A Christian Understanding of Death

Only through and in the human person will the whole world come into a relationship with God.

The fall of humanity alienated the whole creation from God. It destroyed the cosmic harmony. Through the Fall, humanity became subject to the course of nature. This ought not to have happened. In the life of animals death is an expression of the power of procreation rather than of frailty. Through the fall of humanity, death also receives in nature an evil and tragic meaning. To the animal’s death means only the end of individual existence. Among humans death strikes at the personality; and personality is something more than mere individuality. The body is dissolved and subject to death because of sin. But the whole human person dies. The human person is composed of body and soul; therefore, the separation of body and soul means that the human person ceases to exist as a human person. The image of God fades. Death reveals that the human person, this creature made by God, is not only a body…The fear of death is only averted through the hope of resurrection and eternal life.

Death does not only mean that sin is revealed; it is also an anticipation of resurrection. God does not only punish fallen human nature by death, but also purifies and heals it.

The death on the Cross was not efficacious because it was the death of an innocent man, but because it was the death of the incarnated Lord. It was not a human being who died on the cross but God. But God died in His own humanity. He was Himself the resurrection and the life.  (Georges Florovsky, On the Tree of the Cross, pp. 145-146, 148-149)

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Remembering Memorials

Monday, May 29, is Memorial Day in the United States, a date to remember those who died in service to our country as well as all those who served in the armed forces and have already passed away.   In the Orthodox Church, we frequently do memorials for departed loved ones and for the faithful who have already departed this earth.

Fr. Alexander Schmemman explains the Church’s understanding of a memorial:

Commemoration, remembrance, and memory are all translations of the Hebrew word zikkaron, memory. However, the Hebrew “memory” is not, as it is for the modern man, a passive faculty, the mere ability of man to remember. Rather, it is to re-live in imagination that which no longer exists, and from which a person is separated by time, distance, or death. “Remembrance,” “memory,” is an active and above all a divine faculty, a divine power. To sum up an exciting aspect of biblical faith, everything that exists does so because God keeps it in his memory, because he remembers it. God remembers us, and therefore we are alive. Death is a falling out from God’s memory, from God’s remembrance. “What is man, that thou remembrest him?”

This divine remembrance is truly life-giving, and this life-giving remembrance is bestowed upon the Church as her foundation, her life. It is bestowed upon her because the Church is the Body of Christ, because we are members of his body, of his flesh and bone. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Eucharist is the zikkaron, the memorial of Christ. But because Christ is the true life of all life, the Eucharist is also the memorial and remembrance, the keeping and preserving in life, of all those who are “in Christ.” We remember in him the creation of the world, and lo! In the Eucharist, the heavens and the earth are restored to us as being full of his glory.

(The Liturgy of Death, pp. 128-129)

Conquering the Fear of Death

“How can the Christian overcome the fear of death? The faith that is central to the hope of Christians is the recognition of Christ’s conquest of death and that his resurrection is the first fruits, the guarantee of the universal resurrection of all human beings at the end of time. ‘In order to be able to face death one must be anchored in the certainty, an experiential and not only theoretical certainty, of eternal life. . .   there is in this possession of eternal life a certainty that reduces to naught the fear of death–not the pain of separation, not the regret that death exists, but the fear.’”

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, M.D., Suffering and the Nature of Healing, pp. 253-254)

Christ’s Voice of the Bridegroom

And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” So I answered, “O Lord GOD, You know.”Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!’ Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD.” (Ezekiel 37:3-6)

Ezekiel saw what God prophesied, that the dead will be resurrected to life.  In John 11, Christ speaks the word – He calls His friend Adam to return to life and to leave his tomb, and Lazarus, the dead man, rises and comes forth from the tomb.

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”  (John 11:21-26)

 

Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  (John 11:43-44)

We believe that Christ has the power over life and death, over the living and the dead.  Christ calls Lazarus by name, and the dead man obeys and comes forth from the tomb.  Jesus calls Lazarus from the dead, and Death obeys and releases Lazarus back to the living.

Your voice destroyed the kingdom of hell, O Lord.  Your powerful word raised from the tomb the one who was four days dead.  Lazarus became the saving first-fruits of the world’s regeneration.  All things are possible for You, O Lord and King of all.  Grant Your servants cleansing and great mercy!  (Vespers hymn of Lazarus Saturday)

Standing by the tomb of Lazarus, O Savior, You called to Your friend, who was dead.  He heard Your voice, and awoke as from sleep.  Mortality was shaken by immortality.  By Your word the bound was unbound.  All is possible!  All things serve and submit to You, O loving Lord.  O our Savior, glory to You! (Vespers hymn of Lazarus Saturday)

The raising of Lazrus fulfills in a most unexpected way the prophecy of Jeremiah.  While death silenced many voices, they will be heard again.  Cities depopulated by death will again be filled with the voices of mirth as sickness, sorrow and sighing flee away:

“Thus says the LORD: In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste without man or beast,’ in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD: ‘Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever!’ For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the LORD. “Thus says the LORD of hosts: In this place which is waste, without man or beast, and in all of its cities, there shall again be habitations of shepherds resting their flocks.  (Jeremiah 33:10-12)

The Crucifixion of Death

In one of the Lenten hymns from the 4th week of Great Lent, there is an interesting exchange in which the nailing of Christ to the cross and piercing His side with the spear is actually bringing about the death of Death.  In the hymn, Hell/Death is personified and is at first puzzled by what it is experiencing  during Christ’s crucifixion.  The confusion turns to panic as Death realizes its own effort to kill the Christ has resulted in its own destruction.

Pilate set up three crosses in the place of the Skull, two for the
thieves, and one for the Giver of Life. Seeing Him, Hell cried to
those below: My ministers and powers! Who is this that has fixed a
nail in my heart?

Crucified heel bone pierced by a nail. (1st Century)

A wooden spear has pierced me suddenly, and I am
torn apart! I suffer inwardly; anguish has seized my belly and my
senses. My spirit trembles and I am forced to cast out Adam and his
posterity! A tree brought them to my realm, but now the Tree of the
Cross cries out to them: Enter again into Paradise!

The hymn is perhaps an Orthodox version of the “substitutionary” theory of atonement.  In the Orthodox hymn, however, the emphasis is not on the innocent Christ dying on the cross in the place of sinful humanity.  Rather, Christ’s torment, suffering and death is actually crucifying Death.  Christ’s own death turns out to be the annihilation of death.

The Blessed Remembrance of Death

“The Great Christian writers and saints have spoken of how a deliberate and conscientious remembrance of death enables us to learn to live life in faith and faithfulness – a benefit that we obviously lost when we deny death and expel the dying from our sight. We would do well to ask ourselves how we might best remember our deaths so as to live our lives with faith in God and enduring love for our fellow humanity. The Gospels provide an answer to this question. They teach us that Christ made death the goal of his life. Christ repeatedly reminded disciples that his life was a living toward dying. ‘He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death.”’ (Mark 10:32-33).

Christ’s discipline of remembering his death clarified the purpose of his life and ensured that his death would be redemptive for others. And while the great ascetical fathers and spiritual writers of Christianity remind us that Christ’s sacrifice is once and for all and need not be repeated by us, since he was the only sinless human being – they do insist that we pay careful attention, nonetheless, to the lessons that Christ teaches about the remembrance of death.” (Life’s Living Towards Dying, Vigen Guorian, p 35)

 

Death: The Unnatural Enemy

“Death is the solution to all problems. No man – no problems.” (Joseph Stalin)

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  (1 Corinthians 15:26)

“But for Christians, death is not natural or normal, it is not the way things are meant to be. ‘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 is a ‘status’, a rationale, make it ‘normal.’ Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible.’” (Alexander Schmemann in Suffering and the Nature of Healing by Daniel B. Hinshaw, p 231)

Moses, The Man of God

“Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah. . . Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD’s command.”  (Deuteronomy 34:1-5)

“… the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses …”  (Jude :9)

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the Lord’s friend and prophet Moses, the Man of God.   St. Ephrem the Syrian in one of his many poems has the personified Death reminding Jesus that even Moses, a friend of God who spoke to God face to face, died and was claimed by Death himself.  Moses performed wondrous and great acts of God, mighty miracles, and still Death says, Moses belonged to him – no one escapes the clutches of Death.  Death boasts to Christ that it was God who handed Moses over to him despite all that Moses had done for God.  So overconfident was Death based on Death’s claims over Moses, that Death felt he could demoralize Christ, reminding Jesus that His crucifixion was ordered by God, and that there was no escape.  Little did he know.  Death is not the last word, but the last enemy.

“Death opened his mouth and further said,

‘Have you never heard, son of Mary,

of Moses, how he excelled all men in his greatness,

how he became a god, performing the works of God

by slaying the [Egyptian] firstborn and saving the [Hebrew],

how he held back the plague from the living?

Yet I went up with the same Moses to the mountain

and God – blessed be his honor –

handed him over to me in person.

However great one of Adam’s son becomes,

he will return as dust to dust, for he comes from the earth.’”

(Ephrem the Syrian as translated by Sebastian P. Brock & George A. Kiraz, Select Poems, p 151)

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”   (1 Corinthians 15:20-26)

See Also:  Holy Prophet Moses, the God-Seer

The Anomaly Which is Death

Do not invite death by the error of your life,
or bring on destruction by the works of your hands;
because God did not make death,
and he does not delight in the death of the living.

For he created all things so that they might exist;
the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them,
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
For righteousness is immortal.
But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death;
considering him a friend, they pined away
and made a covenant with him,
because they are fit to belong to his company.

(Wisdom of Solomon 1:12-16)

Adam

“Created in the ‘image’ of God, human persons are called to grow toward the divine ‘likeness,’ to assume the very qualities or virtues of divine life itself. This process of growth toward theosis or deification is nevertheless the result of God’s own initiative, the free gift of his unbounded love. The sanctifying, deifying grace that effects the transfiguration of human existence consists of divine energia, ‘energies’ or attributes of God, infused into the personal life of the believer through the action of the Holy Spirit. Divine initiative, however, must be complemented by human initiative. Theosis, accordingly, is the result of the human will working with the divine will in the process of synergy, or cooperation between God and his human creatures. Its purpose is to lead the human person back to the primal state of perfection mythically depicted in the creation story of Genesis 2-3. This ‘primal state’ is prelapsarian, untainted by sin and consequent death. This implies that death is an anomaly within the created order. It is an unwilled and unintended intrusion into earthly affairs that must be overcome if human life is to attain its true potential and its true potential and its true goal.

While the death of the physical organism may be considered either a blessing to bring an end to man’s alienation from God, or as a natural and necessary part of the life cycle, it remains from the point of view of Orthodox theology and experience a spiritual enemy that is a much a cause of human sin as it is a consequence of it. Insofar as the dread of death provokes rebellion, aggression and alienation from God and other persons, it leads to a multitude of sinful behaviors, all of which are ‘attempts to fill voids’ of meaninglessness and threatened annihilation. The dread of death, in other words, is a primary motivator of our behavior. Consequently, death itself can hardly be considered as morally neutral. God has chosen us not for death, but for life, whose telos or ultimate goal is eternal communion with the Persons of the Holy Trinity. From a Christian perspective, this mean that our true death and rebirth occur at our baptism: the moment we are plunged into the regenerating ‘waters of the Jordan’ and, in the name of the Holy Trinity, are raised up and united to the communion of saints, both living and dead, who constitute the Body of the glorified Lord.

Therefore it might be argued that because of the Cross of Christ, physical death no longer threatens us. It has lost its sting. The ‘last enemy’ has been transformed into a welcome passage, a glorious Pascha, leading to everlasting life and joy. As true as this may be, however, the ‘last enemy’ continues to hold sway over us in the form of the dying process. Anticipation of prolonged and meaningless suffering, far more than the event of death itself, is the chief cause of anxiety and despair for the terminally ill.” (John Breck, The Sacred Gift of Life, pp 214-215)

The Lord said:  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”  (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

In the End, What’s Important?

As humans, we are part of God’s creation, which means like everything else in the universe we change.  Obviously we age, some of us mature!   Our thinking over time can change.  Priorities and values can change.   And when we come to end of life issues, we often see more clearly what is truly important in life.  Mortality can help us realize many things are vain pursuits, and only a few things matter.   We can’t take wealth with us when we depart from the earth, but some Fathers thought that all that we gave away in charity we will receive again in the eternal world to come.

Having been diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer has made me reconsider some things. Things most important to me come to the forefront of my thinking.  Not only is worldly wealth less valued, but really worldly cares of all kinds get laid aside.

 

It so happens that before I was diagnosed with lung cancer I signed up with a few members of my parish to join a Hospice training program entitled The Unbroken Circle.  It is a program to help parishes form ideas and program to deal with grief, illness and death.  I am now in my life still a care giver, but have also become a care receiver.

One piece of literature I’ve read through this program published by Aging with Dignity is titled, Five Wishes.  It is a legal type document to help each individual think about end of life issues and to make some decisions about their care at the end of life. I found some of the the ideas in Wish 5 to be worth us considering, no matter where we are in our life sojourn.  In fact, our lives might be different if we always had these wishes close to our hearts:

I wish to have my family and friends know that I love them.

I wish to be forgiven for the times I have hurt my family, friends and others.

I wish to have my family, friends and others know that I forgive them for when they may have hurt me.

I wish for my family and friends to know that I do not fear death itself.  I think it is not the end, but a new beginning for me.

I wish for all my family members to make peace with each other before my death, if they can.

These certainly are wishes that I have.  I might add one other.

I wish for my family and friends always to have the awareness of God’s presence and to know that God loves them.

This is something I pray for my family, my friends, and my enemies.