I have learned over time to expect cultural expressions of the Orthodox faith that are mentioned nowhere in books and articles. Many of these surround major life events and their sacraments: Baptism, Marriage, Funerals. And so I was not surprised when the family of a recently deceased Romanian in my community called me for help giving away his clothes. I was told that it needed to be done before the end of the first 40 days of mourning.
Orthodoxy has a very rich culture surrounding death and dying and the care given by the family and Church to care for them through prayer after their death. Special prayers are offered on the 3rd day, the 9th day and the 40th day of their death. They are remembered again on the anniversaries of their falling asleep. Giving away the clothes of the departed fell within another category – also concerned with the soul of the departed. That category is the simple act of charity, the giving of alms on behalf the dead.
I have seen vestiges of this proper Christian sentiment in a number of Western practices. The “wake” (ample food and prayers) has its root in the providing of a meal for the poor – though in many cultures it has been reduced to family and friends. I have seen very large, expensive meals provided by families after funeral services that has similar roots. Some Orthodox cultures provide food directly to the poor following funeral services. Again, the instinct is charity.
It is related to the saying of Christ:
And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. (Luk 16:9 NKJ)
Modern charity has often divorced itself from such concerns. We don’t give to the poor so that they can help us – our charity and the various “needs” of the poor (including their “improvement”) are seen as the over-riding concerns.
But true generosity has roots that are far removed from the social concerns of modernity.
I quoted recently from an interview with Dr. Timothy Patitsas in which he offered a summary of St. Maximus’ take on creation’s “repentance” from non-existence. It was a wonderfully poetic manner of thinking about the nature of creation in relation to God. He noted that as nothingness beheld the Beauty of Christ it repented itself of its non-being. Thus created existence has its roots in repentance.
This is a very richly suggestive way to speak of our existence. In such a light I will say that generosity itself is rightly rooted in repentance. For as strange as it seems, the fullness of existence is never found in having more, but only in losing what we have.
And He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luk 12:15 NKJ)
Nor is it right to say that life consists in having something other than material possessions. Life consists in emptying ourselves of what we have.
Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Mat 19:21 NKJ)
But even this admonition would fail if we were to imagine that there was a “treasure in heaven” that we could “possess.” For the operative words in this teaching of Christ are not to be found in the nouns, but in the verbs. Go. Sell. Give. Come. Follow. All of these have a kenotic quality, rooted in the act of self-emptying.
Blinded by cultural understandings of God, we imagine God to “possess” all things. And yet, true knowledge would reveal that God not only possesses nothing, He gives everything. Everything that exists is a gift.
Christ reveals this as being at the very heart of the imago dei – the image of God.
But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. (Luk 6:32-35 NKJ)
Love those who do not love you. Do good to those who do not do good to you. Lend to those who won’t pay you back. Give and hope for nothing in return. Be kind to the unthankful and the evil.
And all this we are told will make us “sons of the Most High,” or in Matthew’s gospel parallel passage:
But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Mat 5:44-45 NKJ)
Generosity is not so much what we do for another – it is what we do with what we have. Generosity is repenting from our wealth. Our forensic culture has so poisoned our understanding of repentance that such a statement is interpreted as declaring wealth to be somehow tainted and wrong (for we only “repent” of legal wrongs).
There is nothing legally “wrong” with “non-existence.” But, in the imagery of St. Maximus, we repent of our non-being. Every move we make towards God is a repentance from non-being and towards the free gift of existence that He gives to each of us. It is the foundation of all thanksgiving and the reason why we are commanded to “give thanks for all things.”
All of these things, of course, are simply the content of the Christian understanding of love. Love your enemies. Give to them. Give to the unkind and the ungrateful. Give to those who have made a bargain with non-existence. Then you will be like God.