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Blessed is the Way – On Suffering Death and Resurrection in the Orthodox Church

February 3rd, 2015 by Fr. Vasile

Judgement 001This is a talk I gave on January 31st at the NTOM conference Falling Asleep in the Lord: An Orthodox Perspective on Dying Death and Grief at St. Demetrios Greek orthodox Church in Fort Worth.

Blessed is the way in which thou shalt walk today O soul for a place of rest is prepared for thee (Prokeimenon of the Apostle Funeral Service)

Reverend Brothers Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ

When confronted with the reality of death most people reveal a deep-seated fear of such an event beyond any human control. This is especially acute nowadays when the science of medicine has made great strides in curing diseases that only a century ago we could not even fathom to address. In this context death becomes the archenemy of man the only unconquered citadel in the pursuit of eternal happiness.

Death is perceived by the secular man as an end to the enjoyment of life and a painful separation from our kin that inflicts pain and suffering in all involved. Afraid to face this truth man tries to hide from it and look the other way. This is expressed vividly by all that surrounds ones death in contemporary times. Embalming is the norm traditional burial is traded for cremation while church funeral rites are often skipped altogether impenetrable and everlasting materials replace wood caskets cemeteries are renamed memorial gardens and we can go on and on. The funeral industry although helpful in many practical aspects has gradually developed into a coping mechanism that caters to the need of modern man to beautify somehow the reality of death and the unavoidable natural decomposition of the body.

In contrast to this head-in-the-sand attitude the traditional Christian outlook on death is dramatically different. Faithful Orthodox Christians are not afraid of dying because they understand its role in life. Death is part of life as birth or growing up is. Nobody runs away from it but embraces it when time comes with the great expectation of the encounter with Christ.

In the old times when someone would be laying on their death bed in a village let’s say all the people from that village including the children would go forth and ask forgiveness from the one who was about to pass and he would do the same. The dying person would confess his sins for the last time and receive Communion to prepare as much as possible for the unavoidable encounter with Christ.

After passing the body would be washed by the members of the family dressed in an outfit prepared in advance and would be placed in a simple casket inside the house. The priest would come and read the eleven Resurrectional Gospels and the family and friends would keep vigil reading from the Psalter.

On the day of the funeral the priest would bring the body in procession in Church where the funeral service would take place. The deceased would be there open casket in the middle of the community he/she belonged to. All will have a chance to bid farewell and give the deceased a last brotherly kiss.

After the service the body would be taken to the grave where it would receive its final blessing and would be commited to the ground feet facing East ready to wake at the call of Christ at His second and glorious return.

This is such a simple yet profound approach to the end of our lives looking death in the face with no fear no make-up covering and no drama accepting it as it is as part of the human existence.

My talk today will try to touch as much as the time will allow on the reasons why Orthodoxy has such a distinct approach in dealing with what is the subject of our conference today.

Creation and Fall

In order to really understand what is going on we have to go back to the very beginning as one would say we need to go back to Adam and Eve. Literally. When God created man he did not do because He had to man but because in His unmatched kindness He wanted to share the perfect love of the three Persons of the Divine Trinity with others. So after finishing all Creation He brought man to life through a special act of creation with His own “hands” modeling him in His own image so man could partake in what God is through grace. Then God said Let us make man in our image after our likeness; […] So God created man in his own image. (Gen 1: 26-27).

Man was created last of all Creation in order to be set as king over it. In this way man receives as St. Gregory of Nyssa observes:

a twofold organization blending the Divine with the earthly that by means of both he May be naturally and properly disposed to each enjoyment enjoying God by means of his more divine nature and the good things of earth by the sense that is akin to them.” [1]

Man was made with a soul that makes him alike with God and a body that makes him alike with Creation; he was created to meet heaven and earth in his being.

Man’s original way of life was to dwell in the love of God and relish in all of Creation. God allowed therefore man to experience everything created and inspired him to grow into union with Him through the grace that was abundantly poured over him like a garment. As a child man was to steadily grow in this Grace and fill the image of God planted in him with His likeness.But Man had to freely choose this way of life he had to love and obey God out of his own volition just as God freely loved him and created him. So God according to St. Gregory

“gave to man unstinted enjoyment of all the blessings of Paradise forbidding only that which was a mixture of good and evil”[2].

God did not wanted man to experience the good unmixed with evil he wanted to shelter man from its dire consequences so He allowed man to enjoy it all save for the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Yet he still gave man the freedom to choose although He knew that man might choose wrong.

Death as a blessing

Unfortunately as man transgressed this first commandment evil indeed entered his nature. The consequence was a foretold and necessary death.(Gen 2:17)

“Death indeed” says St. Gregory “as the fixed penalty for breaking the law necessarily fell upon its transgressors”.

“The wage of sin is death” (Romans 6:2) says also the Apostle and  we tend to conclude from it that death was a punishment a justified one maybe but still a punishment. And this is how we start putting together the idea of a medieval God that takes revenge on the people that offend Him. But if we look at it through the eyes of the illumined Fathers we see that they have a different point of view. St. Gregory continues his account about the death of the first man saying:

“but God divided the life of man into two parts namely this present life and that out of the body hereafter; and He placed on the first a limit of the briefest possible time while He prolonged the other into eternity.“ [3]

See how great our God is? In His love for mankind even after disobedience God cares about man and gives him the opportunity that in the shortest time possible which is but our earthly life he May gain back the lost eternity. Actually although death was foreign to the original nature of man after the fall in God’s generosity death comes as a necessary blessing. Here is what we read in an absolution prayer recited by the bishop during the Orthodox Funeral service:

“[He/God] gave command for this reason as God of our fathers to prevent evil from becoming immortal decreeing that his composite and mixture this bond which You made for joining body and soul unbreakably should be sundered by Your divine Will and be dissolved; so that the soul would withdraw where it had required existence and there abide until the general Resurrection;”[4]

In our fallen reality death is the separation of the soul from the body. The soul goes back to its Creator while the corrupted nature of the body goes back to the earth from which it was taken and is decomposed in its elements. This separation however is only temporary.

“Like a blossom that wastes away and like a dream that passes and is gone so is every mortal into dust resolved; but again when the trumpet sounds its call as though at a quaking of the earth all the dead shall arise and go forth to meet You O Christ our God”[5] we hear in one of the stichera of the funeral service.

That’s why we bury people in cemeteries rather than cremating them. The word cemetery itself comes from the Greek word koimeterion which means a place to sleep.  The cemeteries are therefore places of temporary rest; dormitories if you want where people await the second coming of Christ. At that time at the command of God and through His great mercy

“in the concurrence of its own elements the rope of our body will be braided by the soul. Each element in order will be woven again to its former accustomed place and will wrap around that which is familiar to it.”[6]

These new bodies formed by the cast of our souls will be free of any evil that formerly dwelt in them. They won’t be bond anymore by the laws of fallen Creation but will be restored to their former glory lost through our Forefathers transgression in Paradise.

“You Who of old did fashion me out of nothingness and with Your Image divine did honor me; but because of transgression of Your commandments did return me again to the earth where I was taken; lead me back to be refashioned into that ancient beauty of Your Likeness” [7] says another funeral hymn.

Christ’s body after His glorious Resurrection reveals this beauty of the nature of the resurrected man. Christ was able to walk out of the tomb through the stone that was sealing it He gave peace to His disciples entering through closed doors He instantly traveled from one place to another He ate eat without needing to and more importantly He was lifted up into the heavens and sat at the right hand of the Father taking with Him on the Trinity’s throne our renewed and redeemed nature showing the place prepared from us from the beginning of time. Man is a dual being made of body and soul so both are equally important and both are to be redeemed for their restored unity in the Kingdom to come.

On Corruption and Suffering

Until that sought-after moment however corruption suffering and death are still part of our earthly existence. Many times man questions this reality and attributes it to a vengeful God that takes punishment for man’s transgressions. But our God is not as such. He created us out of love and He judges us with the same. In His care for mankind “He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mathew 5:45). He gives everyone the possibility of repentance and union with Him. The ascetic life that we are all called to embrace is a way opened to everyone. All of us are called to purification of the passions illumination in the Spirit and deification in Christ.

But even this blessed way of life however is not void of pain and suffering. If we look at the lives of the saints we see great suffering despite their unwavering commitment to God. Where does all this pain come from? St. Gregory of Nyssa explains it again.

“God draws to Himself that which is His own. So the image which is soul is drawn to its archetype. If the soul is light and simple with no bodily weight holding it down its progress toward the One Who attracts it is light and easy. But should the soul be attached to the bodily condition with nails of passionate attachment it will probably experience what happens to bodies torn from wreckage. They will be torn and experience pain. […] Likewise goldsmiths purifying gold must melt the metal to rid it of impurities. Therefore the process of purification is painful. Punishment or vengeance however is not the purpose of this pain. Pain instead is incidental to the process of purification the measure of pain being proportional to the quantity of evil in each person. “[8]

Purification is painful because rooting out evil from our nature is a difficult process.  It is in fact so difficult that man cannot accomplish it alone. Faith and works were never enough for man to be freed from this cycle of corruption. In Christ alone death is finally overcome and we are since no longer its captives. In Christ alone our nature is redeemed and lifted to the level of the glory that has been prepared for us from the beginning. The Passions of Christ and His glorious Resurrection have given purpose to all suffering.

“The death which You have endured O Lord is become the harbinger of deathlessness; if You had not been laid in Your tomb then would not the gates of Paradise have been opened[9]”says another stichera at the last kiss from the Funeral Service.

With Christ we die to sin and we are reborn into righteousness with Him our lives are full of purpose and meaning although suffering and death May be part of it. We understand the need for our purification and understand the nature of the pain that accompanies it. We do not wish for it nor provoke it but we accept it when it comes in the hope of resurrection and eternal life.

Life after Death

So all men die depart from this world leaving behind everything. There is no escape from this reality. In the communist atheist times in Eastern-Europe every time a comrade would die the propaganda papers would write: ‘Comrade so and so has passed into non-existence.’ That’s all he was gone and that was it. As Christians we do not accept this miserable outlook we cannot accept that this life is all we have.

Fr. John Romanides writes in one of his books: “Man was brought by God from non-being into being from non-existence into existence and despite the Fall he does not return to nonexistence to non-being. He is eternal and it depends on him what type of existence positive or negative he will live in eternity.”[10]

God has created man as an eternal partner not as a fleeting play toy. Therefore He continues to care for the departed even after the end of their earthly existence and promises resurrection not only to the good but also to the wicked. God unconditionally loves all people sinners and not and He will shine His light upon all into the eternity of the Kingdom. Everyone will be with God everyone will feel His presence. However not everyone will perceive Him in the same manner. This is not God’s choice. He is impartial in His love and care. The righteous will perceive Him as light while the ones rooted in wickedness will perceive Him as fire. We can say then in a sense that God Himself is Paradise and Hell for each one of us according to our spiritual state. The true purpose therefore of our blessed way of life in Christ becomes to learn to be with God and perceive Him as light and not as fire. The more we dwell in His presence the more we imitate Him in our lives the more we become like Him the closer will be to this goal. Our development however is only known to God and as such the departed need the prayers of the Church just as the living do because we all are a work in progress. The liturgical life of the Church emphasize this greatly as the Church prays all the time for both the living and the dead.

“We have the appropriate prayer for each one” says Fr. Romanides “Prayer […] is an expression of love for all the members of the body as the Church makes no distinction between the Church after death and the Church before death. All these members together – those beyond the grave and those on this side of the grave – are one Church. […] There is one Body of Christ.”[11]

In this One Church everyone living and departed as well continuously progress into perfection and union with God except for those that are so rooted in wickedness that cannot advance anymore.  Christ told us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Mathew 5:48). Since He is an infinite being so the process of perfection we have started here through our ascetic life continues after death unto eternity.

“Perfection is an unending upward movement. It is significant that it is movement without end. This is why we perform memorial services [12] speaks again Fr. Romanides.

We pray for the departed that their progress will be faster that they will be numbered quickly among the righteous. The departed cry out for our prayers in the funeral hymns

“Therefore I beg you all and implore you to offer prayer unceasingly for me to Christ our God that I be not assigned for my sins to the place of torment; but that He assign me to the place where there is [the] Light of Life.”[13]

All the Church does for the departed: funeral services memorials kolyva and so on emphasize the union in love that permeates the Body of Christ love that wishes that all will live eternally in full union with Christ. So we pray for the departed and in the same time we ask for the prayers of the departed and in this  prayer we are all united on the blessed way to God.

Conclusion

We can see now why our outlook on death and dying is different. From the traditional perspective of Eastern Christianity life is a continuous journey from God to God from life to life. Our lives are not ending in death but they continue through into eternity. Our journey starts at God’s command in our mother’s womb continues through birth with our struggling earthly life and then through death enters in eternal unity with God. Suffering is not Gods making but only a consequence of the mixture of evil in our fallen nature and death puts an end to it allowing us to be refashioned to recover the glory of the first created man and to continue our perpetual perfection in union with God. It all starts and ends with Him this is the blessed way of life we try to live every day. So help us God through the prayers of His All Pure and Holy Mother and of all the saints. Amin.
[1] St. Gregory of Nyssa On the making of Man

[2] St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection  http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2915.htm

[3] St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection

[4] Prayer of absolution by the bishop funeral service

[5] Stichera for Funeral Service  Tone 2

[6] St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection

[7] Eulogeitaria for the deceased

[8] St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection

[9] Stichera for Funeral Services Tone 8

[10] Fr. John Romanides Empirical Dogmatics vol 2 p417

[11] Fr. John Romanides Empirical Dogmatics vol 2 p422

[12] Fr. John Romanides Empirical Dogmatics vol 2 p422

[13] Stichera at the last kiss Funeral service

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