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 business of the Christian is nothing else than to be always preparing for death.” These are the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyons.
“A certain Father taught that the man who succeeds in having death continually before his eyes will conquer faint-heartedness. One day, while spinning, he said, ‘I have brought death to mind as many times as this spindle has turned, up to the present.’”
Our venerable father Isaias the Anchorite teaches us, “A Christian has great difficulty in attaining three things. They are grief over one’s sins, tears, and the continual memory of death. Yet these three contain all the other virtues.”
St. Cyprian of Carthage offers this for our contemplation: “He is not worthy to receive consolation in death who has not reflected that he was about to die.”
Our father among the saints, St. John Chrysostom, says, “The death of the body is grievous and fearful, even terrifying to those who have remained all their lives in love with their own flesh.”
And, finally, the counsel of St. John of Damascus: “God desires that all be benefited by others, both the living and the departed. He who struggles for the salvation of his neighbors (and performs the memorials) on earth benefits first of all himself, and then those who are beyond.”
I have gone to great lengths to quote but a few of the many Fathers I could have quoted to demonstrate that the Church of the crucified and risen Master takes the business of death – and our dying – seriously. She has spent considerable time and energy in prayer on this inevitable future of all mankind, and has something to say to us, something to offer us as she helps us to prepare for that which we must all one day face: our own inevitable mortality. This is, however, no more gruesome a task or macabre a thing than putting our affairs in order by the drafting of a will. For the remembrance of our end has great value for our souls by leading us to repentance and the planting of our hope in the mercy of God and in the Death and Resurrection of His most beloved Son, Jesus Christ, for us sinners.
The Church provides us ample opportunity in these days of the Triodion – the book that governs our worship now through Great and Holy Saturday – to aid us in this by setting aside, that is, sanctifying certain Saturdays as days to memorialize our departed, and in so doing, we remember that we, too, are dust and to dust we shall return (Gn. 3:19; Sr. 7:36; 8:7; 38:22). Sacred Scripture counsels us to be kind to the dead, to remember them to the Lord, to pray for them, and to offer up alms on their behalf (2 Mc. 12:44; Sr. 7:33). The Church makes little, if any, distinction between her faithful departed and her faithful living. For the God Whom we serve in life, we serve in death. He is Lord of both the living and the dead (Mt. 22:23-33; Mk. 12:18-27; Lk. 20:27-40; Rm. 14:7-9). We need to constantly remember that the Church can so invite us into the contemplation of our death precisely because of the reality of the Resurrection from the dead of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ! Apart from Pascha, this would indeed be a futile and morbid exercise!
But, as it is, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life!” (Paschal Troparion). This is how we approach death. In the light of Pascha. In the faith of the crucified and risen Saviour of all sinners! This is how the Church through her Apostles speaks of death – through the knowledge and the experience of the Empty Tomb. For, if Christ God is not risen, what’s the point? If Christ God is not risen, so what (1 Cr. 15:1-58)? If Christ God is not risen, who cares? The Resurrection has something to say about death. The Resurrection has something to say about how we die, about how we can live faithfully so that we can die well, and about how we can today have Eternal Life even before we draw our last breath (Jn. 5:24-30). We who are dead because of sin, who suffer the terminal end because of our broken relationship with the God Who alone gives life, if we hear the voice of the Son of God calling to us, “Arise! Repent! Return to the Lord thy God!,” and we do as He says, He grants to us Life…His Life…Life Eternal (Jn. 5:24-30). And, He leads us like sheep into the pastures of the virtue of goodness, so that, in the end, our death will match our life. Those who have done good will be raised to the Resurrection of Life, says our Lord, “’and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.’”
The Apostle found comfort in knowing the Truth “concerning those who have fallen asleep . . . in Jesus.” In fact, he even bids us at the end of this chapter of First Thessalonians to “comfort one another with these words” (1 Th. 4:18). Christians should take comfort in the death of the Lord’s faithful ones. For “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Ps. 115 :6). Christians should take comfort in what the Lord Himself has accomplished for us. But, none of this matters to the soul who pays little attention to its need for redemption. It mistakes its complacency about the things of God for faith. It has been duped into believing by the world that unless you’re certifiably evil, you’re okay. Thus, in the world of relativism, everyone goes to Heaven. Hence, comfort is of little or no value if everyone goes to Heaven. Comfort only matters if there is a righteous and holy Judgment we all must face. Comfort only matters if we will be held accountable for the lives we have all led. Our Lord will speak of that tomorrow in the Holy Gospel.
Today, however, the Church bids us to remember our dead and to do a most Christian thing for them: to pray for them. In so doing, as the Damascene has told us, we benefit ourselves, but not solely ourselves. We benefit those who lie asleep in the graves. We pray for their salvation and ours. We pray that the Lord might have mercy on them and us for today is their remembrance and tomorrow it will be ours (Sr. 38:22). The Church has long taught that the burial and remembrance of the dead is act of mercy that God will bless and reward. For God Himself has not forgotten the dead. No sooner was our crucified Lord placed in the Tomb than He descended into the depths of Hades where He ransacked the devil’s dominion and raised up with Himself all the righteous departed who had been awaiting in the darkness the Light of our immortal God (Is. 42:7; Ep. 4:7-10; 1 Pe. 3:18-20)! God has remembered His people and He has acted decisively in the Death and Resurrection and Ascension of His Son (Magnificat; Benedictus). “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life!” Let us, beloved, leave behind our ignorance of death and let us comfort one another with this hope as we commend ourselves and all the departed to the mercy of Him over Whom death now no longer has dominion (Rm. 6:9).
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!
1 Th. 4:13-17