Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Fathers teach us that a daily remembrance that we are dust and to dust we shall return (Gn. 3:19) would do us well. In fact, it would even be the salvation of our souls if we believed its counsel and acted upon it accordingly in all godly wisdom. Although pondering death might freak many of us out – we might even see it as macabre – the Fathers nevertheless were quite comfortable with the prospect of death and dying, especially that of their own. They believed it to be a healthy spiritual practice to ponder our end and to take account of our lives. Theirs was not a morbid preoccupation but a preparation essential for their salvation – for our salvation. We may fancy ourselves the cat’s meow, but, truth be told, as the psalmist assures us, even the most honorable among us “understands not” that he is just like the senseless cattle. Death shall feed upon both. In the grave their bodies rot just the same (Ps. 48 :1-20). The only difference is that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” wherein at such time each soul is relegated to either Abraham’s bosom or to punishment, as the case may be (Hb. 9:27; St. Hilary of Portiers).
Where we will spend eternity is always worthy of our reflection, provides direction for our lives so that we can make course corrections via repentance and amendment of life, and it can draw us closer to God and to the Guardian Angel assigned to us. One wonders how the unidentified rich man in today’s parable might have benefited by this ancient spiritual wisdom had he bothered to put it into practice? We know that after death he has plenty of time now on his hands to do just that and it won’t make any difference for him despite the insights he gleans. In fact, the anonymous rich man, whom we have come to call Dives because of the Latin word for rich used by St. Jerome in his Vulgate translation, this certain rich man doesn’t really seem to be inclined towards repentance based upon his responses. Nowhere does he ever lift up his eyes unto the hills and pray, “Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner!” He hasn’t done so in living his life in obscene luxury, and he doesn’t do so in Hades – the abode of all who die. He wants mercy – some water to quench his thirst due to the flame – but it doesn’t ever bring him to repentance and to confession, even in death when he has been given all the answers to the final exam! His soul is seemingly unmoved, lending credence to the understanding that the Judgment of God will simply ratify in death the trajectory that has been the way of life for us. If impenitent in life, why would we think death will change that? If we have heard the Words of God, received His holy Mysteries, and yet have been impenitent, why would death change our free will acts? “Even if someone were to rise from the dead,” says Father Abraham to the rich man, “men still won’t be persuaded if they haven’t been persuaded in life by the holy Words of God.”
This parable also gives me pause to ponder obituaries. I wonder how the obituaries of poor old Lazaraus and the anonymous rich man might have read, that is, if Lazarus even would have warranted one? I’m fairly confident that there would have been no comparison whatsoever between them! Lazarus might have garnered a line or two at least acknowledging that he had once existed in this world while the unidentified rich man’s might have taken up the better portion of the obituary page naming all of his accomplishments and achievements and awards, identifying next of kin, and heaping laurels of praise upon him inferring that the world will be experiencing a void with his demise. But, in eternity, where no man can see until he enters into it, things are not what they had seemed to be in life. Lazarus is escorted by the angels into Abraham’s bosom – the place of temporary abode until the General Resurrection of the dead. They escort this meek soul into the courts of blessing with a holy escort of heavenly beings whereas the unnamed rich man finds himself not so, despite all the trappings of life! Indeed, if we juxtapose another parable found just a couple of chapters back in this Gospel (Lk. 12:13-21) – the parable of another rich man whose success compelled him to tear down his barns and build bigger so he could stockpile his wealth for the future – in this parable, according to an older translation, angels come to this soul on the night of his death. But, they are fallen angels – the demons – who come to “’require’” his soul! Unlike Lazarus escorted by the bodiless hosts of Paradise, the demons escort those who will be inheriting the “other place.”
If we took the time to prayerfully read the Orthodox prayers at the departing of the soul, along with all the other services, we find there our understanding how at death the soul, regardless of its status, experiences a tremendous struggle at its parting from the body (Funeral Service Idiomela). As in life, so even in death, the soul is not spared but is accosted by the demons – those spiritual hosts of the air through which the soul must pass at its parting (Ep. 6:12; Ju. 1:9) – and there the soul is accused of all its sins, failures, shortcomings, and weaknesses, even falsely accused, so as to strike final terror into it and despair. These demons play the part of assistant prosecuting attorneys charging the soul with its “crimes” against God and humanity (Jb. 1:6-12; 2:1-6; ; Rv. 12:10).
But, the soul is also not without its advocate. It is also accompanied by its Guardian Angel for which the Church prays in her litanies several times during the course of the Liturgy, “An angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies, let us ask of the Lord.” “Grant this, O Lord,” is our prayer. This angel, along with others, journeys with the soul as it makes it way to the preliminary judgment, countering the allegations and accusations of the demons, just as the Archangel Michael once wrestled with the devil over the body of Moses (Ju. 1:9). These Guardian Angels continue even in death their ministry to those who are to inherit salvation (Hb. 1:14).
This is all part and parcel of the Judge sorting things out as we come before Him for a preliminary hearing, if you will. The Church makes a distinction between a partial judgment experienced at death and the Last Judgment experienced at the General Resurrection of all the dead at which time every man’s soul will be re-united with his body and together – body and soul – they will receive their due recompense: “’those who have done good, to the resurrection of Life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation’” (Jn. 5:29). St. Justin Popovic tells us that “At the Particular Judgment [immediately following death] the Lord assigns a partial and preliminary blessedness to the righteous soul, and a partial and preliminary torment to the sinful soul. . . . Either the one or the other . . . is assigned according to the life led on earth.” And so, the soul, like that of the rich man and that of Lazarus, awaits the Final Judgment on the great and Last Day when soul and body will be re-united for all eternity.
One of the great joys that has become mine since becoming Orthodox is to pray for the dead. We face the judgment of God, to be sure. We know, even as our Father Abraham confessed as he bargained with God over the impending judgment of the righteous with the wicked together in Sodom, “’Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’” (Gn. 18:25). Indeed, He will, and His judgment will be true and righteous (Jn. 5:30; Rv. 15:3; 16:7; 19:2). The Church prepares for judgment and prays for mercy. We know how great God’s mercy is and how He longs for the salvation of all souls. “We believe that even beyond the grave Thy loving-kindness, which is merciful even to all rejected sinners, doth not fail” (Akathist for the Repose of the Departed, Ekos 5). Unlike Origen, who sadly fell into the heresy that all will be saved, including the devil, the Church does not believe that, yet she continues to pray for the dead in the hope of God’s mercy. This is the hope of that series of kneeling prayers offered at the Vespers of Great and Holy Pentecost. And if our great and holy God should indeed turn and have mercy, what is that to us who, unworthy as we are and deserving of Hell ourselves, should begrudge the Almighty to have mercy? Would we not be found to be like those ungrateful workers who were rewarded accordingly by the vineyard owner the same as those hired at the end of the day? Would we begrudge the goodness of God because of the evil in our hearts (Mt. 20:1-16)?
And, what of the prayers we make for the departed? What sin is there in our remembrance of them before the throne of God’s mercy and grace? Some would object that we can’t change their final destiny, so why pray? They may even be horrified that we do so! I would ask, why not? Perhaps the Lord will relent “’and leave a blessing behind Him . . . .’” (Jl. 2:14)? If not, that is God’s decision and His alone. But, if He does, what joy is there in Heaven over one sinner who repents (Lk. 15:7, 10, 11-32)! And think, we played a vital part in the salvation of that soul! Our saints – not all but quite a few – bear consistent testimony of being visited in visions by departed souls who witness to the efficacy of the prayers of the Church for the departed and how those prayers have brought relief to those remembered, even salvation for others. The Church, beloved, prepares for Judgment and prays for mercy for both the living and the dead.
On the outside, the anonymous rich man was a fine and upstanding specimen for an obituary, but what truly matters is what God has to say about it when death strips us of all the accoutrements. What truly counts is whether we have been rich towards God or not (Mt. 6:19-21; Lk. 12:21, 33-34; 1 Tm. 6:18-19).
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
2 Cr. 9:6-11