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.
This was the year! I have been seeking Orthodoxy for a few years now thanks to my two sons and their wives. I couldn’t make Holy Week last year, wasn’t quite ready to tell my husband about my interest. He is content in our Protestant life. So, I put Holy Week 2020 on my calendar in my phone last spring. I’ve been anticipating it for a year now. But then the most unexpected happened. And I grief now for so much. And I have to continue learning on my own, by myself, as usual.
If it hurts me, who hasn’t ever been to an Orthodox Holy Week, I can’t imagine what pain all Orthodox are experiencing now. Forgive me for my lament, the sadness is deep. But I thank you Father Stephen for any teachings you can give us this week. I am desperate to understand, to experience…. I thank you for all you do.
Hang in there!!
I’m an Orthodox woman who was baptized in 2016. And I too searched and read about Orthodoxy for a couple of years before I had the courage to tell my husband that I believed that I was becoming a Christian and eventually began to attend services.
As Father describes in this article, it’s actually a process of death to one’s former life and an entry into a new life. My parish priest prepared me by saying that the life in Christ is like a marriage. And in marriage we become “one flesh” in communion with Christ.
God bless you dear Maggie! You are with us and we are with you in our hearts and souls!
Thank you Dee, I appreciate your encouragement. God bless you…
Know you’re not alone Maggie, my wife and I learned about Orthodoxy for three years before we stepped foot in a parish. I was a campus pastor, and didn’t want to leave my position. We were finally baptized & chrismated on Theophany of last year. Keep learning all you can, but be patient as well. The right time will come when you can begin to experience the services of the Church, and it will have been worth the wait.
Please forgive me, Father Stephen, for disagreeing with your interpretation of the hymn ‘Your Bridal Chamber’. I went searching for the melody which I know for it on youtube, but I didn’t find it – it is such a beautiful hymn and I can’t see any irony in it at all, or indeed any ‘maw’. The hymns of Holy Week are all to me so beautiful – some majestic, some even awe inspiring, but most very gentle, and for me this is one of those. The version I know for all voices begins in a major tone – “Your bridal hall, I behold, my Saviour, made lovely…” and then switches to the minor: “but a garment I lack, to enter there…” Then back to major: “Make radiant the vesture, the vesture of my soul, ” and then quietly, “O Lifegiver”… and slowly and gently “and save, and save…me.”
I’m sorry not to see what you are saying here, but I do think in Orthodoxy we never should attempt to be ‘in’ death’s maw, as that is where madness lies. It isn’t our place. It’s, as you say, the place of nonbeing. Even, and especially, during Holy Week and in times such as these are. Please don’t go there, even by accident! There is a sadness in this hymn, yes, but also a lovely intimacy. And that major key ‘make radiant the vesture’ is such a beautiful concept, echoing the ‘as many as have been baptized…’ and the beauty which never leaves our love for the church, which even in our absence from it, is always gently present to us and clothes us.
“Your Bridal Hall…” It is so beautiful! (Sorry, I had to come and I’m not saying it well. Best wishes.)
Here is a quote from Fr Stephen’s article on the Mystery of Holy Week and Pascha (April 2, 2008):
I understand your thoughts in this. It is, I think, the same irony that we speak of when we speak of the Cross. The Cross is the Tree of Life, even though it is the instrument of death. Christ destroys death by death. Scripture describes us as being “baptized into His death.” St. Paul said, “I die daily,” and “I am crucified with Christ,” etc. The Bridal Chamber refers to that mystical union – our baptism into Christ’s death which is also our union with His resurrection. It is poetic imagery, drawn from Christ’s parables, that “woos” us in beautiful language, to willingly lay our lives down in Christ, to die with Him (“whosoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his Cross and follow me”) – so that we might be raised with him.
St. Paul says, “we suffer with Him, that we also might be glorified with Him.”
If none of that is helpful, please set it aside and don’t let it trouble you.
Indeed Dee. (Tone 5) “I behold the Bridal Chamber, richly adorned for my savior
But I have no wedding gament to worthily enter. Make radiant the garment of my soul. O giver of light and save me.”
In Holy Week, more intensely than any other time we face the abyss of darkness in our own souls. That abyss is a law that we must pass through with our Lord.
Thank you Fr. Stephen,
Your enlightening words are so helpful especially during this time!
May our loving God bless you and keep you.
My depiction of the “death” within Holy Week, where we encounter Christ in His death, is particularly gruesome. I was kind of hoping I had not drawn that image too starkly. However, I think we often sanitize these things to such an extent that they disappear. My thoughts were that in a particularly difficult time such as our present circumstances, the starkness of Christ’s work should be underlined. There is nothing and no place of suffering that He has not entered or will not enter.
St. Gregory the Theologian says, “If Christ descends into Hades, go with Him.” St. Sophrony of Essex says, “Christ has descended to the lowest point of Hades and is waiting for His friends to join Him there.”
All of this is mystically and liturgically present to us in Holy Week. Indeed, Pascha would be meaningless were it not preceded by death and hell. The thoughts might be difficult – until you find yourself in just such a place. Then, we should remember and reach out to Christ who has gone there before us. We learn in Holy Week, in the safety of the liturgies, how to unite ourselves to Christ in such places. In later times, it will serve us well.
Thus, in a time of suffering and sadness, we can learn to say to ourselves, “This is the Bridal Chamber of Christ! Clothe me, O Christ, with the wedding garment of Your righteousness! and save me!”
Father…your message does not altogether fall on deaf ears. If it were not for suffering, as if in the pit of hell, Christ’s passion would be meaningless.
There are some, like you say, who want to sanitize suffering. There are those too, who what to impose suffering on those who offend, as if they deserve it. Similarly, there are those who have a hatred for themselves and actually thrive on suffering, as if they deserve it – pain and suffering propels and validates their existence. Generally, the former is outwardly hardhearted. The latter, passive-aggressive. And even more confusing, there is a definite crossover, a mixing of reactions toward suffering, where we know Christ want us to ‘clothe ourselves’ with Him. Yet our brokenness shows forth in our inconsistencies in thought and deed…a sure lack of stability.
I think in all of this. we want very much for our suffering to be acknowledged, and vindicated. We want to be loved. We want to be forgiven. We want to love and forgive. We want to be consistent…constant…in goodness, kindness, charity. And we suffer each time we fail. This is very much the abyss (death)…the inability to ‘not sin’. This is why we are called to a life of repentance. This is why we recite the Cannon of St Andrew. This is why, year after year we partake in Holy Week.
And this is why we rejoice in unspeakable love and thanks for Christ our God, in His Great Day of Pascha.
Because without Christ’s passion and resurrection we’d suffer, but it would be meaningless. Death, annihilation, would be a welcoming relief. Forgiveness would become instead an act of selfishness. Love would be of the self. Happiness would derive from every type of avoidance of pain and suffering, and replaced with anything that ‘feels good’.
I think this is what you are trying to drive home Father.
Christ’s Pascha ‘changed things’. It changed the entirety of ‘being, of existence. Before the resurrection, the ‘grave’ reigned. The inevitability of falling into sin was a consignment to death. Hell held the upper hand. Even upon the whole cosmos. But oh! then it had to contend with The Christ. He gives the answer for suffering…The Cross. He gives the answer to death …it is conquered in His Life, the Risen Christ. He sends the Holy Spirit that we may be like Him.
Now how can you realize all this, may I ask, if suffering and death is sanitized. How?!!!
I liken it to my life as a Protestant, where I fell in love with Christ, but really began to know ‘this Jesus’ when I was received into the Orthodox Church.
Father, I think that this conversation can easily move into to the never ending topic, ‘the’problem with evil’.
Christ is the answer. Why do we forgive our neighbor…because “Christ is Risen”. 🙂
Indeed, this pandemic can be useful in incorporating even this time of suffering and separation. A very helpful reminder, Father.
Also, I appreciate that you tell us that if we are scandalized by something you teach to set it aside.
Thank you…again and again….
Brent B….. thank you for your kind words. I have been worried about telling others but this confinement has given me courage… because now I see I just can’t live in Protestantism. You are right, I must be patient and know the right time though. I keep praying… Hod be with you and your family.
Dear Father Stephen,
I had sincerely hoped you might comment regarding Julliania’s comment.
Last night I actually took more than an hour looking for the words in your blog that you mentioned at 8:19 am, today. I knew I had heard them before and know the truth of them. Thank you for bringing them back to light once again.
You are very correct. We do have a tendency to want to look away from the gruesome reality of our own impending death, which is some kind of coping mechanism. It is exactly as you say such habit of mental (and physical) withdrawal that is indicative of the sanitation you describe does keep us from the Savior.
It seems that the prosperity gospel is ubiquitous in the US and acedia is one of the fruits of the American-Christian way. But we usually don’t realize or see how it arises in us. I’ve seen it in myself. And I suspect the tendency toward such sanitization is one such expression of it.
Thank you, Father.
This time I’m printing the comment so I don’t lose it for future reference.
Also thank you Michael, indeed it is looking at the abyss in our own soul.
I was a teenager when I had to deal with the grizzly death of my parents, and the deadly mawing of my own body after a car accident.
I was angry for a time precisely because of some Protestant friends wanted to paint a rosy ‘heavenly’ picture of their death. It just didn’t seem truthful.
Christ will meet us in hell. I’ve been close enough to hell to believe this also.
St Silouan says that Christ encouraged him with these words: “Keep Thy mind in hell and despair not”.
The byzantine melody for this exapostilarion can be heard in 17:35 here: https://youtu.be/yoxa3WAmjfc (Holy Monday matins ).
I also perceive the bridal chamber as the Kingdom of God and the hymn being sang by any repentant soul, who in recognition of her sinful state wonders how she will enter it and be in His presence.
The identification of wealth with salvation is not new. It seems the Apostles had a bit of it when they asked “who shall be saved?” if not the rich man.
The worst part is that such thinking tends to mask and trivialize God’s genuine Providence. It weakens us in many ways, at least me.
I have never wanted really in all of my life probably because I would not have done well.
My God loving and God filled wife on the other hand has had to wonder many times where the next meal was coming from for herself and her children.
Still both of us sing with Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof: “Would it spoil some vast eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man”?
The truth is that either want or plenty can be a distraction from the real abyss that is right in front of us.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Make radiant the garment of my soul, oh giver of Light!:
The article and discussion (including paradoxes and pandemic) have prompted a reminder of this passage from East Coker (the second of the Four Quartets) by T.S. Eliot”. I find it useful at this time.
“I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away-
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing-
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
… You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
Thank you, Ziton. Eliot is apt.
George MacDonald also touches on this in his writings – rereading “The Golden Key” to my children last week was a welcome reflection.
Considering some of the above comments, I think about the introit to confession, especially “lest, having come to the physician, you depart unhealed.” We cannot be healed of what we will not acknowledge, learn to name, and revisit with the priest. Christ is our great high priest, and death is our great problem, so we visit there and call it what it is, but only and always with Him. The hymns of Holy Week do this beautifully, never losing sight of Pascha.
Save, O Lord!
I normally feel very sad when I think of my body lying down the 6 ft without breathing and with nothing inside. Thinking of what goes on in the tomb/grave alone. Assuming at a given time all of a sudden you wake up in that lonely tomb/grave how does it look like. What will go on in your mind? This are the thought that go in my mind when I think of death as a common human being. But when I read the Bible it gives me another perception since the body dies but the soul of the believers do not care what goes on. Fr help me to understand this concept.
Father, thank you for this and your newer essay on Good Friday.
I have realized that I have oversimplified things over the years, possibly with ignorance or a veil for a reason, but I have had ‘the emotional range of a teaspoon’ (to borrow from Harry Potter). I have had the confidence of Christ’s victory over death in my years of faith but lacked some of the sense of struggle, how it is really difficult for the person.
I know someone who grieves death and fears death so deeply, and it has always confused me, but I see now that recognizing the difficulty of it is not wrong necessarily. It is like marrying the two themes, yes it is hard and yes there is cause for rejoicing. To see the Cross and Resurrection extending across all points in time then allows us certainty that despite struggle, this is in the Cross, this is in Christ, I have not simply been abandoned because things are not going well now.
My years of despair in late high school / early college included me often saying ‘this is because God hates me’ as my dominant interpretation of why things were the way they were. That is part of why I was so grateful for my math education, it taught me to say ‘that’s not true because it can’t be true.’ A loving God cannot gain enjoyment from our suffering.
I loved the story of St. Silouan’s dad responding to people after their family’s home had burned down. He said, to this effect, with God’s help we will build it up again. There was no terror, though the people around him were terrified for him and on his behalf. It was a moment for him to give witness.
It has amazed me that Fr. George Calciu and Fr. Roman Braga faced vast illnesses in their later years. The were not exempt from later suffering because of earlier suffering. But I remember reading how Fr. George faced that sickness calmly. Early in his life, also, before his years in the Romanian prison camps, as a child he visited a family who was poor. Their home was dug out of a hill, somehow within the earth, but nside the walls were covered in leaves. They were a prayerful and joyous family. I think it was God’s good providence, preparing him for the small cells of his imprisonment, but showing him first the beauty and joy that can be within a place so small.