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)

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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)

When Death Wept

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)

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)

The Blessed Death and Life

“Whoever is able to accept suffering, whoever is able to die the death granted to Him by the Father, is able to participate in the true, eternal life of Christ.  If he cannot, or will not do this, then his life is a living death, for whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it (Lk 17:33)”   (Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, THE WAY OF THE SPIRIT, p 163)

There are all manners of death we experience in this world.  Physical death is but one, and that we experience only once.   Those following Christ have to die to their passions daily as they take up their crosses to follow Christ.  We so much want something or want to do something but we must die to that desire in order to stay on the path to the Kingdom of God. It is a death that we may have to undergo daily and even many times in the course of a day.  It is about loving Christ who died for me.

Many a humble person has died a thousand deaths at the abuse of others.  Some die daily to avoid destructive conflicts, for the sake of family peace, to preserve marriages, to help a greater cause.  We suffer wrong rather than take revenge.  We accept a martyrdom called love for the benefit of another – we put others ahead of ourselves.  We forgive debts owed to us and sins committed against us for the sake of Christ.

These deaths to self for the sake of others bring to mind the words of Winston Churchill, spoken about politics but can be applied to so many relationships in life: “Politics are almost as exciting as war, and – quite as dangerous … [I]n war, you can only be killed once. But in politics many times.”  There are countless positions in life in which one can be killed more than once.

Archimandrite Aimilianos says, “whoever is able to die the death granted to Him by the Father, is able to participate in the true, eternal life of Christ.”  I think of this on these many levels of death.  If we can accept them, they are all given to us by the Father, chances to die to self, and in doing so we find eternal life in Christ.  but it is also true about the one terminal death our bodies experience.  Some of us are given disease to suffer, not only in middle age but even when we are young.  Others are given long lives, and they find in the end a readiness for death which remains elusive.  Some don’t want death no matter when it comes.  Some of us will die suddenly unprepared, and some excruciatingly slowly.  A few live relatively healthy and long lives enjoying their senior years.

We can, however, always be prepared for it, whenever it comes, realizing it is a gift granted by the Father.  We endure it, even it we can’t embrace it because we know who it is from and what it will enable us to participate in – that true life beyond the grave.

As Archimandrite Aimilianos notes, whoever cannot accept the suffering given to them, life becomes a living death.  Blessedness is so different than the world says it is.

And I heard a voice 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!”  (Revelations 14:13-14)

Facing Death With Detachment and Peace

“Everything in life is vain and futile, and life itself is like a dream, like a fleeting shadow!  We mortals toil and sweat, for nothing, striving against all odds to gain even the smallest possession.  And if they do attain any of their desires here on earth, yet must they lie in stillness in the tomb, stripped of everything, be they king or pauper.  Therefore, O Christ our God, grant Your departed servants eternal rest, in Your love for mankind.”  (Saturday Hymn from Matins)

The above hymn is a sober reflection on life and its terminal limit, and calls to mind the words of our Lord Jesus Christ:

“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.”    (John 6:27)

Even when we remember death, we do not always think about eternity.  Sometimes we work even harder to accumulate the things of this earth while still on earth to enjoy them.

I do appreciate reading articles from non-Orthodox sources when they make a point that is consistent with or supportive of Orthodox ideas.  Jeffrey Klugger wrote in the February 22 2016 issue of TIME  an interesting short article titled, “Why Are Old People Less Scared of Dying.”  For some people the fear of dying declines as they age and get closer to death.  Their attitude toward death changes, and some even look forward to the rest they believe will be given them at death.  Klugger offers an explanation for why aging people become more accepting of death.

“Studies show there can be a powerful perspective shift later in life when we come to understand that what we’ve always thought of as ownership is really just a long-term lease.  ‘A lot of our fear of death is about losing the things we’ve built up,’ says Steve Taylor, a lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University in Leeds, England…  ‘But  elderly people let go of their attachment to these things, and in the process they let go of some of their fear.'”

Aging perhaps makes us more realistic about our temporary sojourn on earth.  We are God’s guests here, not the permanent residents.  All that we accumulate in life is lent to us for our use while we sojourn on earth.  But we can’t take it with us when we die.   That peace comes with faith and hope.  It is available not just to the aged, but to anyone who is willing to do as Christ taught:  “Deny yourself.  Take up you cross and follow me.”   It is what enables some Christians to tithe and practice generous charity.  We understand wealth is a gift from God to be shared with others.  We understand we owe God for everything and so are willing to be generous in charity in this lifetime.

Thinking about death is not morbidity.   It is thinking about reality – we are mortal beings after all.  As Orthodox we think about death frequently.  Every year we celebrate the death of Jesus Christ as the death of death!   We do memorials throughout the year, reminding ourselves of deceased loved ones.   We prepare ourselves consciously for death as a passage from this world to the world which is to come.

Klugger in his article concludes:

“The certainty of  a journey’s end might make better travelers of us all.”

Certainly, this should be true of those of us who follow Christ and who sing every year:

“Christ is risen from the dead,

trampling down death by death,

and upon those in the tombs

bestowing life!”

Learning to let go of things is a spiritual lesson for us, not just something learned through aging.  C.S. Lewis has the demon Screwtape analyze humans in this way:

“They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong – certainly not to them, whatever happens.”  (THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, Letter XXI)

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.

Weep Not!

In the Gospel Lesson of  Luke 7:11-16 we learn of one of the great signs that our Lord Jesus Christ did in raising from the dead the only son of a widow, whose names we never learn.

Soon afterwards Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!”

Saint Nikolai Velimirovic (d. 1956AD) writes:

“ ‘Weep not!’, the Lord comforts the mourning mother. This is said by Him who does not think, as many of us do, that the soul of the dead boy has gone down to the grave at his body’s departure; He knows the whereabouts of the dead boy’s soul; He who holds the soul here under His authority. And we comfort those who mourn with these same words, even though our hearts are filled with tears.” Homilies, p 204)

 

When you saw the widow weeping bitterly, O Lord,

You were moved with compassion,

Raising her son from the dead as he was being carried to burial.

Likewise, O Lover of Mankind, 

Raise my soul, deadened by sins, as I cry:

“Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!”

(Kontakion 2 from the Akathist to the Sweetest Jesus)