A friend of mine just returned from back east where he had attended the funeral of a friend and was mightily impressed by it—but not in a good way. The deceased was an older woman who had died, leaving behind a grieving family who loved her very much. The eulogy applauded her as a devoted wife, a steadfast friend, and an apparently perfect mother. Chief among her virtues was her devotion to her sons, as expressed by her spending time with them whenever possible. Indeed while they were growing up she would rise early every Sunday morning and take them with her to (wait for it) a thrift store. It was a special time for them all to be together and to pass a leisurely time relaxing and browsing among the discarded donations of others. The point of these weekly trips on a Sunday morning was not acquisition, but recreation, a time to spend unhurried hours with her children. The point was stressed not only by her own children in their touching reminiscences, but by others in their eulogies also. What better way to spend a Sunday morning could there be?
The person presiding at the funeral (which was held not in a church building, despite the deceased’s membership in a Ukrainian church and her pride in her Ukrainian heritage, but in a funeral home) was a dear friend of the family. He also spoke admiringly of her exemplary life. He spoke movingly about the hope of resurrection, and about God’s love. He even read from the Bible and prayed.
It was just here that my eastern friend had to resist squirming and began to be unimpressed. From the encouraging tenor of the remarks one gathered that everyone who died would find a resurrection of joy, and that bliss awaited us all on the other side. The speaker stressed that life was a miracle and that surely something as miraculous as life could be expected to end in something equally wonderful. St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians about Christ’s triumph over death and the joy it brought were applied to all. The word “repentance” was not heard, much less stressed. Apparently all that was required to enter into the joy of one’s Lord was the fact of one’s birth. This being the case, why not spend Sunday morning at a thrift store?
Obviously it is not the place of anyone living to pass judgment on the soul of the dear woman whose funeral I described, nor to opine what her final score will be on the Last Day. What transpired between her and God in the hidden privacy of her heart in the moments before her death is not known, and anyway is none of our business. We must leave her eternal fate in the hands of God. But we may still offer judgment on how exemplary or otherwise were some of her practices for one striving to be a Christian. In particular I suggest that she left a lethal legacy to her sons by rising early and taking them every Sunday morning to that thrift store. Though she did not mean to teach such a lesson, she left her boys with the perhaps indelible impression that Christ and His Church did not matter—or at least that they mattered less than rummaging among the things discarded by others and available cheaply at a public market. Each Sunday morning presented them with a choice: either they could have the Body and Blood of Christ our God, or they could have the possibility of finding a bargain in a bin. She was teaching them, week after week, to choose the latter.
She thereby offers us a cautionary tale to us all. How do we spend our Sunday mornings? At a thrift store? On a golf course? Before the television set? Jogging on the road for our health? Sleeping in? And if we choose any of these options, what are we teaching others by these choices? Confidence in the face of death is not derived simply from the accident of being born, but by the continued choice of repentance and faith. The Lord and His apostle were not addressing their words of consolation to the general public, but to His devout disciples. The funeral offices of the Orthodox Church also presuppose such devotion on the part of the dead. Paschal joy in the face of death comes not so much from being a good person (whatever that means) or a devoted parent, but from a life of faithfulness to the risen Christ.