Remembering Loved Ones Who Have Died

Emperor Julian the Apostate (c. 331-363) once complained that Christians had ‘filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchers,’ and by their processions with and in honor of the departed they were ‘straining the eyes of all with ill-omened sights of the dead.’  Early Christians, by contrast, held that the death of believers was a cause of hope, and their bodies, far from being ill-omened, were precious links to the faith Christians had in the Resurrection of the Dead.  The Apostle Paul describes this in 1 Thess 4:16-17 as a joyous day when a loud call will sound and the Lord will come again, “and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.”  Christ himself says in Jn 5:28-29 that that ‘the day is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his [the Son of Man’s] voice and will come out . . .”  These are the two readings used in the Orthodox Order for the Burial of the Dead, and they set a resurrectional tone for the whole liturgy.

The boundaries between the living and dead were first broken by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The tomb was empty because the actual, physical resurrection of Christ’s body had taken place (Mt 28:5-6, Mk 16:6, Lk 24:5) . . . This is the hope for all Christians.  Our bodies will also be resurrected, not just our souls: we will recognize each other, and the the ‘marks’ of our spiritual and physical battles will somehow be a part of us.  Our physical bodies are inseparable parts of our identity because, as Orthodox anthropology maintains, a human person is a soma, an animated body – one individual unit of sarx (body) and psyche (soul).”  (Kathryn Wehr, SVTQ Vol 55 #4 2011, pp 502-503)

Born into Pregnancy

 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”  (Job 1:21)

Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”   (John 3:4)

Fetus at 6 months

We are born into this world.  We tend to think death is leaving this world.  In the 3rd Century, Origen, the greatest biblical commentator of his day, offered a thought for Christians which changes our understanding of this life and death polarity (The kernel for this idea comes from Hans Urs van Bathasar, ORIGEN: SPIRIT AND FIRE, p 278).  Origen saw that we all are born naturally from our mother’s womb, but for Christians this is not our only birth.  We are born again in baptism of the Holy Spirit.  In this spiritual birth, Origen sees our embracing Christ by faith to be a new conception – this time in the womb of the Church.  We don’t return to our birthing mother’s womb, but enter into the womb of our new mother – the Church (see John 3:3-8).  Origen terms our life on earth as a ‘pregnancy’.   Life turns out to be another gestation period. Our next birth is in the Kingdom.   [Read  A Parable of Death and Life to get a similar idea from the modern world.]

The birthing process is messy, involves pain and yet it is the only way to new life. Imagining our Christian life in this world as part of a pregnancy – the Church’s and we are in her womb when we live on earth –  might help us understand some of the suffering we experience here – it is a necessary part of our gestation, our maturation and development.   This life is not the final stop, the goal, the destination, home.  It turns out to be a time of growth and maturation.  Somehow life in this world is a necessary part of our development in the womb in order to be born alive in the world to come.

As the embryo cannot comprehend all that is happening to it in the womb, cannot understand it all as necessary for survival beyond the womb, neither can we fully comprehend all of our life experiences.  We can, in faith, trust that they are part of God’s plan for our salvation.  The experiences of life are not unimportant – they help us mature and develop into a full human being.  And then we can remember what it meant for God to become fully human including the cross, the grave and then resurrection to eternal life.  God did not spare Himself from entering the womb of a mother or of the world.

Love and Honesty

The desert fathers used wisdom stories to teach each other how to live according to the Gospel commandments of Jesus.  The stories are sometimes humorous, sometimes challenging and often counter intuitive.  They attempt to set forth a clear Gospel imperative (such as the command to love) in a way that expands one’s understanding of the commandment.

The stories show the weakness of a constant diet a very legalistic or literal reading of Scripture.  They use human foibles and failures to reveal the depths of Christ’s teachings.  Love is not something that is quantifiable and cannot be explained through questions of how many or how often or to whom do I show love?  The question, ‘who is my neighbor?‘, results in Christ teaching the parable of the Good Samaritan and a demand that disciples are to be neighborly to all they encounter.  Here is a story from the desert fathers that focuses on the importance of love and maintaining unity among brothers and sisters by avoiding criticizing a member of the community.  The story is not about offering a pragmatic solution to the problem (they are lost and need to find their way), but rather explores what does love demand of us in difficult situations.

“On one occasion when Abba John and the brethren who were with him were traveling from Scete, their guide got lost.   The brethren said to Abba John, ‘What shall we do, father?  For this brother has lost the way and peradventure we shall die wandering about in the desert.’  Abba John said to them, ‘If you tell him he will be grieved and feel ashamed.  But, watch, I will feign to be sick, and will say that I am not able to go on any further’.  The brethren said, ‘Father, you have spoken wisely.’  And they all joined the act and decided that they should stay where they were until the morning, rather than rebuke the brother who was their guide.”  (THE PARADISE OF THE HOLY FATHERS  Vol II, p 260)

The idea of ‘lying’ in order to fulfill the commandment to love might seem ridiculous since the problem might be easily solved by honesty.   And certainly the story’s point is not that lying is ever a good.  In fact in the story it is because lying is  sin that the story is powerful.   The Abba realizes the only way to avoid offending or embarrassing the errant monk is commit a sin himself.   He is taking the blame on himself – the young monk has erred inadvertently but the abba sins by choice.  This takes the blame, shame and attention off the mistaken monk – the abba takes on himself the wrong of the situation.  And all the monks know he has done this.  Instead of embarrassing the one monk, the Abba takes the fault on himself in a creative way.  He also teaches the rest of the monks to care for the feelings of one of their own.  Being ‘correct’ is not the only value – love rules.

The story is about coming up with a clever way to preserve unity and maintain love for an erring friend.  It is not at all saying that lying is OK.  We also see this idea explored in the 2019 movie THE FAREWELL.  There an entire family decides not to let the grandmother know she is dying – and they do it out of love (however mistaken they may be).  It is seen as a kindness to the dying person – don’t let them be burdened with their impending death.  The movie portrays this as the cultural way of the Chinese – let the dying elder enjoy the remaining time of her life without worrying about dying.   The family takes on the grief of losing a beloved member including the grief the dying person might feel if they knew they were dying.   Of course one has to decide whether one is doing it for the good of the other or because it is easier for us to deal with by pretending it is not happening.

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.”  (Romans 15:1-3)

 

 

St Paul’s Interpretation of Scripture

“First, Paul’s interpretation of Scripture is always a pastoral, community-forming activity.  His readings are not merely flights of imaginative virtuosity; rather, they seek to shape the identity and actions of a community called by God to be the bearers of grace.  The conversion of the imagination that Paul seeks is not merely the spiritual enlightenment of individuals but rather the transformed consciousness of the community of the faithful.

Second, Paul’s reading of Scripture are poetic in character.  He finds in Scripture a rich source of image and metaphor that enables him to declare with power what God is doing in the world in his own time.  He reads the Bible neither as a historian nor as a systematic theologian but as a poetic preacher who discerns analogical correspondences between the scriptural story and the gospel that he proclaims.

Third, as the previous observation suggests, Paul reads Scripture narratively.  It is not for  him merely a repository of isolated proof texts; rather, it is the saga of God’s election, judgment, and redemption of a people through time.  Paul sees the church that has come into being in his own day as the heir of that vast ancient story and as the remarkable of fulfillment of the promises made to Israel.

Fourth, the fulfillment of those promises has take an entirely unexpected turn because of the world-shattering apocalyptic event of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus.  When he rereads Israel’s Scripture retrospectively, Paul finds numerous prefigurations of this revelatory event – which nevertheless came as a total surprise to Israel and continues to function as a stumbling block for those who do not believe.    Once the Scriptures are grasped in light of this hermeneutical key, their pervasively eschatological character comes into focus; therefore, Paul seeks to teach his readers to read Scripture eschatologically, mindful of God’s final judgment of every human thought and action, while also looking forward in hope to God’s final reconciliation of all things to himself.

Finally, Paul reads Scripture trustingly.  He believes the Scripture discloses a God who loves us and can be trusted, in his righteousness, to keep his promises and to save us.  Thus, he always comes to the reading of Israel’s Scripture with the expectation that what he will find there is a word of deep grace.”  (Richard Hays, THE CONVERSION OF THE IMAGINATION, pp xv-xvi)

The Prodigal is Edified

Commenting on the parable of The Prodigal Son, Archimandrite Zacharias says:

32090123173_001743df9e_nMost of us live outside our heart, and our mind is in a constant state of confusion.  Some good thoughts may surface from time to time, but the majority will be harmful, and this destructive condition will prevail for as long as we continue to ignore our heart.  But in the end the pain is too much to bear and we begin to seek the way back.  Remembering his father’s house, the prodigal son comes to himself and says, ‘How many hired servants of my father’s house have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!‘ We all have buried memories of our Father’s house, for our soul will forever retain traces of the grace of being clothed with Christ in Holy Baptism.  Moreover, each time we partake of the Holy Mysteries, our being is indelibly marked with God’s goodness.  In the heart of the prodigal, now, another humble thought surfaces: ‘I will arise and go to my father…‘  The process of inner regeneration has now begun, for he has resolved to rise from his fall.  Having seen the reality of his perdition, he now returns within himself and towards God.  His dynamic increase in God has begun.  He is ready to be enlightened and cleansed, for he has begun to speak truthfully with God from the depth of his heart.  The prayers of a fragmented mind have neither clarity nor depth, but a mind that is reunited with the heart overflows with humble prayer and has such strength that it reaches the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.  ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee.‘ 

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Man then discovers the power of humility, and sees that the only right attitude is to render all glory and honor to God, and to himself ‘the shame of face‘ (Dan 9:7, LXX) because of his sins.  He now puts all his trust in the Father’s mercy, and no longer in his own corrupt self, and this disposition of heart leads to true repentance.  As we read in one of the great ‘kneeling prayers’ at Pentecost: ‘Against Thee we have sinned, but Thee only do we worship.’  We are sinful and unworthy of His mercy, but we have full confidence in Him Whom we worship.  This ‘but’ cannot be said without faith, and this faith is the rock upon which we build our spiritual life.”  (REMEMBER THY FIRST LOVE, pp 130-131)

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The Prodigal Son and Our Father

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St Gregory of Nyssa connects the parable of The Prodigal Son to the Lord’s prayer as both bring us to think about God as our Father.

“‘Who art in Heaven’ (Mt 6:9)

These words I think have a very deep meaning.  They remind us of the homeland we have abandoned, of the citizenship we have lost.

In the parable of the young man who left his father’s house, went off the rails and was reduced to living with pigs, the Word of God shows us human wretchedness.

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That young man did not find his one-time happiness again until he had realized his moral degradation, had looked into his own heart and had pronounced the words of confession.

These words almost agree with the Lord’s Prayer, because the prodigal son says: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.‘ (Luke 15:21)

He would not confess himself to be a sinner against heaven if he were not convinced that the homeland he had left at the time of his going astray were not in actual fact heaven.

By this confession of his he makes himself worthy once again to stand in the presence of his father who runs towards him, embraces him, and kisses him.

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The conclusion is this:  To return to heaven there is only one route and that is to admit one’s sinfulness and seek to avoid it.  To make the decision to avoid it is already to be perfecting one’s likeness to God.”  (DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, pp 345-346)

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Seeking God in Scripture

“Jesus said, ‘Seek, and you will find‘ (Mt 7:7).   . . .

St Ephrem, a fourth century Doctor of the Church, has these beautiful words of wisdom for those who approach the fountains of the living word (Commentary on the Diatessaron, 1.18-19):

The thirsty man rejoices when he drinks and he is not downcast because he cannot empty the fountain.  Rather let the fountain quench your thirst than have your thirst quench the fountain.  Because if your thirst is quenched and the fountain is not exhausted you can drink from it again and whenever you are thirsty.  Be grateful for what you have received and do not grumble about the abundance left behind.  What you have received and what you have reached is your share, what remains is your heritage.

. . .  St Jerome said: ‘Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.’”  (Renu Rita Silvano, SEEKING JESUS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT, pp 13-14)

Stewardship and the Wealthiest Nation on Earth

The earth is the LORD’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein; for he has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers.  (Psalm 24:1-2, quoted at the burial commital)

For “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”   (1 Corinthians 10:26)

The Fathers‘ fundamental understanding of property was as gift or more often as a loan, something that God has given to the rich for use of all.  Every owner is therefore a steward, someone charged with the social administration of goods for the benefit of one’s poorer brethren.  When they refuse to share, the wealthy become evil and, paradoxically, thieves with respect to their own property, for they divert it from its proper destination and thus have deprived it of its being a loan for social use.

St John Chrysostom was the most radical, truly an apostle of social ethics. ‘The rich are stealing from the poor even if what they have is honestly acquired or legally inherited.’  ‘In refusing to give and to share we thus earn the punishment of thieves.  We are as guilty as the tax collectors who use the money of all for their own needs.’  ‘The rich are a kind of robber.’  ‘Do not say, I enjoy what is mine.  You are enjoying the property of others.  All the things of this earth belong to all of us together, just as the sun, the air, the ground and everything else.’  Even later, in the eleventh century, St Simeon the New Theologian would echo what St John Chrysostom said in his homilies. ‘Money and all other goods are the common property of all,  just as the light and the air we breath.’

… The sole owner of the earth is the Lord and this is why the earth is holy and belongs to all.”  (Paul Evdokimov, IN THE WORLD, OF THE CHURCH, pp 82-83)


… your Father who is in heaven… makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  (Matthew 5:45)

Praying Correctly

“Let us pray neither for show nor against our enemies, and let us not be arrogant to think that we can teach Him [God] the method of assistance. . . .  Did you tell Him your injury?  Did you tell Him everything you suffered?  Do not tell Him these and how to help you, because He realizes exactly your best interest.  However, there are many who, in prayer, recite thousands of verses, saying: ‘Lord, grant me physical health, double all my possessions, repel my enemy from me.’  This is completely absurd.

We must dismiss all these things and pray and supplicate only as did the publican, who repeatedly said: ‘God be merciful unto me a sinner.’ Afterwards, He knows how to help you.  For He says, ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.‘  Therefore, in this way, my brethren, let us pursue wisdom with toil and humility, beating our breasts like the publican, and we will succeed in getting whatever we ask for; but when we pray filled with anger and wrath, we are hated by God and are found to be an abomination before Him.

Let us crush our thought, humble our souls, and pray for ourselves as well as for those who have hurt us.  For when you want to persuade the Judge to help your soul and take your part, never pit Him against the one who grieved you.  For such is the character of the Judge, that, above all, He sanctions and grants the requests of those who pray for their enemies, who do not bear malice, who do not rise up against their enemies.  As long as they remain unrepentant, however, God fights them all the more.”  (St John Chrysostom, ON REPENTANCE AND ALMSGIVING, pp 52-53)

A Prayer attributed to St. Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow, is written in the spirit of St John Chrysostom’s comments on prayer above:

My Lord, I know not what I should ask of You.  You alone know my true needs.  You love me more than I am able to love.  O Father, grant to me, Your servant, all which I cannot ask.  For a cross I dare not ask, nor for consolation;  I dare only to stand in Your presence.  My heart is open to You.  You see my needs of which I am unaware.

Behold and lift me up!  In Your presence I stand, awed and silenced by Your will and Your judgments, into which my mind cannot penetrate.  To You I offer myself as a sacrifice.  I have no other desire than to fulfill Your will.  Teach me how to pray.  Pray Yourself within me.  Amen.

Wisdom, Torah and Christ

King David with Wisdom & Prophecy

A more obvious parallel is the identification of divine Wisdom with the Torah. This identification is already made and made with much greater explicitness in Sir 24:23

All these things [the varying descriptions of Wisdom] are the book of the covenant of the Most High, the law which Moses commanded us, as an inheritance for the assemblies of Jacob.  It fills with wisdom like the Pishon. . .

Very similar is the great hymn in Bar 3:9-37, which climaxes with the thought of Wisdom’s appearance on earth and, again, immediate identification with the Torah.  ‘Afterward he appeared upon the earth and lived among humans. She is the book of the commandments of God, the law which endures for ever...’  (3:38-4:1).

In both cases it would be equally easy to speak of the preexistence of the Torah, and many do.  But it would be more accurate to say that the highest wisdom of God has been made available to Israel in and through the law.  Israel now had access to the wisdom which had been God’s mode of working from the beginning (Sir 24:9), the wisdom which was the secret of good living (Bar 3:14; 4:4).  It was there in the law.  It was the law.  In other words, it was not so much that the law was preexistent as that preexistent Wisdom was now to be recognized as the law.

In effect what Paul and the other first Christians were doing was putting Christ in this equation in place of the Torah. . . .   Paul had in fact already explicitly identified Christ as God’s Wisdom – in 1 Cor 1:24 and 30: ‘Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God‘ (1:24); ‘who has become wisdom for us from God, righteousness, holiness, and redemption‘ (1:30).  …

Christ The Divine Wisdom

The claim being made, then, is the astonishing one that the foolishness of the cross, the proclamation of Christ crucified, is the real measure of divine wisdom (1:21-25).  The thought is probably very similar to that in ben Sira and Baruch and implicit in 1 Cor 8:6: that Jesus Christ is the clearest exposition and explanation of divine Wisdom, that the cross is the fullest embodiment of the wisdom which created the universe and which humans need if they are to live the good life.  … So the creating Wisdom of God can be most clearly recognized now through identification with the crucified Christ.”  (James Dunn, THE THEOLOGY OF PAUL THE APOSTLE, pp 273-274)

In the Septuagint, it is clear that the Divine Wisdom was present at the creation of the world.  The Jewish scriptures made a connection between the Divine Wisdom and Torah, linking them together.  Torah became the way that Wisdom was incarnate before the Word became flesh in Jesus Christ.   The New Testament and the Church Fathers then identified the Divine Wisdom with Christ, the Word of God.  Despite Wisdom being a feminine word in Greek, the Fathers clearly identify Christ as the Divine Wisdom, an idea which shows up in many icons of Wisdom.  Additionally, the Great Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom) is dedicated to Christ.  The Orthodox were convinced that the Word of God is the Wisdom of God.