A Christian End to Our Life

A paper delivered at a conference on end of life issues.

And God will wipe away all tears from their eyes. And there will be no more death, nor mourning, nor crying out, nor will there be any more pain; for the first things passed away (Rev 21:4)

Your Eminence, Reverend Brothers, Beloved Brothers and Sisters,

It is a great honor for me to open what I think is going to be a spiritually rewarding day, focusing on one of the fastest growing problems in America and around the world. In many nations, those aged 80 and over are the fastest growing portion of the total population.1 This is both a sign of man’s triumph over disease but also a spark for a number of growing issues related to income, medical help, family care, end of life expenditures etc.

It is not my intent here to dissect all these problems, but to try to provide a framework for problem solving from the perspective of our Christian Orthodox faith. This endeavor is necessary because as true Christians and followers of Christ we cannot contend ourselves to accepting a theoretical faith on Sundays and do something else during the week, but we need to implement the words of the Gospel into our daily lives. What we believe should be reflected unconditionally in what we do, in how we act and react to the world that surrounds us. The end of life issues make no exception to this rule. How we depart from this life should be a reflection of how we have lived this life.

Living the Faith – I Die as I Live

Let me give you a couple of contrasting examples to illustrate what I mean. The first one comes from the collection of stories from the desert of Egypt and talks about Abba Sisoe the Great.

It was said about Abba Sisoe that when he was about to be done with this life, the fathers sitting around him saw his face sinning like the sun. And he told them: Abba Anthony has come! And again his face shone even more. And he said: the Apostles have come! And his face shone again. And it seemed like he was talking to someone and the elders asked him to tell them to whom he was talking. And he said: the angels have come and I ask them to give me more time to repent. And they told him: you don’t need to repent father. And the elder told them: truly I do not remember myself to have started something good. Then all of them knew that he was faultless. And again his face shone swiftly like the sun and all feared. And he told them: you see the Lord has come! And the Lord said: bring me the vessel of the desert! And immediately he gave up his spirit. And it was like a lightning has come through and the room was filled with a wonderful fragrance. 2

Let’s see now a second example from the Bible:

The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room in which to store my fruits? And he said, I will do this. I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and I will store all my fruits and my goods there. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat drink and be merry. But God said to him, Fool! This night your soul shall be required of you, then whose shall be those things which you have prepared? (Lk 12:16-20)

In the first example we see a monastic, a man of God that has spent his entire life in prayer and dedication to God. His end is a very peaceful one, surrounded by his brothers in faith, being able to see already in the world above as a reward for his pious life. Despite al the gifts that he obviously sees receiving he refuses to accept that he has done anything good, and he asks in pure humility to be given more time to even start something good. Paradoxically in his refusal to accept that he is a worthy Christian his perfection is revealed to the people present in the room. His reward is the heaven represented by the Lord that comes personally to take his soul.

In contrast the rich man from the Gospel story doesn’t even think of death, he is happy that he is rich and selfishly plans for a long life in luxury, not willing to share the gifts he freely received from God with anyone else. His end however comes swiftly, unexpectedly ending his great plans of everlasting prosperity.

I gave these two examples because I think they are accurately depicting two divergent ways of dealing with the end of life. One is an astounding picture of acceptance of death with preparation and faith in eternal life, the other one is an unexpected tragedy of someone that doesn’t even consider death as a possibility. If our personal approach falls in the second category death is indeed the most painful moment one can imagine, is the time when one is unwillingly separated from the things he loves the most: family, personal possessions, existence itself. One cannot imagine a more excruciating experience. But this tragedy has its roots in atheism, in the unwillingness to accept God as part of our lives.

I remember from the communist era in Romania that whenever a state official would die, the announcement in the news paper would sound something like this: “With sadness we make known that Comrade Popescu has passed yesterday into non-existence”. It is as they were saying: his life has ended; we know that there is nothing else out there, so we are very sad about it. The material world preached by the atheist refused to deal with death. Death is not even mentioned in the materials of Karl Marx or Engels, because they could not find any reasonable explanation for it, it was nothing but a strange anomaly in their utopic social system and they were not ready to deal with it.

We see reflections of this godless attitude in our society today. People continue to be afraid of death because they do not understand it. They don’t want to think about it or prepare for it other than financially. As Mark Cherry was saying in a recent article:

For the devoutly secular, the preferred death occurs by choice or without warning; in either case, hopefully after appropriate financial planning, but without the labors of spiritual preparation.3

We find this attitude common even among contemporary Christians under a stronger and stronger secular influence. This attitude comes from a different understanding of the world. The secular man believes in a world springing out of randomness without God and surely no afterlife. Everything happening to him is either bad luck or the work of a mean God, if they believe in something like that. In the event he will die, if medicine and money prove insufficient, he wants to die with great comfort, without pain or suffering, and if possible by surprise.

For the members of the Orthodox Faith however the will of dying suddenly and alone is nothing else but foolishness! How can one as a responsible Christian want to die without preparation? In the history of the Church to receive foreknowledge of ones moment of death was considered one of the greatest gifts, a proof of a life in communion with God that wants us to enter into His presence fully prepared. In a beautiful prayer Archimandrite Sophrony expressed this with extraordinary beauty:

When your will shall be to request the end of my life, make know to me the hour of my death so I can prepare my soul to meet You”4

The traditional Christians believe in a world created by God out of love and death is nothing else but a passing into another realm, into the next phase of our existence. They know what the Apostle Paul told them before:

I would not have you ignorant, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, that you be not grieved, even as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will also bring with Him all those who have fallen asleep through Jesus (1Th 4:13-14).

Jesus Christ is the one the conquered death by death, as we proclaim with Great Joy every Pascha night. With Jesus Christ, death is swallowed up in victory. (1Co 15:54). With the entrance of the thief in paradise a new path has been open for humankind that starts on the earth and ends up in the midst of the Holy Trinity. Through Christ death is not anymore a punishment but a gift. Through death we are given the opportunity to decompose our material and corrupted bodies and recompose them as spiritual bodies, regaining the full potential we lost in the paradise of old:

It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. body (1Co 15:42-44)

Accepting the Eternal Perspective – Preparing for Eternity not for the Cemetery

The preparation before the end of our lives is not for that second only, but goes well beyond that. The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom gives us a strong clue on where our focus should be. During the Great Litany we all pray for: “A Christian end to our lives and a good account before the awesome judgment seat of Christ”5

We need to prepare for the end of our limited earthly lives, but we keep this into the perspective of the eternal life and in expectation of the encounter with Jesus Christ. We prepare to meet our Maker and give account of what we have done, right or wrong. Knowing the end with certainty is however for a few chosen ones.

So what do we, normal people, have to do? The answer: “Therefore watch, for you do not know either the day or the hour in which the Son of Man comes” (Mat 25:13). Our attitude toward death but also toward life should be dictated a simple but powerful truth: our end is not in our control, it can come today, tomorrow or in 20 years. We do not know this, only God does. Our preparation should not only consist in a short period before death but should be the work of a lifetime, the continuous struggle to achieve perfection in Christ, the askesis as the Greek Fathers call it, the only way to achieve the eternal union with God: theosis, or deification in an less than perfect English translation.

God neither leaves us in total darkness nor does He send us meeting requests with the exact time of our end. He works in more subtle ways by giving us hints that we can read if we pay close attention. Sometimes he gives us an incurable disease, like cancer that we know that is going to evolve toward the unavoidable. Other times He shows us the suffering of other people and this stimulates us to start early preparation for eternal life.

However toward the end there should be an intensification of the preparation for departure. Father Gheorghe Calciu Dumitreasa, of blessed memory, told me once that in his village, when a person was on the death bed, the whole family will gather and he or she will ask forgiveness from all present. Then all the people will ask forgiveness from him including the children. The priest will then give him Confession and Holy Communion and read the prayers of separation of soul and body. This reflects a healthy attitude an understanding that death is part of the continuum of life that starts in the womb our mothers end ends in the Kingdom of heavens.

Death is Not Just for the Dying – Communion in Life, Death and Resurrection

Today many people are scared of death, they are paralyzed. They flee from death because they don’t understand it. In the era of “I-can-get-all-I-want-and-I-want-it-now” no one wants to spend the time to reflect upon the meaning of disease, suffering or death. No one wants to remember that death came into the world through sin. How Adam and Eve missed thee fulfillment of their potential for incorruptibility through disobedience. They only rebel against God saying: why me, why my son, why this and that, but they never take a share of the blame, they never take the time to reflect upon the consequences of their actions. They don’t realize that their bodies are intimately linked with their souls and whatever they do in their bodies reflects into their souls and vice versa.

Suffering and death in general are therefore rejected and the secular man tries to distance from them as much as possible. Nowadays people die alone in hospitals far away from their loved ones; elderly people are sent to retirement homes when they mostly need the care and understanding of their loved ones. The secular man acts like an ostridge and hides his head in the sand hoping that in the meantime his responsibilities will go away.

The secular man has hardily tried to shift this personal responsibility to the society. He tries to make it sound that it is not about his mother or father but about the elderly in general, about the aging population, so the responsibility is diluted until no one takes care of the elders. His parents cease to be his parents and they become generic elders in the care of some generic caregivers, subject to oblivion, negligence or worse: abuse.

This egoistic attitude streams out of a lack of understanding of suffering, death and sacrifice. It shows an obvious unawareness or a willing avoidance of the fact that the end of life involves more than just the person whose life is ending. It involves everybody around: family, caregivers are all part of it and are given an opportunity to use it for their spiritual growth.

Fleeing the scene is not going to solve the issue because is going to come around like a boomerang and hit back. How can one respond when confronted with the commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long upon the land which Jehovah your God gives you” (Ex 20:12)? Well, I sent them to an elderly home so some strangers can take care of them?

I know this is a complex issue, with working families, children, financial burdens and so forth. But that does not mean that the rules should change. We should not honor and care for our parents because we go to work? Careful and prayerful consideration should be given to every decision made in real life circumstances, but the rule should always prevail and not the exception.

The Question of the Body

Another theme of outmost importance is the funeral arrangements themselves. As stated before we die as we live and we live as we believe. So if we believe in God as Christians we will arrange for a traditional funeral in which the person that has fallen asleep will be deposed in the ground and nature will take its course.

We see however some other ideas transpiring from a different or a perverted understanding of this reality. They go in two different extremes. One is cremation in which the body is totally destroyed through fire. The other goes to the opposite side of the spectrum and tries to preserve the body as much as possible, in an unwarranted hope that through the preservation of the body death will somehow be conquered. We see people using embalming, double metal coffins, above the ground concrete structures etc. One extreme shows a total desconsideration of the body vs. the soul, the other one forgets about the soul and elevates the body to a place it does not belong. So what do we do?

The burial of the bodies recommended by the Orthodox Church is not just a religious caprice but an expression of our belief in Christ and Resurrection with deep theological roots.

At the beginning Man was shaped in God’s image through a special act of creation. “God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul”(Gen 2:7). All the other creatures were brought into existence with a simple “let there be,” but God took the time to fashion man with His own hands into what St. Apostle Paul calls “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Co 6:19. Man is created at once, body and soul, as a dual unity, material and spiritual. St. Gregory of Nazianzus says: “God mixed earth with spirit and created a being which is visible and invisible being, ephemeral and everlasting, earthly and heavenly in the same time”6

To further emphasize the importance of the body Christ Himself, the Son of God, chose to show Himself to us as a Man, not as a spirit, being born in the world from a woman, like every one of us. Christ also rose from the dead not as a spirit, but again with the same body that was crucified and put into a tomb. His resurrected body was real, although spiritualized, showing all the marks of the wounds that St. Thomas touched with this own hands.

Following Christ’s example our bodies are important even after our souls have departed them. Committing them into the ground is to let God decide what is going to happen to them. This means that it is not up to us to decide what is going to happen. We can neither destroy the through cremating nor to commit them to eternity through embalming. God’s will shall prevail.

Some bodies will be corrupted and will decay returning into the earth from which they came, others, chosen by God, the saints, will go into incorruption. The miracle working relics of the saints are the proof of the link between our bodies and our souls. In the grace of God the bodies of the saints remain in a mystical bond with their souls being able to continue to perform miracles even after they have departed from this life.

If we believe in the second coming of Christ, the bodies are of outmost importance. Our bodies properly laid in the ground face the East waiting to respond promptly to the calling of Christ, the Sun of righteousness, at His second glorious coming. They wait to be reunited with their souls so as complete men again, body and soul, they will enter into the Kingdom of heaven.

Death as the Gate to Everlasting Life

As to conclude my exposition today, for us, Orthodox Christians, death is not an end but is a new beginning. In all funeral Orthodox services we never use the term dead, but rather passed unto the Lord. All the saints are commemorated not on their birth date, but on the date of their death, the moment when their earthly endeavors are accepted into the kingdom of heaven. If we die with Christ, we believe we will be resurrected with Him, so death does not frighten us.

The Lord’s commandments are for us the basic principles for the end of life: love your God, honor your mother and your father, thou shall not kill. But one needs faith to put this into practice, one needs dedication and engagement in the saving works of Jesus Christ our Lord. Dying is hard, suffering or seeing suffering is painful, but it is part of life. We cannot hide, or flee from it, but we can use it for spiritual growth by working the Christian writes of faith, hope and love.

Our end or the end of our loved ones should be a Christian one; not necessarily a painless one, or a pleasant one, but one with the responsibility of entering spiritually prepared into the world from above, as partners of Jesus Christ in His Great plan of the salvation of our fallen world.

NOTES

1 Vern L. Bengtson, Ariela Lowenstein, Global Aging and Challenges to Families, Aldine Transaction, 2003 p.2 2 Paterikon, The sayings of the Holy fathers.
3 Cherry, Mark J. (2006) How Should Christians Make Judgments at the Edge of Life and Death?, Christian Bioethics, 12:1, 1—10.
4 Archimandrite Sophrony , His is Life is Mine, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1977.
5 The Divine Liturgy, Holy Cross Publishing,
6 Sf. Grigorie de Nazianz, Cuvântarea 40, 8P.G. 36, col. 327 BC, în Marius Telea, Antropologia Parintilor Capadocieni, Ed. Emia, Deva 2005, p. 162.

Date posted: May 21, 2010