Awakening to Life

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.   (Psalm 116:15)

Seldom do we modern people think of death as being precious.  We generally like to avoid thinking about death and often attempt to turn funerals into a celebration of life.   The Scriptures however tell us that in God’s eyes there is something precious, valuable, sterling in the death of a saint.  For God looks upon us humans from a perspective very different from our own.

The death of a saint is precious in God’s eyes because Life is precious. Life is not made less precious in God’s eyes because there is sickness or sorrow or suffering in it.  For God holds precious the life and the lives who have come into existence in and through God’s created order.  And whether a human lives for 94 years or 94 seconds, they are no less precious to God, for God lives in eternity, not in time, and God does not experience us in time or for a limited amount of time.  God brings us into the timelessness of eternity in order to best experience us.

Unlike God for whom all life is precious, for us humans we more often hold that some life is precious and sometimes life is precious and some lives are more precious than others.  We feel the pain, sorrow and grief when someone we care about suffers or dies.  We feel that for those we care about life is short,  and we understand that giving one’s life in service to others is the ultimate sacrifice, exactly because life is precious.  But we also anguish over and are sunk in doubt when suffering enters into our life or the life of those we care about.  Because life is precious we don’t want those important to us to suffer, we don’t want to suffer ourselves, and we don’t want death to end this short life.

So God sees us from the timeless point of view of eternity, and we see things only from our limited experience within the universe of space and time.

The Scriptures have another view of this and that view combines God’s view with our own.  Life is precious.  But life is also fraught with difficulties – just consider the two Psalms 23 & 91 which mention evil, the valley of the shadow of death, enemies, the deadly pestilence, the terror of the night, the arrow that flies by day, the pestilence that stalks in darkness, the destruction that wastes at noonday.   Sudden death, violence, terrorism, disease, aging, crime, natural disaster, and human made disaster.  The Psalms are quite realistic about all the problems that beset us and threaten this precious life.

The Scriptures are clear that despite all these threats to life, God is love and God finds our lives precious, even if life is cut short, even if the world is awash in sin, even if there are evil divisions between.   God sees through all of these distractions, and sees us as the people created in God’s image and likeness, everyone of us, and God still sees life and people as precious.   All that happens in the world, good and evil, does not change the fact that life is precious in God’s eyes.  And so too precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of God’s saints.  Whatever role they had in the world however great or minor, however long or short, God sees beyond all the things that color our assessment of things and sees the precious human being, that one part of creation created in God’s own image and likeness.  God recognizes in us what God created us for and wants us to be.

And in Scriptures the end of life in this world, death, is often recognized as a rest from the labors and struggles in this world.   Scripture offers comfort to those who are still struggling in this world, still dealing with sickness, sorrow and sighing by calling the death of a person the time when they cease from their labors in this world and enter into their rest.    That is what we read in the writings of St Paul such as 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.  The comfort offered is that death is a sleep, a time of rest, until the Lord awakens us in God’s Kingdom.  The implication is that we lie down in this world to enter into our rest as the twilight of our life comes to an end. The next thing we will know is the morning dawn in God’s kingdom where everything is light.

The preciousness of the death of a saint, of a believer, is that God knows that person will now be with God forever, no longer suffering in this world, no longer toiling, but enjoying the blessedness of all God’s creatures in an eternal life with our Creator.

In the Orthodox tradition we sing a hymn at the funeral service which says:

With the saints give rest, O Lord, to the soul of your servant who has fallen asleep in a place of brightness, a place of repose, where sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away.

We commit our deceased loved ones to that blessed kingdom where all life is precious in God’s eyes and all feast on the blessedness of seeing God because all the obstacles which prevent us from seeing God in this life have been taken away.

Give Rest, O Lord, to Those Who Have Fallen Asleep

In the Book of Revelation, the Apostle John hears a voice calling from heaven saying:

“Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”  (Revelation 14:13)

It is a promise of eternal rest for the saints of God – rest from labor, hardships and all toil and tears.   It is the final lifting of the curse that was imposed on our ancestors, Eve and Adam, after they sinned against God.

And to Adam God said, “Because you … have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”   (Genesis 3:17-19)

The labors we experience because life in this world of the Fall is hard and at times harsh.  It is God who promises us a rest from all labor when the eternal kingdom is established.

In our funerals and memorial services, we pray that God will give rest to the souls of those servants of God who have departed this life, just as is promised in Revelation.  We even speak in our services of dying as falling asleep, we are entering into a rest from our labors.  Yet, even though death is a sleep, a rest from our labors, we fear death, and often avoid talking about it.  Death is the one thing in life we are guaranteed to experience but we rarely want to think about it. Talk about living in denial!

We all look forward to the joy of the Pascha midnight celebration, and yet what are we singing about there?  Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death…   Pascha is all about death and the dead – about the death of death.  The very things we avoid thinking about are both part of the greatest celebration of the Orthodox Church.

Myself, I am preparing to enter into retirement, which I hope will be a rest from my labors, but then I think about the Parable of Jesus:

And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:16-21)

I hope I am not that rich fool.  I know I’m not financially rich.  I did not work to build the parish in order to have an easy life in this world.  My hope is that our labor in establishing St. Paul parish has made us rich towards God.  So when the day comes for us to enter into that sleep, we will do so joyfully awaiting God to call us awake.

For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.  (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)

Tomorrow You May Die is Never True

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.

The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”  (Luke 16:19-31)

See also my blog Poor Lazarus and the Rich Man.

Twenty-five years ago there was an article in NEWSWEEK magazine entitled, “Our Fear of Dying”, 4 October 1993.  The author, Daniel Callahan made several comments that still seem true today:

“As a health obsessed society, we do not know what to do with death, other than to try to control it.”

Callahan mentioned the American medical enterprise invests heavily in trying to overcome diseases that lead to death – a veritable war on death.  He noted that in the medical enterprise in America there is

“… the potent assumption that death is essentially an accident, correctable with enough money, will and scientific ingenuity…”

If America put enough of its wealth and entrepreneurial spirit into it, medical science would make death itself a thing of the past.   Callahan wrote that other modern cultures around the world were much more at peace with human mortality.  America perhaps was in a great deal of denial about what it is to be human.  About the time that he wrote that article, I was a speaker at a continuing education event for doctors at a local university, speaking about end of life issues.  I remember clearly how the surgeons in the group were almost never ready to admit that there was an end to treatment for patients and almost all felt there was always one more thing that could be tried.  The family practice doctors on the other hand seemed to have a clearer sense that there was a point where you have to admit there is nothing more you can do medically for a patient.  Callahan argues that we

“… should seek to educate physicians to see death not as an accident that medicine has failed to eliminate, but as a permanent part of the human condition that requires medicine’s good care, a fitting and inevitable final goal of the entire enterprise.”

Our fear of death drove us to denial about its reality, leading to our throwing money into an effort to defeat death, and yet Americans like all humans continue to die daily.  We may increase life expectancy, but we  should expect death as well.  We dream that medical science can eventually conquer all the causes of death, that there really is absolutely nothing to limit our human ingenuity and drive.

Perhaps we should read again the Genesis account of the tower of Babel.  Those folks too believed nothing could limit them.  But that Is another story.

The Bible reminds us that death has a spiritual cause.  We cannot eliminate death by using only medical means.  Death is related to sin, and has something to do with our own spiritual lives and our relationship to God.  Or, more accurately our loss of a relationship to God.

Everything in this world comes to an end, everything has a  limit – a great basketball game, a wonderful symphony, the beauty of autumn, an exquisite gourmet meal, a spirited dance, a football winning streak.

Death can only be cheated through our own repentance, our establishing a right relationship with God.  Godliness sees us through the experience of death into the realm of eternal life.

Some years ago I saw a poem written during the Byzantine Empire.  It said:

Eat, Drink, be merry for tomorrow

You may die.

But you never do.

You never die tomorrow, for the day of your death is always this day you are in, and there is no tomorrow for the one who has died today.  The poem points out to us a fallacy in our thinking which makes us believe we will live forever since tomorrow never comes.  Today, however, is the day.

Some ask the question, why do we die at all?  Why is there death.  We Christians might respond by saying that is the wrong question.  The real question is  “why is their life?”  Why does anything exist at all?

It all exists because of God and God’s love.  Death brings this life to an end, but death cannot change the purpose of life, which is to love God and be in communion with God.  Death cannot separate us from the love of God.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.   (Romans 8:35-39)

Many people wonder what happens to us when we die and it is a common question asked in churches.  All kinds of speculations exist and descriptions of life after death, even in Orthodoxy, toll house theories and the like.  Read the Gospel lesson above (Luke 16:19-31), it too gives a description of life after death, albeit in a parable, so it is not trying to give an accurate portrayal of life beyond the grave.  But in the parable ultimately the rich man now in his life-after-death situation wants to try to reach back to the people he left behind in the world.  There is this irony –  We in the world are all wondering about life after death, and he in the afterlife is worried about those living in the world!  And basically the parable is not teaching us about what happens to us after death, but a warning to us to pay attention to how we live while on earth.  The afterlife cannot help us live properly on earth and living correctly on earth is far more important to our Lord Jesus than the life after death. He who proclaimed His kingdom is not of this world spends very little time talking about life after death.

We might remember that according to the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve in the garden of Paradise, after they sin, they try to hide from God.

Notice how different our Lord Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane, in His deepest prayer He desires to be with God and not be left alone.

Both were facing death, but for Adam and Eve death meant separation from God and they chose death and that separation from God.  For Christ, death could not separate Him from His father.  Death is no friend for Jesus.  Christ sees beyond death to eternal life and an unending loving relationship with God our Father.  Christ chooses eternal life.

Humans were created for immortality, death is a disintegration of the human.  But our battle with death is a spiritual battle which cannot be fought by medicine alone.  The medical enterprise will not bring an end to death.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in Me, though he may die, shall live.” (John 11:25)

A Christian End to Our Life

Then, I come to our faith. What is our faith concerning death? It can again be described in simple sentences, but behind each one lies a wealth of experience and vision. In Christian doctrine, death is first of all called the “sting of sin.” It is not just an elementary answer about biological or physical death. In Christian vocabulary death means separation from God as a result of sin – a kind of ontological catastrophe that has made creation, or rather man’s life, into what it was not when God created it. Thus death carries the sting of sin. As separation from God, death – not physical, not physiological death, but death as sin and separation – has been abolished by Christ’s death. Therefore the dead – those who sleep – are alive in Christ.

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Liturgy of Death, p. 145)

For the human, separation from God is the definition of death.  Christ’s death has changed everything – for even in death we are not separated from Christ our God. There is no place we can go where we will be separated from Christ. As it says in Psalm 139:8 –

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 

 He descended to the place of the dead, filling all things with Himself.  In death we are with Christ who triumphed over death and its separation from God.  Christ is Lord of the dead as well as the living for all are alive in Him.

If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.   (Romans 14:8-9)

Death: Sojourn to Life

St. Ephrem the Syrian in one of his poems takes us on a tour from Paradise to earth.  Paradise is superlatively better than earth, and yet humans cling to the earth and don’t want to leave it.   He compares our attitude to death to that of the infant in the mother’s womb – both the dying person  and the unborn infant are reluctant to leave the world they know, even if they are entering into an even greater experience or life.  

I was in wonder as I crossed

the borders of Paradise

at how well-being, as though a companion

turned round and remained behind.

And when I reached the shore of earth,

the mother of thorns,

I encountered all kinds

of pain and suffering.

I learned how, compared to Paradise,

our abode is but a dungeon;

yet the prisoners within it

weep when they leave it!

I was amazed at how even infants

weep as they leave the womb–

weeping because they come out

from darkness into light

and from suffocation they issue forth

into this world!

Likewise death, too,

is for the world

a symbol of birth,

and yet people weep because they are born

out of this world, the mother of suffering,

into the garden of splendors.

Have pity on me,

O Lord of Paradise,

and if it is not possible for me

to enter your Paradise,

grant that I may graze

outside, by its enclosure;

within, let there be spread

the table for the “diligent,”

but may the fruits within its enclosure

drop outside like the “crumbs”

for sinners, so that, through Your grace,

they may live!

(Hymns on Paradise, pp. 106-108)

Falling Asleep on the Cross

Christ … for my sake fell asleep on the cross  (Lenten hymn)

The imagery of some Orthodoxy hymns about the crucifixion of Christ, seem all too pleasant …  Jesus falls asleep on the Christ.  No mention of the agony and torture he would have suffered.  Many icons reflect that same calm demeanor.  It was Christian humanism of the Middle Ages which really took an interest in the suffering and agony of Christ and began to describe and portray the agony and torture which crucifixion is.  Read the biblical texts and we see that the bodily suffering of Christ is hardly mentioned.   It was the focus on Christ’s humanity which was seen as realism, that started Christians moving away from a focus on Jesus as the incarnate God.  Instead of seeing God, all that was seen was another human dying a painful death.

The image of Christ falling asleep on the cross is deeply rooted in the theology that God is passionless.  God is not moved by emotions and their visceral affects on us – God doesn’t have a body so does not experience emotions like we do.  God does not love us as a reaction to us for God is love.  God dying on the cross does not change His reaction to humans: He continues to love them.  And so Jesus says while dying on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”  (Luke 23:34)  He came into the world because of divine love and dies on the cross for the same reason (John 3:16-17).  Christ doesn’t forgive in reaction to what his tormentors are doing for He came into the world as love in order to forgive humans.

God is love, and doesn’t wait to see what we will do before reacting to us.  God always acts towards us in love.  God becomes incarnate because God is love.  God dies on the cross because God is love.  The crucifixion does not change God’s relationship to the world.  Sin does not change God’s reaction to humans.  God forever acts in love toward humans no matter how humans behave.   As another Lenten hymn says:

In Your compassion You humbled Yourself, and were lifted on the cross raising up with Yourself the one who had fallen of old through eating from the tree.  Therefore, You are glorified, Lord, alone greatest in love, and we sing Your praises forever!

God loves humanity and accepts that love means God will suffer for us humans.  God suffers for us, with us and in us.   God does this for our salvation.  God is not changed by our sin, by our reaction to God, by our rejection of God, by our crucifying God’s Son.  God is love.  Thus the Passionless God suffers the passion as one of the great mysteries of God’s love.  And because it is God on the cross, the suffering is infinitely deep, yet God is still love and God continues to act toward us in love.  This is why the icon is so correct in portraying the sleeping Christ on the cross – divinity suffers in us and for us and with us in all eternity and yet this does not change God’s love for it is God’s love for us.

“He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.”  (1 John 4:8-10)

God even takes on a human body and experiences all the pain, sorrow and torment of being human because this is God’s love for us.  It is a love infinitely and eternally deep – yet it is the love that God offers to us and invites us to share with Him so that our life, and our suffering, becomes our life in God.   God dying on the cross is still love, and still loving us.

Christ lives and dies for Adam, Eve and each of us.  The hymns of Lent often move from images of God dealing with Adam to God dealing with each of us.

I have fallen into the heavy sleep of sin through heedlessness, but, my Christ, Who for my sake fell asleep on the cross, awaken me, that the night of death not come on me.

Christ’s death on the cross is the sign of the blessed Sabbath Day on which the Lord rests for His work for us and for our salvation is complete.  Christ sleeps on the cross in order to awaken us from the sleep of death and to awaken us from our having fallen asleep in the world when we should be awake, alert and vigilant.  In Christ we awake from our sleep whether in this world or the world to come.

In Christ dying on the cross we see God’s love for us undisturbed by the sin of the world, encouraging us to unite ourselves to Him so that whether we live or die we belong to the Lord.

“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”  (Romans 14:8-9)

See also my post Arising From Sleep.

 

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)

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)