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)

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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.

Three Thoughts from Matins

In Matins, each morning that we do it in our parish, we do read the daily Epistle and Gospel, followed by a few moments of silent meditation. Sometimes in the silence the words of Scripture come to life, perhaps finding in the heart a fertile garden.  Some days the word lands on rocks, or on the beaten path, or is choked by weeds.

And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”   (Galatians 6:9)

The passage always reminds me of poet Christina Rosetti‘s WEARY IN WELL DOING, a favorite poem of mine.  This week I attended our Diocesan Assembly, and being now the dean of our Indianapolis Deanery, I had the added test of having to attend both the Bishop’s Council and Diocesan Council.   Bishop Alexander in his comments after the Tuesday morning Divine Liturgy reminded us that the Church was supposed to be the meeting place of heaven and earth – even our businesses meetings were to reflect that same healing and reunifying experience.  God present with His people as they assemble to discern His will and to make preparations to bear one another’s burdens in service to the Lord.

But attitudes expressed and problems revealed in such meetings also make me weary.  Looking for the presence of the Kingdom of God not only in the meeting but because of the meeting was a challenge, but a way not to lose heart.   If we fail to be the Church – fail to make the Kingdom of God present in our assembly – we ought to experience that failure, not to discourage but as the incentive to strive for the Kingdom.  We are to come to such assemblies prepared to do our part to make God’s Kingdom present, and also ready to receive that Kingdom as gift.  It is easy to lose sight of our true purpose and to fail to be the Church.  That failure is ours, not Christ’s.

The Gospel reading for today was from Luke 8:22-25 –

Now it happened, on a certain day, that He got into a boat with His disciples. And He said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side of the lake.” And they launched out. But as they sailed He fell asleep. And a windstorm came down on the lake, and they were filling with water, and were in jeopardy.  And they came to Him and awoke Him, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” Then He arose and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water. And they ceased, and there was a calm.  But He said to them, “Where is your faith?” And they were afraid, and marveled, saying to one another, “Who can this be? For He commands even the winds and water, and they obey Him!”

A Gospel lesson that reflects our experience as Christians in the world.  There are these unexpected and sometimes threatening forces in the world that sweep down upon us and even if we know Christ is present with us, He seems asleep – having nothing to say in our hour of need.  In Luke 8:22-25, it is interesting that though the disciples were placed in jeopardy by the storm, the first mention of fear is after Christ calms the storm.  They saw the threat, and turn to the sleeping Christ to save them.  But when he does save them, their response is they become afraid of Christ, recognizing He has some kind of power which they don’t have.    But in the end it is not the power to perform miracles of nature which impresses them.  Rather they are awakened to inquiring, “Who is Jesus that He can do such things?”  It is the person of Jesus Christ who is important to their salvation, not just some spiritual power or powers which they can tap into.

Thinking about the ‘dangers at sea’ we face as Christians (the constant threats to our well being both physical and spiritual) led me back to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2.  Some imagine Paradise as this perfect place where nothing could go wrong.   Yet God had warned Adam that there are dangers in Paradise – a tree whose fruits they should not eat, but also a behavior they should not engage in – eating from the forbidden tree.   Even in Paradise there are behaviors which pose danger to our well being and things which might not be good for us.  Adam was forewarned.  Yet when the talking serpent appeared, Eve and he were not vigilant and mindful of possible threats.  Not being watchful, they engaged in harmful behavior and suffered the consequences.   We are in no less threat today and need watchfulness in our daily lives. The world is certainly not free of danger or threats to our well being, but then neither was Paradise.  We have been forewarned, and it falls on us to be alert enough to navigate through treacherous waters in order to reach our goal.

Beholding the sea of life surging with the storm of temptations,and taking refuge in Your calm haven I cry to You: “Raise up my life from corruption, O greatly merciful One.”   (Hymn from the Orthodox Funeral Service)

Trying to Escape Death: Becoming Entangled in Sin

One finds an idea in the church Fathers that not only does sin lead to death, but also death leads to sin.   Archimandrite Zacharias comments on this idea in one of his books:

“In his anguish, man devises ways of escaping the reality of death, and seeks refuge in the passions. But this only takes him deeper into sinfulness, and death only looms the larger. Hence the tragic vicious cycle that characterizes the human condition: in order to live in spite of death, man seeks pleasure in the passions in a deluded attempt to prolong and give purpose to this present life. Thus he becomes increasingly entangled in the unbearable threat and power and of death. The more he sins, the more death prevails. As Scripture says, death is the greatest enemy of man. It is because of his fear of death that man is subject to the bondage of sin.”   (Remember Thy First Love, pg. 300)

See also my blog series The Relationship of God to Life and Death.

Reflection on Being Dust

Sermon notes from the funeral of my father, Vladimir Bobosh.  

“You only are immortal who has created and fashioned man. For out of the earth were we mortals made and unto the same earth we will return again, As You commanded when You made me, saying to me for you are dust and unto dust you will return.” 

(Funeral hymn of the Orthodox Church)

The funeral service of the Orthodox Church calls to mind all of time: the past, the present and the future.  The present moment we see in the body of the deceased laying in the church.  It is the time we live in –  a world of mortality, a world which is passing away.   This present moment is made understandable by the past.  The past, the ancestral sin of Adam and Eve which leads to death, is present also in the one lying at rest in the church.  That story is retold in the life of each of us who walks on earth.

And the future is present as well in the person who has fallen asleep and who awaits with us the reawakening when the Lord calls at the end of time in the general resurrection.  Each of our lives occurs in this present world between that past of Eve and Adam and the future of the Kingdom to come.  It is all one story, and we each find meaning to our experience in this one story.

In Genesis 1, each human is created in God’s image and likeness.  The idea present is what we find in ancient kingdoms, where images/statues of the emperor were placed throughout the empire even to its far corners.  These images reminded all of the extent of the empire and  that all are subjects to the emperor.  So too idols were placed throughout a land to remind the people of the presence of the gods that ruled them.

We humans were created by God in His image, placed on earth to be reminders of His presence wherever we happened to be.  We were there to secure the dominion of God over all the earth.   We were to remind all things of the Lordship of the Creator.

But, when we see one lying in the casket or in the grave, returning to the dust from which he was created, we know something has gone wrong.  The power of that kingdom is being denied, the lordship of God is challenged.  His images are no longer honored nor is the One in whose image we are made.  We have failed to be the sign of God’s presence on earth, we have not been the living reminders of God’s lordship for we rebelled against the Giver of life, only to be returned to the dust from which we are made.

However, the whole story is not that we are dust.  We are more than dust.  The whole story includes that image of God in each of us.  The story includes the future in which God makes all things new (Revelation 21:5), not all new things.  God heals and restores that which is lost and broken.

We were created by God to be signs of His presence and His ambassadors-  His evangelists – to the world.  Our presence everywhere in the world was meant to remind all creation that we lived in God’s world, as members of His Kingdom.  We were created to bring God’s dominion to the entire earth – not merely as signs of His presence but of ourselves having such dominion over creation.

We lost that position and in doing so brought death to ourselves, returning ourselves to the dust of the earth.

God, however, has not forgotten or forsaken us.  His love for us was not diminished by our failings.  Rather in sending His Son into the world, He restored in humanity His own image and likeness, so that we might once again have that role which He gave to us from the beginning.  He made humanity once again to be the signs of God’s presence on earth.  He restores us, even when fallen, to be fully human.

In a funeral, in the casket the dead are returning to the dust from which we were taken.

That however is not the whole story of who we were, are or are to be.   We proclaim the good news that God still wants us to be His ambassadors on earth, to be the signs of His presence for all creation.  We await that time in which God will call us again back to life, with His image clearly revealed in us.  And we each in that day will do what we always should have done: bear witness to the goodness of God and to His Kingdom which knows no end.

Today we humbly acknowledge the past and the present.  We also proclaim the defeat of death and life in the world to come.

O God of spirits, and of all flesh, You have trampled death and made the devil powerless, and have given life to Your world. May You, Yourself, Lord, give rest to the soul of Your servant Vladimir, who has fallen asleep, in a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose; where all suffering, sorrow, and sighing have fled away.  

(Prayer from the Funeral Service of the Orthodox Church)

Sin and Death

Romans 6:20-23 reads:

“For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed?

For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

St. Silouan the Athonite said:

Adam being saved from Hades

“Sin is committed first of all in the secret depths of the human spirit but its consequences involve the individual as a whole…Sin will, inevitably, pass beyond the boundaries of the sinner’s individual life, to burden all humanity and thus affect the fate of the whole world. The sin of our forefather Adam, was not the only sin of cosmic significance. Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us affects the rest of the universe.” (in The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns, pgs. 61-62)

Sunday of the Cross (2012)

“Great is the power of Thy Cross! It has made the flower of abstinence to grow within the Church; it has stripped bare and uprooted the sinful greed that Adam showed in Eden. Adam’s greed brought death to men, but the Cross brings immortality and incorruption to the world. As though from some new river of Paradise, there flows from it the quickening stream of Thy Blood mingled with water, restoring all to life. Through this Thy Cross make sweet the Fast for us, O God of Israel, great in mercy.”

(Sticheron at Vespers on Thursday of the first week of Lent in Festival Icons for the Christian Year by John Baggley, pg. 79)

Fasting as Liberation

We can only speculate about what would have been if Eve and Adam had kept the fast which God gave them in Paradise.  Maintaining the fast – not eating from The Tree – would have defeated Satan’s plan.

As long as they kept that fast, Satan was bound and curtailed.  Rejecting the fast to follow their own will freed Satan from all constraint and bound our hapless first ancestors over to slavery to sin and death.

St. John Chrysostom’s words remind us of the importance of fasting as we continue our Lenten sojourn:

“He (Satan) appears to be bound by fetters, and truly so, when he sees fasting joined together with her inseparable sister, prayer. And for this reason Christ says: ‘This kind is never cast out except by prayer and fasting.’ Therefore, since fasting expels the hostile foes of our salvation in this manner and is so terrible to the enemies of our life, we must cherish and embrace her, not dread her. We must be afraid of drunkenness and gluttony, not of fasting. For she binds our hands behind our backs and surrenders us as slaves and captives to the tyranny of the passions, which resemble a most dangerous mistress.

Fasting, however, who finds us slaves and prisoners, loosens the bonds and delivers us from the tyranny; she restores us to our former freedom. Since, however, He combats even our enemies, delivers us from tyranny, and restores us to our former freedom, what other greater proof do you seek of His love toward our race?” (St. John Chrysostom on Repentance and Almsgiving, pgs. 56-57)

Arising from Sleep

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,

the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

(1 Corinthians 15:20)

In the Scriptures, we find an interplay between the ideas of sleep and death.   The Psalmist writes:  Lest I sleep the sleep of death (Psalm 13:3), indicating there is some relationship between sleep and death – the two states are seen as being similar.  The dead  in the Old Testament are sometimes pictured as sleeping with their ancestors.

Sleep is sometimes used as a euphemism for death, as we note in the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ good friend Lazarus (John 11) who Jesus tells His disciples had fallen asleep, meaning Lazarus had died.  The implication in the Gospel of course being that death is not a permanent state, but a temporary one from which Christ can summon a person by command.

As St. Paul expresses it:

“But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.  For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first…”   (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16)

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”  (Ephesians 5:14)

This play on the image of death as a form of sleep can also be read backwards into the creation story of Genesis 2 where God puts Adam to sleep and then removes a rib from the side of Adam to use for the creation of Eve.   Genesis 2 doesn’t mention death in relationship to Adam’s sleep, but  later the Patristic writers will see in the story of Eve being taken from the side of the sleeping Adam as a prototype or prefiguring of the Church, Christ’s bride, coming from His wounded side when he fell asleep upon the cross.

We can see this intentional play on images in one of the hymns from the Lenten Triodion:

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.

The “heavy sleep of sin” is certainly another way of implying that sin leads to death.  The Scriptures call for us to be vigilant, which Christian monasticism often interpreted literally to mean we should ward off sleep and watch for the coming of Christ.  But sinfulness causes us to be sleepy and disregard the warning that Christ will come at an hour when we don’t expect it.

The call to prayer is one which implies both arising from sleep and death in order to call upon the Lord.  In Muslim countries the morning call to prayer reminds believers that prayer is preferable to sleep, an idea Islam no doubt learned from Christian monastics.

Christ’s falling asleep yields the resurrection and the defeat of sin and death.  Christ arises from His sleep to awaken us all to that day that knows no evening – the day of the Lord.

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day—and there shall be no night there…”   (Revelation 21:22-25)