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.
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.
“Brethren, I may say to you confidently of the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” (Acts 2:29)
“…have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.” (Matthew 12:26-27)
In the Scriptures, belief in the resurrection of the dead is not common. When a person died, they remained dead throughout time – the tombs of the dead are still with us reminding us those folk are still dead. And yet, Jesus challenges His contemporaries to look again at their scriptures, for they do in fact witness to life after death and to the resurrection of the dead. It is Christ who makes this belief and teaching possible.
“Still, the notion of an ‘afterlife with God,’ following death, is entirely alien to the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, it is also alien to the New Testament, unless a person has died in the redemptive faith of Christ. It is Christ alone who delivers man from death, including the saints of the Old Testament. Nowhere in the Bible is there an afterlife apart from Christ. Whatever afterexistence there may be apart from Christ, it is certainly no real life.” (Patrick Henry Reardon, The Trial of Job, p. 54
“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.’”
Two Pentecostarion hymns from the 4th Week of Pascha caught my attention during Monday Matins. The first is a pretty standard Orthodox Paschal hymn. It focuses on Christ being truly first in all things. Christ is the one who existed first, before all humans and in whose image all humans are created. Christ is the firstborn of the dead – first fully risen from the dead who did not die again, the first fruits of all those who have died. Jesus is the God-man, the incarnate God who created the world and who by His incarnation restores human nature.
CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD, THE FIRST FRUITS OF THEM THAT SLEEP, THE FIRSTBORN OF ALL CREATION, AND THE MAKER OF ALL CREATED THINGS. IN HIS FLESH HE RESTORED THE NATURE OF MANKIND GROWN CORRUPT. DEATH, YOUR REIGN IS OVER, FOR THE MASTER OF ALL HAS MADE YOUR POWER OF NO AVAIL!
DEATH, YOUR REIGN IS OVER! This is the proclamation of Christianity, the Good News of Jesus Christ. The power of death has been destroyed, shown to be of limited duration and not capable to holding all humans. The reign of Christ begins and He shall reign forever and ever. It is in Christ’s flesh, not just in His divinity, that He redeems, restores, recreates humanity. The incarnation is essential to salvation.
The second hymn focuses on the Gospel of the Paralytic, John 5:1-15, which is the Gospel Lesson for the 4th Sunday after Pascha. The hymns playfully examines who really was paralyzed – the man ill for 38 years, or the scribes who felt God’s healing on the Sabbath day violates the rules for keeping Sabbath. There are many forms of paralyses in life – not only physical, but spiritual, mental, and moral as well. One can keep the letter of the law but still be paralyzed in one’s faith, love and thought – so rigidly frozen that one is incapable of acting in faith or in love.
YOU LOOSED THE PARALYTIC’S BONDS ON THE SABBATH DAY, BUT THE SCRIBES WERE PARALYZED, BOUND IN ENVY’S CHAINS. THEY COMPLAINED: IT IS NOT LAWFUL TO HEAL ON THE SABBATH! OUR FATHERS KEPT THE SABBATH REST; WILL YOU NOW DESTROY THIS COMMAND? THEY WOULD NOT RECOGNIZE YOU AS MASTER OF THE LAW, AND THE SAVIOR OF OUR SOULS!
Jesus kept the blessed Sabbath on the 7th day of creation, and also while lying in the tomb following His crucifixion. His resurrection from the dead shows He is the holy One, the Savior of all humankind and Lord of the Sabbath.
While Christianity focuses on Christ, it doesn’t begin with Jesus. Christ comes to heal humanity, but the illness which He heals began thousands of years earlier with the entrance of sin and death into human existence. St. Gregory of Nyssa offers an understanding of what was the ill that Jesus Christ came to cure. First Gregory notes that sin is not a thing that is permanent or can even exist without a host. Sin is dependent for its existence on human free will. If humans made no choices, sin could not exist. Humans were created with the possibility of sinless existence, but we have made choices that led us away from God – separation from God is death.
Is it possible that there was a physical death that could exist that didn’t involve separation from God? Is it possible that living things could age and even die but remain united to God? Is this what God intended from the beginning? Certainly in Christ we have that reality achieved – even death doesn’t separate us from God. Jesus the man is never separated from divinity even in His death and descent into Hades, the place of the dead. In Christ, we all remain united to Him even through our own deaths and after our burials. In Christ, death no longer separates us from God! Whether this was something totally new, or a restoration of what existed at the beginning of creation, doesn’t matter for it is the new reality – creation renewed in Christ.
St. Gregory begins describing the first human, the first Adam, who had all of the potential for good, and yet chose to separate himself from all that is good.
So too the first man who arose from the earth–he, indeed, who begot all the evil that is in man–and it in his power to choose all the good and beautiful things of nature that lay around him. And yet he deliberately instituted by himself things that were against nature; in rejecting virtue by his own free choice he fashioned the temptation to evil. For sin does not exist in nature apart from free will; it is not a substance in its own right. All of God’s creatures are good, and nothing He has made may be despised: He made all things very good(Gen. 1:31). But in the way I have described, the whole procession of sin entered into man’s life for his undoing, and from a tiny source poured out upon mankind an infinite sea of evil. The soul’s divine beauty, that had been an imitation of its archetype, was, like a blade, darkened with the rust of sin; it no longer kept beauty of the image it once possessed by nature, and was transformed into the ugliness of evil.
St. Gregory describes a common idea in Orthodox patristic writers: there is an inner goodness in every human being – the image of God is imprinted on each of us and is never lost. Sin cannot take the image of God away from us. Rather that image becomes covered with the rust and dirt of sin. The most precious diamond in the world if caked with layers of dried and hardened clay will look like any rock. Yet, beneath those layers of hardened mud lies encased that most valuable diamond.
Thus man, who was so great and precious, as the Scriptures call him, fell from the value he had by nature. It is like people who slip and fall in the mud and get their faces so smeared that even their relatives cannot recognize them. So man fell into the mud of sin, and lost his likeness to the eternal Godhead. And in its stead he has, by his sin, clothed himself in an image that is of clay and mortal; and this is the image we earnestly counsel him to remove and wash away in the purifying waters of the Christian life. Once this earthly covering is removed, the soul’s beauty will once again shine forth.
In sticking with the imagery of a diamond encased in hardened clay, St. Gregory sees each human person. No longer do we see the glorious image of God in each other. Baptism begins to wash away these layers of filth, the accretion of a life time of sin. Baptism washes our eyes so we can see the reality of God’s hand in creation and the image of God in others. Baptism helps wash away our own layers of sin so that others can see the image of God in us.
By our human efforts we can merely clear away the accumulated filth of sin and thus allow the hidden beauty of the soul to shine forth.
This lesson is taught, I think, in the Gospel, where our Lord speaks to those who have ears for the mysteries that Wisdom teaches us: The kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). I think that the text here points out that the gift of God is not separated from our nature nor is it far from those who choose to look for it. It dwells within everyone of us, ignored and forgotten, choked with the cares and pleasures of life (Luke 8:14), but is rediscovered when we turn our minds to it.
But if we must confirm this doctrine in other ways, the same lesson is, I think, taught by our Lord in the search for the lost drachma (Luke 15:8-9)…and surely the hidden meaning of the coin is the image of our King, which has not yet been completely lost, but is simply hidden under dirt. By the dirt I think we must understand the uncleanness of the flesh; for, when we cleanse and sweep this away by a fervent life, what we are looking for will be made manifest. And then the soul that finds the coin rightly rejoices and calls in her neighbors to share in her joy. The soul’s associates are, of course, the various faculties of the soul, which the text here calls neighbors. For when the great image of the King is discovered and shines forth again, just as it was stamped on our drachma in the beginning by the Creator, stamped on the hearts of everyone, then do all our faculties unite in that divine joy and gladness as they gaze upon the ineffable beauty of what they have found. For she says: Rejoice with me because I have found the groat which I had lost (Luke 15:9). (From Glory to Glory, pp.13-15)
In all such imagery and thinking, we find that sin is not limited to law breaking which God must punish. Sin is experienced by us as being covered by layers of filth – of our being buried beneath layers of sin so that we can no longer see clearly, and reality itself (the image of God in each of us is so covered as to be totally obscured from sight). Salvation is not merely a release from legal retribution, but is a restoration and recreation and regeneration of the human being. Overcoming sin is thus not just a matter of suffering an appropriate punishment, but requires a washing, a cleansing which restores the human to his or her glorious nature. It is a healing of soul and body which we need, which is given to us by Christ, the true physician of our lives.
In a previous post, When Death Wept, I mentioned that early Christian writers were far more interested in how Death reacted to Christ then they were in what it is like to be dead or to traverse through the place of the dead. Their interest in Hades was because it is a place Christ has conquered and filled – it is a place where we will meet Jesus Christ our Lord, not be separated from Him.
These same writers were also very interested in what Paradise, the garden God prepared for His first human creatures, must have been like. This was of greater interest to these early writers than taking a sojourn through circles of hell or through purgatory or toll houses. They focused often on where God is, which turns out to be everywhere including Hades, rather than in concocting places where God is not. St. Ephrem of Syria (d. 373AD) poetically describes Paradise in his volumes of poems.
Perhaps that blessed tree,
the Tree of Life,
is, by its rays,
the sun of Paradise;
its leaves glisten
and on them are impressed
the spiritual graces
of that Garden.
In the breezes the other trees
bow down in worship
before that sovereign
and leader of the trees.
In the very midst He planted
the Tree of Knowledge
endowing it with awe,
hedging it in with dread,
so that it might straightaway serve
as a boundary to the inner region of Paradise.
St. Ephrem describes Paradise to be God’s temple, like the Temple in Jerusalem. Or rather, as we know, the Temple in Jerusalem was built based upon the Temple which was revealed to Moses (Exodus 25:9, 26:30; Numbers 8:4; Acts 7:44). Paradise had different regions according to St. Ephrem which had boundaries marking that some regions were even more holy than other regions. Those who could enter each region were limited, which is the pattern which the Jerusalem Temple followed with its outer courts and the inner Holy of Holies.
Two things did Adam hear
in that single decree:
that they should not eat of it
and that, by shrinking from it,
they should perceive that it was not lawful
to penetrate further, beyond that Tree.
While Genesis portrays the Tree being in the middle of the Garden, St. Ephrem sees the Tree as a boundary which Adam was not permitted to trespass beyond. The serpent was not even allowed in the Garden, but craftily learned about the inner structure of the Garden by inquiring about it from Eve. To talk to the serpent, Eve and Adam had to intentionally leave the inner sanctuary. The serpent didn’t really have Eve and Adam’s ear – they had to go out of their way to listen to the serpent, according to St. Ephrem.
The serpent could not
for neither animal
was permitted to approach
the outer region of Paradise,
and Adam had to go out
to meet them,
so the serpent cunningly learned
through questioning Eve,
the character of Paradise
what it was and how it was arranged.
According to St. Ephrem, the serpent’s goal all along was to learn about the design of the Garden – of God’s Temple. His discussion in Genesis 3 with Eve is really his crafty way to learn the layout of the Temple. The serpent wanted to know what was in the midst of the Garden. Once the serpent had that knowledge he hatched his plan to get Adam and Eve to turn away from God.
The serpent couldn’t harm Adam or Eve, but he was able to figure out a fatal flaw in them! Once he surmised that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was the key, the serpent suggested to Eve that there would be no harm in eating the fruit, that the fruit like everything in the garden was good to be had. Wisdom says there is a time for everything. It was not yet Eve and Adam’s time to partake of the fruit, but they bit on the serpent’s temptation, and the rest is history, so to speak.
At some point in early Christian history, Christian theologians began imaging Christ’s descent into Hades, the place of the dead. Unlike concerns of later Christians, they didn’t have Christ describe what Hades is like or what it’s like to be dead or how to make the proper sojourn through the place of the dead as was the theme of pagan religion. They took a completely different point of view: they imagined how Death reacted to facing Christ in Hades. Death realizes that he is suddenly confronted by God, face to face in a place which Death thought he was all powerful and far removed from the reach of God. These early Christian theologians personified or anthropomorphized Death, and then rejoiced in Death’s shriveling and cowering before real power – the eternal God. Death felt all powerful – able to claim every human person God created and to enslave them in Hades. In the face of the crucified Christ, Death realizes he has no real power even over the dead.
In the midst of Death’s own kingdom, Death realized he still had a Lord, and that he himself really wasn’t a lord at all, but was powerless in the face of God. Christ came to destroy death not to describe what the place of the dead is like. He didn’t come to tell us how to navigate our way through Hades or Toll Houses either. Christ destroyed death and then by His resurrection showed us the path to the Kingdom of God. Christ smashed the gates of Hades and opened the gate of Paradise to His human creatures. By entering Hades, Christ transformed even Hades into Heaven! So the Syriac-Persian Christian Aphrahat (d. 345AD) writes:
“When Jesus, the slayer of Death, came and put on a body (Ibesh pagra) from the seed of Adam, and was crucified in the body and tasted death; and as soon as Death perceived that he descended to him, he quivered in his place and became agitated at the sight of Jesus. He shut up the doors and did not want to receive him. However, he shattered the doors and entered to him [Death] and began to rob him of his possessions. As the dead saw light shining in darkness, they raised up their heads from the bondage of death and looked forth and saw the brightness of Christ, the King.
Then the powers of darkness sat lamenting, for Death was destroyed and stripped of his authority. And Death has tasted deadly poison (sam mauta) and his hands slackened and he realized that the dead will revive and escape his tyranny. As he [Christ] conquered Death by spoiling him of his possessions, Death cried out and wept bitterly and said: “Go out of my place and do not come back. Who is that who dared to enter my home alive?” And then Death cried out as he saw darkness starting to disperse and some among the righteous ones who were lying down there, rose up to ascend with him [Christ]. And he said [to Death] that he will return at the end of time, and will release all captives from his authority, and will draw them to himself, so that they could see light. Thus, as Christ had completed his ministry (teshmeshta) among the dead, Death let him escape out of his region, for he could not endure his presence there. For it was not sweet for him to swallow Christ up as [it was with] the rest of the dead. And Death did not prevail over the Holy One and he was not subjected to corruption.” (quoted by Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, pp. 69-70)
So they [Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome] went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8)
The myrrhbearing women come to the tomb of Christ in the early morning of the Sunday following his crucifixion and burial. According to Mark’s Gospel after being told by a young man (whose clothes apparently caught their attention as they describe them with some detail) that Jesus was risen from the dead, they say nothing to anyone “for they were afraid.” But afraid of what or who? And why?
The women disciples of Jesus weren’t afraid to be at His crucifixion as St. Mark reports:
There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40-41)
The women disciples of Christ were at the crucifixion, while on the other hand it is said of the male disciples: “And they all forsook Jesus, and fled.” (Mark 14:50) The women disciples were not afraid to be at the cross of Christ. One of the Pentecostarian Hymns (3rd Thursday, Vespers) says: “After following in the steps of serving Him with devotion, O Myrrhbearers, you did not forsake Him even after His death…” Unlike the male apostles who had!
On the morning of the great Pascha, it is the women disciples of the Lord who come to the tomb of Christ:
Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. (Mark 16:1-2)
Where are the men disciples? Mark doesn’t tell us much about them but John tells us that same day: “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews…” (John 20:19). The men disciples are trembling in fear behind closed doors – hiding, while it is the women who are out and brave enough to pay homage to their crucified Lord. The male chosen apostles are engaged mostly in self-preservation, which is no virtue in the spiritual Tradition of Orthodoxy.
The women disciples of the Lord were not afraid to be at His crucifixion, though the men disciples were. As another Pentecostarian hymn (3rd Thursday, Matins) says: “Bearing myrrh for Your burial, the women came secretly to the tomb at early dawn. They feared the hatred of the Jews and the strength of the guard, but courage conquered weakness.” The women disciples courageously conquered their fears, still wishing to serve their Lord even after His crucifixion, while the men disciples were not being manly but rather remained fearfully in hiding.
So what are we to make of Mark’s statement that the women disciples were so afraid that they didn’t want to tell anyone the Gospel they heard? They weren’t afraid of the Romans at the crucifixion or of the Jewish leaders for they were willing to be at the cross and were willing to go to the tomb of Christ. They didn’t fear their fellow Jews as the male apostles did.
One wonders if they were perhaps afraid of the men disciples – afraid of how they would be received, believed and treated. How was it possible that the almighty and all knowing God would chose to reveal His power, His salvation, His plan and His will to a group of nattering women rather than to those who imagined themselves sitting at the right and left hand of God? Indeed, Luke reports:
Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:10-11)
The male apostles were incredibly disrespectful of the women disciples of the Lord, dismissing their Gospel as an old wive’s tale. These women who provided for Jesus and the males disciples out of their own means (Luke 8:3) find these same males as insufferable ingrates. Jesus, as He often did during His ministry, severely rebukes His chosen male disciples for their failure to believe and their behavior toward the faithful women:
“Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” (Mark 16:14)
Though Mark originally reports the women were too afraid to tell anyone about the empty tomb and the resurrection, obviously they overcame their fear.
The Scriptures are silent about whether the male apostles ever apologized to the women disciples of the Lord for their treatment of them and for their disbelief. This is a silence that has existed for centuries in the Church, it has become part of the sad tradition of the Church. Women faithfully ministered to Christ, yet were often curtly dismissed by the male members of the Church, silenced and marginalized. And the male leadership has continued to remain silent, not offering an apology for such behavior toward those women or any other who remained faithful disciples even when the male apostles and their successors abandoned our Lord.
In a Church which bases itself in its faithful “spending the remaining time of their life in repentance” (from the prayers of the Liturgy), it is amazing how hard we find it to actually practice repentance and asking forgiveness and having metanoia. Church leaders are ever loathsome to have to apologize. Women disciples have often been marginalized in the Church like the Myrrhbearers, silenced and deprived of the diaconate which the Apostles themselves recognized for women. Even St. Paul recognized women deacons. The male clergy could today recognize this and do what we are called to do and repent. Consider the words of yet another Pentecostarian hymn (3rd Wednesday, Vespers): “Hearing the joyful words of the angels sitting in the tomb of the Word, the women who had run there with good intentions knew that the purpose of their group would be changed. No longer will you carry myrrh! Instead, you will preach to the apostles: “He who was hidden in the earth is risen from hell!” Initiate them into the mystery of Him who became man for us!”
It was women who initiated the male apostles into the Mystery of Christ’s incarnation and of His resurrection, not the other way around. The office of every male clergy of the church stems from the ministry and message of the Women disciples of the Lord. That is how God ordained it! The women Christians taught the male apostles how hard it would be to convert the world to Christ. They taught them that they would have to be incredibly reliable witnesses if they ever wanted the world to believe anything they said.
“The death of the Savior revealed that death held no power over him. The Lord was mortal in respect of His complete human nature; for even in the original nature there was a potentia mortis (capacity of death). The Lord died, but death could not keep Him. He was the eternal life, and through His death He destroyed death. His descent into hell, the kingdom of death, is the powerful revelation of life. By descending into hell, He gives life to death itself. And by the resurrection, the powerlessness of death is revealed. The reality of death is not repealed, but its powerlessness is revealed.” (Georges Florovsky, On the Tree of the Cross, p. 150)