The idleness brought on during our present isolation can lead to unexpected things. I was browsing through videos on social media recently and saw a short documentary on what happens to human bodies in the process of decomposition. I was surprised by what I heard both in its gruesome details and in its rapid onset. The power of the grave is far worse than I had imagined. My interest in such a video had been kindled by thoughts of the incorrupt bodies of saints – in particular – the body of my late Archbishop (Dmitri of Dallas) that was disinterred after five years. I had heard stories of the dire warnings and predictions of the mortuary personnel when the Church initiated the removal of the body in order to place it in a crypt in the Cathedral. At the time, I wondered whether they were overstating the case. As it turns out, they had been quite restrained. When the casket was opened and his body was seen to be incorrupt, their amazement could not have been greater. They were witnessing a miracle.
Our culture seeks to sanitize death. That our bodies are usually managed by professionals who are driven by a concern for the emotional comfort of survivors is simply a microcosm of the entire culture’s attitude towards death. The Orthodox burial rite is extremely ancient and lacks such a sensibility. Among the hymns traditionally appointed for use in the service, references to worms and the process of decomposition are on full public display. I confess to “wincing” during their singing.
The Scriptures do not have any of these sensibilities. Death was common. The public-at-large not only knew what actual death and decay looked like, they knew its smell as well. When Christ approaches the tomb of Lazarus, he is warned, “My Lord, he stinks!” That particular stench is among the most repulsive things on the planet. We are hard-wired to flee it (for our own safety).
Our modern sensibilities have shielded us from death’s most gruesome realities. Our films entertain us with make-believe versions of violence, imagining that sight and sound are sufficient to convey reality. However, first-hand descriptions of battlefields describe something different. The battle for the island of Okinawa in World War II lasted for 82 days. There were around 160,000 casualties, most of which could not be buried. Most striking within the first-hand accounts is simply the smell of the battlefield. Had everyone been standing knee-deep in a massive cesspool, the smell would still not rival what they experienced. It is little wonder that soldiers do not like to discuss their memories. War is hell.
When Christ was buried, we are told that they anointed His body with spices and placed it in a new tomb. Those spices were intended to cover the smell of corruption that was expected. Even that ancient culture, as accustomed to death as it was, sought to minimize its most disgusting features.
I share these most frightful thoughts and images with readers so that we can rightly consider what we sing and pray during the course of Holy Week. The early days of that week feature services known as “Bridegroom Matins.” Their centerpiece is the icon of Christ as Bridegroom, a depiction of Him, bound and suffering. It is thought by many that the original model for that icon is the same portion of the image on the Shroud of Turin. It is an image of death. We sing:
Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior,
and I have no wedding garment that I may enter.
O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.
It is a hymn of deep irony and paradox. The “Bridal Chamber” carries a double meaning. It is, at once, the place of mystical union between Christ and His Bride (the Church). At the same time, it is the grave of Christ Himself. For that mystical union with Christ begins by being “buried with Christ in His death” (in Holy Baptism). The marriage of Christ and His Bride is in the paradox of the hideous maw of death’s domain, at the same time the place of Christ’s utter triumph over every adversary. We are not removed from that terrible place – we are healed precisely there. The resurrection of Christ begins in the tomb.
That tomb gathers into itself the full cosmic range of death, decay, and decomposition. The services of Holy Week take us into the very mouth of that most frightful place. It also frames the brightness of its own destruction in the transfiguring resurrection of Christ. The services invite us into His death (and, therefore, into our own).
During a time when the world has come to something of a stop, such a meditation is brought into sharp relief. Like everyone else, my browsing across the internet looks for relief. I watch services that I cannot attend. I listen to speakers who are miles away. In some manner, we are all looking to be distracted. Holy Week is the end of distraction. It draws our attention to the sight that everyone must see at least once in this life. It is our death and the black despair of human weakness.
Mary and Martha wailed at this weakness before the tomb of their brother, Lazarus. It was there that Christ said, “I am the resurrection.” His raising of Lazarus was a mere postponement of Lazarus’ end. It was, however, also a foreshadowing of the actual destruction of death itself, made manifest but a week later.
All of this is an invitation to us in the dark corners of the world. Sheltering in place, frustrated at our powerlessness, groaning over mismanagement and incompetence, angry with what must be endured, lonely for human touch and the gathering of friends, we writhe in the Bridal Chamber of our muted existence. This week, we are told to adorn ourselves with the wedding garment that the Giver of the feast has provided. Put on Christ. Put on Christ in His death that He may adorn us with the garment of the resurrection.
I will extol You, O Lord, for You have lifted me up,
And have not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried out to You,
And You healed me.
O Lord, You brought my soul up from the grave;
You have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.
Sing praise to the Lord, you saints of His,
And give thanks at the remembrance of His holy name.
For His anger is but for a moment,
His favor is for life;
Weeping may endure for a night,
But joy comes in the morning.
Now in my prosperity I said,
“I shall never be moved.”
Lord, by Your favor You have made my mountain stand strong;
You hid Your face, and I was troubled.
I cried out to You, O Lord;
And to the Lord I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my blood,
When I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise You?
Will it declare Your truth?
Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on me;
Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever.