When Death Dies

Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give it a “status,” a rationale, make it “normal.” Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. At the grave of Lazarus Christ wept, and when His own hour to die approached, “he began to be sore amazed and very heavy.” In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere “help,” not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World)

In the normal course of events, among the things we expect can be included is the death of those we love. If it comes at the end of a long, happy life, accompanied by minor suffering, we tend to think of it as a “good” death. Disney has popularized the notion of the “Circle of Life”: one dies, another is born, and “life” continues. It makes for a very catchy song. But, of course, death does not obey such rules. It is not a Disney film.

My ministry over the years has included a great deal of death. My first parish was composed largely younger families. The deaths that occurred were few, but often more poignant because of that fact. In one large parish that I served, I buried around 120 people over the course of 9 years. That’s more than one a month. That ministry was followed by 2 years during which I worked as a hospice chaplain, averaging about 3 deaths per week. It was emotionally draining work. The tendency of our culture is to focus on helping people feel better. In that model, death is a “problem” in that it makes us sad, disrupts our lives, and creates other issues. As a hospice chaplain, I was directed to create a “grief support” ministry to help “survivors.” What I learned is that grief is not a sickness or a problem. It cannot be “fixed.”

Schmemann’s observations, made over 40 years ago still hold true. Indeed, the culture has moved even deeper in its “normalization” of death. A mega church in my metropolitan area has now set a rule that does not allow for the body of a deceased person to be present for the funeral. The service is a “celebration of life” with music, a video presentation, and remembrances (maybe a sermon?). Dealing with bodies is awkward, cumbersome, fraught with emotions, and such. No doubt, the new rules make everything easier for everyone.

Orthodoxy is embarrassing by comparison (and intention). The presence of the body in the Church is normative, as is an open casket. Indeed, the conclusion of an Orthodox funeral includes the “last kiss,” as family and friends come and take their leave. I recall one of the first Orthodox funerals I attended. It was for the wife of a priest. Nothing was shortened or omitted. As we approached the body, the hymns written by St. John of Damascus were being sung. At a certain point I realized that the choir was singing about “worms.” My modern mind was taken aback by the frank boldness of such a hymn. It shattered every etiquette I had learned surrounding death. It was death without pretense.

Of course, those hymns were written by a monk in the 7th century. Death was not just a present and unhidden reality within that culture, but also a daily requirement for a monk’s meditation. There was a keen sense that only in rightly considering our death could we rightly live our life. Some of the parables of Christ make the same point.

There is a reason that Pascha is the great central feast of our faith. With preparations beginning in the weeks of Great Lent, the Church moves relentlessly and steadily towards the death of Jesus. In services of Good Friday, the Church not only commemorates Christ’s tortuous death on the Cross, but, most poignantly stands beside the image of His dead and lifeless body, portrayed on the epitaphion (the “Burial Sheet”) placed in the center of the Church. In most Churches, the epitaphion occupies the same space as a parishioner’s coffin. Christ’s death is our death.

One of my earliest experiences within my present parish was the sudden death of a beloved parishioner. She died in a car crash only three days after her Chrismation at Pascha. As the Church staggered through the days of our mourning and her burial, each day seemed to exactly parallel the events of Holy Week which we had just completed. Indeed, when someone dies and is buried in Bright Week (the week following Pascha), the hymnody is simply a repetition of the Paschal hymns. For our death is Christ’s death, and His Pascha is ours as well. We stood at her grave and sang loudly:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tomb
Bestowing Life!

I think we sang it with a greater assurance than I would ever have imagined. Pascha has never been the same for me (nor have funerals).

The path set out for us by Christ leads always to the grave. It takes us to that one point where all earthly dreams and efforts come to an end. Initiation into the Church, in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, is described as a burial. Somehow, it is a fact that is too easily obscured. The Holy Eucharist is a remembrance of death:

For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes. (1Cor. 11:26)

It is, after all, Christ’s Body and Blood that we consume.

Death is anti-modernity. It mocks progress and the project of a better world. At the grave, we have everything in common with a pre-historic figure and nothing in common with the schemes of our modern world. Everything has come crashing to its ironic conclusion. As we bustle about with slogans of a better world we force ourselves to be oblivious to the fact that our Sun is dying and our planet will someday grow cold or be dissolved in fire, or, much sooner, endure yet another extinction-level visitation from a modest-sized asteroid. It is, of course, utterly astounding that the Creator of the universe Himself walked among us, speaking Aramaic, sweating beneath the heat of the noon-day Sun. His visitation alone makes us, the merest specks in a near infinity, remarkable and of significance.

As the Psalmist wrote:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him? (Ps 8:3-4)

The poet, Shelley, was more dramatic:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Despair. That is the end of all things apart from Christ. However, that same despair rightly frames the event of the resurrection itself. The death of Christ mirrors and accompanies the path of all creation, including ourselves. But it leads us to a moment as surprising as our existence itself (which we take for granted in our ingratitude). That moment is the conquering of death by Life itself, just as Life itself gave (and gives) existence to the universe itself.

To stand in the Church with the body of a deceased friend is to stand at the very heart of our gifted existence. That we are is a gift at every moment. That we shall be is the same gift in even greater form. All that we are and ever shall be is imaged for us in the God-Man, Jesus Christ. It gives us a hope and courage to live with faith that there is purpose in what we do, even in our dying. In all that we do, we do with Him and in Him, and, in union with Him, His life is ours.

26 comments:

  1. Thank you, Father.
    When time permits, ‘google’ this and read it in one sitting:
    OUR FATHER AMONG THE SAINTS EPIPHANIUS, BISHOP OF CYPRUS
    A Homily on the Burial of the Divine Body of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, on Joseph of Arimathaea, and on the Lord’s Descent Into Hades Which, After His Saving Passion, Wondrously Ensued on
    the Holy and Great Saturday

  2. Thank you, Father.
    Witnessing senseless death and destruction of God’s creation in all its forms, especially the past several years in my own community, calls to my mind Romans 8:19, 21.
    Lord have mercy.

  3. In my life it seems there has been a series of cultural moments that have lionized death, strangely enough, out of fear and denial. By the Grace of God they never really grabbed me. Yet I was without foundation in reality.
    My brother and I buried our parents. My mother before we were Orthodox, my father after. Such a difference I cannot even describe it.
    Death of a loved one creates an empty space in one’s heart. In the Church, that space is filled by mercy, in my experience. Outside the Church, the emptiness seems to remain.
    Many years ago a dear friend of mine, Doug, reposed. As a fairly recent adult convert, he had many friends and colleagues who were not Orthodox who came to his funeral.
    I will never forget the reaction of one such friend after the service. The friend was profoundly deaf and tended to speak quite loudly as a result. As we were leaving the service he turned to the person next to him and announced to that person: “I have never been to an Orthodox funeral before. They are different. They really DO something!”
    That remains the best description of an Orthodox funeral I have ever heard.
    A few years later my wife of 24 years reposed and, by God’s grace, I learned “the rest of the story” as I celebrated Pascha in our parish a few weeks later.
    He indeed tramples down death by death and bestows life upon those in the tombs.

    Still, God forgive me, I kick against the pricks thinking all too easily that death rules.

    I am deeply grateful for Fr. Stephen and everyone else here for the continued reminder that death is overcome.

    Glory to God.

  4. Dear Father Stephen,
    Thank you for this.

    Indeed, death is not natural. Yet we do take it for granted as if it were, and at the same time pretend and build a fantasy life to hide from it, until death smacks us in the face. All the hiding and pretending does not evade nor prepare us for our death or the death of someone we love. Neither does the pain of loss of someone we love evaporate in our fanciful celebrations. Rather, I think it just makes us more insane.

    The irony of the great works we pretend are great. Such are meant to impress, to give the semblance of wielding power in form but not in substance, crumbled and buried in a wasteland of sand. Such is our hubris.

    May God grant us a sincere and humble heart. Such humility is what our attention to our death can do. May God accept our sincere prayers of repentance and take our outstretched hand in death, forgiving our sins. May we not fear nor hide from death for Christ has trampled down death by death. May God grant that we live and abide in Him, and He in us. For there is no other life but in Him.

  5. Steven,

    The Gospel is the proclamation of Life and the love of God for His creation. It is not dependent on Death for value (or anything else) in any way whatsoever. Life, and Life Eternal, is its own value.

  6. I agree, Byron. But this created being, Steve, is reminded of the wages of sin. Ergo, His love in that context is a blessing of great proportions.

  7. So very true! But I am slowly realizing that we fixate on our sins more than God does. I believe His focus is on our transformation into Holiness; our being made right(eous). He always views us in love! I have a such a difficult time seeing that, sadly….

  8. Steven,
    St. Anthony the Great taught that there are three ways of serving God: First, there is the way of a slave who serves out of fear. Second, there is the way of a hired hand who serves for a reward. Last, there is the way of a son who serves out of love. It is neither the threat of non-existence, nor the fear of hell that rightly draw us to God (and, therefore, neither constitute the focus of the gospels). It is the love of God that Christ proclaims, the love of God that was crucified, and the love of God who rose from the dead.

    The greatest sin of all, I think, is our failure to be grateful. Thus, as you say, His love is (in any context) a great blessing. Fr. Schmemann once said, “Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.”

    Blessings!

  9. Yes, Fr. Stephen, I have heard this wisdom of St. Anthony and Fr. Schmemann, probably on your podcast? May we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. If we obey God out of love, the God Who IS love and Who who longs for our return, then fear is replaced with love, for perfect love casts out fear. Blessings to you as well.

  10. Father,
    Have you heard of a “two-fold” vision imparted by the uncreated light? I ask because I see these words in the table of contents of an Orthodox book that I don’t have. And I don’t think I know what this is, assuming that this might be widely understood among the Orthodox. I tend (most likely for my lack) toward a uni-vision of sorts, as far as I know.

    Please forgive me for asking a question that might take us off track.

  11. Dear Father thank you for your patience.

    The name of the author is, Archimandrite Peter Vryzas. And the title of the book is, “Theology as a Spiritual State in the Life and Teaching of Saint Sophrony the Athonite”. I believe it is a book he developed from his PhD thesis. I’ve read St Sophrony’s book on St Silouan’s words and life, and I remember the reference to the event of his experience of the divine light.

    I read this statement in the table of contents:

    5. THE WORD AS A FRUIT OF THE CONTEMPLATION OF THE UNCREATED LIGHT
    5.1. Conditions for the Contemplation of the Uncreated Light
    5.2. The Properties of the Uncreated Light
    i. Gradation in the vision of Light
    ii. The twofold vision imparted by the Light
    ii. The manifestation of the hypostatic principle in man through the ‘enhypostatic edifying gift’ of the Light

    I was looking for readings for Lent. And I decided on another book. But this statement got me wondering. I didn’t obtain such a thought in my readings of St Silouan, and have supposed that I might have missed something important.

    Thank you Father!

  12. Dee,
    Thanks for the info. Archimandrite Zacharias also has a PhD dissertation on Sophrony published as a book. I would recommend reading St. Sophrony’s His Life is Mine (a remarkable work). He shares much more of his inner experience than we usually get from saints.

  13. Dee and Father,

    I think the “twofold vision” is indeed described in Chapter 5 – Contemplation of St Sophrony’s His Life is Mine. (We are currently reading it in my parish book group.) Here is a relevant section:

    “The horror of seeing oneself as one is acts as a consuming fire. The more thoroughly the fire performs its purifying work, the more agonising our spiritual pain. Yet, inexplicably, the unseen Light gives us a sense of divine presence within us: a strange secret presence that draws us to itself, to a state of contemplation which we know is genuine because our heart begins to throb day and night with prayer. It cannot be too often repeated that divine action has a twofold movement: one, which seems to us the first, plunges us into darkness and suffering. The other lifts us into the lofty spheres of the divine world. The range of our inner being expands and grows. But when the downward movement prevails, the cry is forced from us: ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God’ (Heb. 10.31).”

  14. Thank you, Ed.
    I’ll make sure to read attentively chapter five, in St Sophrony’s book (His Life is Mine) to reflect carefully on the thoughts and meanings St Sophrony intends regarding the divine Uncreated Light.

  15. Father,
    I read (His Life is Mine) not too long ago. Now I am very eager to read St Sophrony’s account of Silouan the Athonite.

    Wondering if you would be willing to provide some book recommendations for me and others? I mostly read lives of the saints so might you suggest some books outside of that too? If anyone else here wants to suggest some recommendations I am all ears!

    So far my five favourite Orthodox books are probably,
    The Way of the Spirit (Elder Aimilianos), Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives (St Thaddeus), Wounded by Love (St Porphyrios) His Life is Mine (St Sophrony) and Christ our Way and Life (Archimandrite Zacharias).

    I also find great value in the books of St Paisios and St Theophan the Recluse.

    Your blessing,
    Elpidios

  16. Elpidios,
    I’m not sure that I can reasonably suggest a list of books for reading. On the whole, people probably read too much and for the wrong reason. The gathering of information is not an important part of the spiritual life and runs the risk of making us think we know what we do not know.

    What I would say is more important, and healthier, is, first, the acquisition or discovery of our questions. Sometimes reading something can help with a significant question of the heart. Sometimes reading can create a significant question of the heart. Those questions of the heart are far more likely to encourage us to ask, seek, knock. Jesus never suggested that we could read ourselves into the Kingdom of God.

    I write this, not to rebuke your question, but to point such wonderful energy towards the heart itself. We should live slower and with greater purpose.

    I’ve been greatly occupied lately with completing this book (on Shame and its place in the spiritual life). The process has been, I think, an example of what I mean. I began with the recognition of a problem – in me – the issue of shame as an emotion and certain negative and problematic effects it was having. That began a slow work (10 years now) that is culminating in this book – and has been culminating in my heart over the same course of time.

    I’ve probably read 5 secular/clinical books on shame for every one spiritual book related to the topic. The whole of that reading was also accompanied with inner work. What does what I am reading/learning have to do with this issue within me? It has been accompanied with confessions and other explorations. I’ve thrown away about 5 versions of the book. I’ve written short, targeted articles for the blog on the topic, and given a number of lectures at conferences which have allowed for a lot of conversation.

    I met with Fr. Zacharias of Essex (the disciple of St. Sophrony) and discussed the topic. His writing has been extremely helpful – but – I’ve seen that I understand far more of it as time has gone on – which means re-reading things as the “questions” mature.

    What we want, what we seek, is the Kingdom of God, Christ Himself, and nothing less. So, the real question is how does reading serve that purpose. The only real guide I’ve ever found is that of being honest and uncovering our questions, and then following the questions…doggedly. And then, the learn the difference between the acquisition of answers and the acquisition of information. We do not want to become experts about information – we want to become embodied answers to the question: “What must I do to be saved?”

    I would underline the fact of the non-spiritual books I’ve been reading in this process. We make a mistake in reading exclusively in “spiritual writings.” Good literature is important. History, science, etc. are also important (according to our background and ability to understand).

    Here’s a good rule of thumb: if we quote from a church father or a spiritual writer in answer to somebody else’s question (as in a conversation), did I just share something I read somewhere, or did I share something that I actually know, that I’ve actually made my own because I have lived it, walked around in it, and seen its benefits and its pitfalls? Much of what I see and encounter in our Orthodox internet world is of the former – and it’s pretty much useless. It keeps our lives and our conversations stuck in a very shallow place. It keeps us from engaging the heart.

    So, these are my thoughts here in the morning.

  17. Father, if I may, speaking of books, I find certain books or stories soothe me, and I read them over and over again. I don’t read them very well. Often I don’t pay attention, I daydream, or I skip over passages. Just as when I read the Bible or when I pray, I suppose. But they still soothe. At the same time, they break my heart, so to speak – they lead to such a contrition.

    I have been “reading” Wounded by Love and a handful of Elder Paisios’ books this past year or two. Such a balm…

  18. Thank you Father Stephen for this timely post. I have recently started attending a ” grief support” group. I still sometimes feel emotionally overwhelmed by the fact that my dad passed away 7 years ago. I don’t talk about him and I become tearful when others bring his memory. I was told that I haven’t ” accepted” the loss and that’s what I need to work on. I grew up in the Orthodox faith and I have no doubt about how my dad is spending eternity, but somehow this ” knowledge” is not helping with my grief. It’s insightful to read that grief is not a sickness or a problem to be fixed. Something I shared in the group a couple of weeks ago was that I think death is wrong and is not supposed to happen. I resonate with not normalizing it, however it feels out of the ordinary to still be emotionally overwhelmed and avoiding the topic several years after the loss. What am I missing here?

  19. Thankyou Father,

    My deeper question was probably how and why to read which you answered with some lovely morning thoughts as you say 🙂

    Salaam thanks for pointing out that type of reading and the soothing nature of it. I have done much of that type of reading, (but more than books; blogs, community groups etc) often leads to more change in the heart than an overly analytical approach. And yes certain books by Orthodox saints have a similar graceful effect as the scriptures, might I say because both are the Word of God?

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