assurance to one another with scenes drawn from the cultural tales that populate that land of unmixed joy and wonder.

Virtually everything we fear is quickly covered by the comfort of second-storey tales. “He is with Mom.” “They no longer have to suffer the pain of being apart.” When my grandmother died, the Presbyterian minister who spoke at her graveside said that “God had called her home to enjoy her delicious biscuits.” All of us loved our grandmother’s biscuits, but they surely did not rise to the level of the Divine nor provide sufficient cause for a joyful death.

Death, particularly the death of someone we love, can be deeply painful. My father’s passing this past week has left me empty and full of grief. It is not wrong to feel empty and full of grief – it’s simply how the death of someone we love feels. There are many complex matters that I need to visit before I will pass through this trial.

Death in a one-storey universe is particularly difficult. The imagination and its comforts are removed. I cannot imagine what my father’s life is like at present – and the Scriptures give very few hints. The bold assurance in the book of Wisdom that “the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God,” seems to me assurance enough. I cannot explain what it means to be in the hands of God, but I cannot imagine wanting to be somewhere else.

Many of the two-storey comforts that are offered in our culture are semi-pagan in origin. It is not paradise of which we speak so much as the Elysian Fields. The mystery of the Incarnation – its hiddenness and its manifestation challenges the delusions we encounter every day. God is everywhere present and filling all things, and yet we often experience Him as present nowhere and all things as empty. The great battle in which we live is not so much a battle between ideas – it is a battle between perceptions of reality and faith in those perceptions.

The Gospel is quite clear, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” And thus the most extreme majority of mankind lacks the prerequisites to speak with authority in the matter of God and His promise of paradise. Faith is quite mysterious, described by one modern Orthodox writer as an “organ of perception.” Scripture calls it the “substance of things hoped for.” In the most fundamental sense, faith is the substance of the Christian life – not a “leap of faith” or a “willful hope,” but a perception, exceedingly dim, in which the objects of its perception yield themselves just enough to give hope that the reality we are tempted to make triumphant is itself somehow lacking.

The Christian faith begins with the Pascha of Christ. It is easy to attempt to find its beginnings elsewhere – to start with Genesis and argue the nature and timing of Creation – but no such arguments – including all those imagined by Biblical critics and fundamentalists – have any meaning except for the Pascha of Christ. His Pascha, including his suffering, torture, death, burial, descent into Hades, and his triumphant resurrection from the dead, are the only bedrock of the Christian faith. Without them, we are above all men “to be pitied,” as St. Paul said. But it is also all too easy to make of such events things of such abundant holiness that we fail to see them for what they are.

The dead body of Christ, on the Cross and laid upon the slab of stone as Joseph of Arimithea and others prepared his body for burial, bore only the signs of a dead body. Their devotion was to his memory, their grief perhaps more profound than any we could imagine because their hopes were so great.

The noble Joseph when he had taken down Thy most pure body from the tree, anointed it with spices, wrapped it in fine linen, and placed it in his own new tomb…

There were no hints given by Christ’s “most pure body” of that which was to come. Apparently the disciples had forgotten what hints he had offered them over the three years of his ministry. When the day of resurrection occurred, the disciples were more willing to believe in the theory that someone had stolen the body than in the resurrection. Even eye-witness accounts were marred by mistaken identity and grief. It is only after the resurrection that the teaching of Christ begins to make sense and to change the perceptions of the disciples. Apart from the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the ignorance of the Apostles would have remained secure.

And so our own belief in the resurrection of Christ rests with the witness of the Apostles and the Church and the abiding gift of the Holy Spirit. Having stood for lengthy times beside the body of my father this past week, I saw no hints, no intimations of that which is to come. There was his cross held in his hand, an icon tucked discreetly under another hand. He commended his spirit to God and now his body rests in hope of the resurrection.

No vain imaginations of a second-storey mean anything other than the echo of my own lonely fears. His body, like that of Lazarus before him, awaits Christ. Like the body of Christ Himself, he yielded easily to our ministrations, making no protest or resistance. His hope is the same as my hope. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon the those in the tombs bestowing life.

In time, I will likely join my father and my mother in the quiet of their tombs, awaiting the resurrection of the dead. I pray that in my lifetime I will have borne such witness to the resurrection of Christ that the attention of my friends and family will be drawn to that place of faith and not to the emptiness of my own hopeless body.

But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind. Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern (Phi 3:7-17).

There are many signs to which we may point as an embrace of the resurrection of the dead. First off, the Pascha of Christ. As well the unremitting and glorious testimonies of the martyrs and saints. The intimations of our own hearts and the faithful words of God’s holy Scriptures. All of these point us beyond our own meager doubts and towards a world that tramples down the weakness of all illusions. Glory to God for all things! Glory forever!