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!

Comments

  1. says

    I sometimes struggle with how to explain these ideas to secular or non-Christian friends, who think the whole emphasis on resurrection and defeating death sounds like obvious wish-fulfillment: a religion structured around allaying our fear of death. Perhaps a part of myself wonders the same thing – is this offer of eternal and abundant Life too good to be true, too obviously an answer to human hopes and fears?

  2. says

    I once heard Fr Hopko give a talk on death where he threw my Protestant past into stark relief. He made it clear (with a bit of his sometimes excessive flare for the contrary) that at Orthodox funerals we do not make friends of death. Death is evil, in fact, it is THE evil. Non-existence is more the true enemy of God than the Devil himself, who is a mere servant of nothingness (a slave and no king). There is no duality. There is light and there is that which diminishes into no light at all.

    Having tasted plenty of it, I have, forgive me Father, an appreciation for Thestrals http://allthingspraiseworthy.blogspot.com/2011/08/when-you-see-thestrals.html

    But I will not call anything about death a good (except what is said in Genesis that death was better than life without hope) for death is yet a necessity, though necessity does not find goodness.

    You have my condolences for your loss. For we who continue are in no different a place than those who continued before us. Our cross born as theirs was born. I can only see this, that if He is the God of the living, they live, even now time is not linear (for He is History). They are already at the gate, for then is now and we are there as well during the Divine Liturgy.

    Nothing divides us except that we are divided.

  3. Margaret says

    From John 12:24 Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. 25 He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

    This summer during our training for Church school we were given a presentation where the grain of wheat is grown and we show the children the grain, about 3 stages of the growth and the final harvested wheat.

    I was amazed at the root that appears almost immediately when the seed is placed in the ground, not even deeply placed. And the tangle, intermingled roots that form so very quickly with the other grains in the ground.

    Indeed, we remain alone unless we fall into the ground and die.

    Fr. Stephen, I so appreciate your post here. I have watched death take those I love in an untimely (to the world) way since I was young. And God has always reminded my heart that He is present. It was not until we joined the Orthodox Church worship and I heard the words: “He is ever present, filling all things” that I realized what I had been shown through watching those I love die. For some reason I am slower to catch on that He is really ever present and filling all things with us who live and move here in this world now. I am grateful for the constant reminders.

    Glory to God for All Things!

  4. Brantley Thomas says

    [blockquote]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.[/blockquote]

    Father, this is one of the most profound things that you’ve ever written. Thank you.

    It is amazing to me that Grace can transform grief and emptiness into words of power.

    Memory Eternal!

  5. Michael Bauman says

    “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.”

    When I lost my parents, I was troubled for a while but my mother died before I was Orthdox and my father relatively early in my journey in the Church. Then, my wife died during Lent. Talk about a Lent. I also experienced in a way I had never before experienced, the joy of the Resurrection that year. Still in the midst of my sorrow and grief, I came out of the Pascha Service uncontrollably beaming and filled with joy. A very odd sensation.

    Memory Eternal also means, as Father eludes to, that the pain never quite leaves the amputated limb. It is a constant reminder of the separation that death causes and that only the grace of God overcomes. She is still present, but not quite present with me but at the same time the sense of God’s presence and mercy is also present. The mingling of the gaul of the world with the sweetness of the kingdom.

    How much different that the attitude of a Morman friend who lost his wife. The theology led him into the belief that she was not just in a second storey, but in another life entirely–completely gone. Tears after the funeral a sign of a lack of faith.

    God bless you Father and may the presence of our Lord assuage your grief and transform it.

  6. says

    David,
    Your comments are among the most helpful thoughts I’ve heard this week. History (in the linear sense) is the ultimate expression of death. No moment is more “historic” than when the soul parts from the body. To live such a linear existence is to embrace death in the wrong way, a way that destroys. Last Friday when my father died, friends urged me to take the weekend off and travel down to SC. I told my wife, “I could not bear to not celebrate the liturgy this Sunday for my father.” It is truly the place where I will be closest to him and my mother, and that great cloud of witnesses that joins us in that eschatological moment. At the moment, it is the time between liturgies that is hardest. But the liturgy will heal – it is always Pascha and always victorious – not yet without pain but glorious. Thanks for your thoughts. My paradise consume us!

  7. Russ Mangiapane says

    David,
    thank you for your link…your wife has written something beautiful and powerful there. God bless your family.

  8. Robert Serrano says

    “The one you love” (11:3). It’s easy to pray when we or a loved one first becomes sick. We believe firmly that Jesus does love us. The problem comes when there seems to be no response from God. The events reported in this chapter not only display Christ’s power, but also help us deal with those painful delays in answers to prayer that trouble God’s saints so often.
    “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:3-6). This seems to us in such conflict with the fact that, after hearing of their need, Jesus “stayed where He was two more days.” Don’t let God’s inactivity cause you to question His love.
    “For your sake” (11:12-15). Restoring Lazarus would create more joy, and do more to strengthen faith, than any ordinary healing could. God’s delays are intended to bless!
    “He will rise . . . at the last day” (11:23-24). Martha had total faith in Jesus. But even so she unconsciously limited His power to act in her present. Jesus would raise her brother—in the future. But Jesus intended to raise him now. Never make the mistake of limiting Jesus’ power to act in your present. Neither time, space, nor apparent impossibility can restrict our Lord’s ability to meet our deepest needs.
    “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). Jesus is Lord of both physical and spiritual life. Belief in Jesus infuses a spiritual life in us that persists even though the physical body dies. The greatest miracle of Jesus was not raising Lazarus to physical life again, for Martha’s brother would again die. The greatest miracle was and is in Jesus’ power to give endless spiritual life to us who believe in Him.
    “Jesus wept” (11:35). Often pointed to as the shortest verse in the Bible, it is also one of the most important. If Jesus delays His answers to our prayers it’s not because He’s unconcerned. He shares our suffering. He weeps both with and for us.

  9. says

    David, if I may.

    The Thestrals story is profound. I found myself ringing the bell of the Orthodox Church of Saint George very recently, fully intending to enquire as to when services were held. A man opened the door and told me that services were held at Easter and Christmas.

    Theological discussion turned to friendly chat. I soon learnt that he had seen Thestrals too and his face began to shine.

    I do not know much else about this man except that he leaves flowers at the altar of the Lord each Friday, he misses his mother and is not afraid of dying.

    May the Lord make His face shine upon You.

  10. Victoria Cherpes says

    Dear Father Stephen

    You have a wonderful ministry in this blog and it has touched ministry and it has touched many of us…

    May the memory of your father be eternal… With the saints give rest oh Christ to the soul of your servant – where sickness and sorrow are no more, neither sighing but life everlasting!!

    I am sorry for your loss. God Bless you and your family.

    In Christ and many blessings!
    Victoria
    Victoria

  11. Victoria Cherpes says

    Sorry for the typos. I tried to write this from an iphone. Its ridiculous!! Victoria Cherpes