Here is the text of Deacon Mark’s second podcast on Ancient Faith Radio; Understanding Death Part 1
PODCAST 2 – UNDERSTANDING DEATH 1
This Podcast is available for listening at Ancient Faith Radio
Glory to Jesus Christ, Glory forever.
This is Deacon Mark for A Christian Ending.
Christ is Risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
This is the good news. This is the gospel message. Sin and death are defeated and no longer have any hold on us. Glory to Jesus Christ. Glory forever.
If this is so, and we believe this, why then do you suppose that we still fear death so much?
This series of podcasts, A Christian Ending, is about recovering and restoring a truly Christian perspective on death and dying, and the ancient traditions of preparation of the dead for burial in a Christian community.
Death is the last truly taboo subject in America. I’m old enough to remember when we didn’t see ads on TV for feminine hygiene products, condoms and erectile dysfunction. Honestly, I can’t think of any other subject that Americans are so reluctant to talk about.
The funeral industry and the traditional American funeral themselves are a calculated denial of death.
I think it is important, to begin with, that we look at, and hopefully gain a more traditional, patristic understanding of our subject – death – hopefully to help us deal with the subject better as we progress in this series and in our daily lives….
Death is a powerful and awesome mystery; there is no doubt about that. Nothing we say here will change that. But if we are going to actualize the gospel message and make it real in our lives, we need to understand what it means as it relates to MY life, and MY death.
My mother died early one afternoon in April. She had lived with us for over six years, having been bed-ridden for the last five. We called hospice and our priest and began reading the Psalms by her bed. When the others arrived, my wife Elizabeth, her primary care giver, and I washed her body there in her bed, just as we had done so many times before. We gave her a manicure and a pedicure, washed her hair, anointed her with fragrant oil and dressed her in one of her Sunday dresses.
Fr. John and I then carefully carried her body into our living room where her casket was waiting. We held vigil in our home that night. In the morning our sons came to the house to transport their grandmother to the church. After the funeral service, we carried her casket back to the rental van and drove her in procession to the grave site at STs Mary and Martha monastery in Wagener SC (about 2 hours away) and we buried her there.
It was an intimate, beautiful process, harkening back to the customs and traditions of Christian communities for two thousand years.
It is still the way death and burial is handled in Most of the Rest of the world. America has adopted a very different type of burial tradition over the past 150 years. It is an aberration in the history of sacred Christian burial traditions which our church here in South Carolina, and many other churches across America are trying to correct.
In contrast with my mother’s burial, Elizabeth’s mother Ella, was more what we have become accustomed to in America. Ella was not a Christian and she insisted on being cremated.
Thanks to the wonderful volunteer hospice that we had, twenty years ago, she was able to live and finally die at home. We called the funeral home. They came to pick her up, and that was the last we saw of her. We had a memorial service. But she wasn’t there. She was already cremated.
For Orthodox Christians accustomed to an open casket church funeral with a final kiss, it was a strange experience.
Orthodox Christianity addresses the whole of human existence. From the genesis of mankind as the crown of creation, destined to live forever as a close companion of a loving God, through the trials and suffering of an often overwhelming and tragic life, to our death and burial in the earth; the Church celebrates, rejoices, comforts and mourns. Orthodox Christians live their lives in a universal community of believers and worshipers dedicating “ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.”
God is love.
I have known love. I have experienced love, but God IS love.
Just as God said, “Tell them I am” and in our services we call Him “The Existing One.” We know that what we experience as love, even in its greatest intensity, is a very faint echo of what God is in reality.
Love is a tremendously creative force. Just look at all the books, poetry and music that have been created for love, not to mention all the children.
Still even all this human history is a faint reflection of the love that God is.
In God, love is so abundant and so forceful that it quite simply and naturally overflows in an incredible outpouring of creative force that we experience as creation. That is not to say that creation IS God. It is to say that creation is a very natural outpouring of who God is. Creation itself is an outpouring of the Grace of God.
God created mankind to top off all of His creative energy. He put us right at the very pinnacle of creation, the pinnacle of His love. Genesis tells us that God “breathed life into Adams nostrils”. This is a picture of the very intimate relationship we were created to have with our creator. It also shows that nothing has life within itself. God alone is the source of life. Woman was created from a rib taken from Adam’s side. This too is an indication of the extremely intimate relationship created between man and woman.
We were created as persons, body and soul in one unity of person. Each person is unique, individual and whole. It is this person that is created and loved by God. He knows and loves each of us as a person.
This person, each and every one of us, from the beginning, has infinite value to God. We are so valuable to him that he has numbered every hair on our head. He has done everything that can be done, to restore our intimate relationship with Him.
We were created for an ultimately close, intimate, relationship with God and with each other. It is very hard even to imagine how close this relationship of love was intended to be. Again, the closest relationship you have ever experienced is just a poor shadow of the closeness we were created to have to God and to one another.
This was a relationship of love, in love, living within the very Grace of God. Father Alexander Schmeman said that in the beginning, all of creation was transparent to the Grace of God. In other words the Grace of God shown through every atom and molecule and man lived in this incredibly intimate relationship with Him.
The relationship of love between man and woman was equally as intimate.
Obviously, the Grace of God is all good and all love, so nothing bad could happen to man in this state of penetrating Grace. This is why the father’s say that man was not “Created immortal” but he had the “potential” for immortality. Because as long as we lived within the Grace of God, death was not possible. This was our natural created state.
But we know what happened.
We blew it. The first thing we did was blow it.
In order for love to be real it cannot be coerced. Man had to have the freedom to love God or not to love God. You can force someone to “pretend” to love you. But you can’t force someone to love you.
Love requires free will.
God never did and never will violate man’s free will. That’s how much He loves us.
So, when we chose to disobey, to elevate our own wants above God’s love, we chose matter, represented by the fruit, and chose to elevate our “self” over God’s love, the bond of love was broken between God and man. Since man was the head of creation and transparent to the Grace of God, the reverberations of this choice echoed like a shockwave throughout all of creation. As the Father’s say, creation has been groaning ever since.
At the beginning of Great Lent we celebrate forgiveness vespers. We prostrate ourselves before others and ask their forgiveness. If you come to my church or I come to yours, we will do this even though we have never met. Why is that?
It’s because we recognize that my sin affects you (and everyone else) though I may never have even met you. How much more significant was mankind’s fall from God’s grace.
It reverberated throughout all the cosmos and still reverberates today.
In an instant, Man found himself outside the Grace of God, and clothed in flesh, subject to the matter we chose over love for God. Man chose to exalt himself above God, and to disobey the commandment, in an effort to become God on his own.
Rather than ruling over it, we are now subject to our need for matter in the form of food, and we require shelter from the elements of matter that are now adversarial to us. The practice of chemical embalming of the dead is directly related to our adversarial relationship with matter and nature. It grew directly out of the mind set of man against nature that was prevalent during the Industrial Revolution.
Remember, God did not say he would kill Adam and Eve. He said they would surely die. He said it just as you would tell a child, “Don’t touch that hot stove, you will surely get burned.” It was a warning, not a threat.
According to the Father’s, separation from God is the Only True Death because God is the source of life. We are all subject to this separation from God and we have all been suffering from it ever since.
But this wasn’t true death. It wasn’t utter separation from God, because even after the expulsion from the garden in Genesis we see that God fashioned clothes of skins for Adam and Eve, still showing His love and protection for them.
Physical death entered creation in an even more horrific way. One brother killed another. What could be worse than this?
It is clear that God did not create death, not physical death. We did that ourselves. It was the second significant thing we did. Therefore, by our own definition of what is “natural” (in other words, those things created by God are natural and man-made things are not natural) then death is not natural.
I’ll say it again. Death is not natural.
I know it goes against everything science, the world, and philosophy teaches us. So I’ll say it again. Death is not Natural.
Death unequivocally is NOT part of God’s plan for us. In all of Human History only one man was created to die. That was the God man, Jesus Christ, and he came to die for the very purpose of destroying death.
According to the father’s, physical death is actually a blessing from God. Even though He did not create it, He, in His infinite love and wisdom, has the ability to take even our worst nightmare and turn it to our benefit.
Were it not for death, we would cursed to live in this separation from God, with violence, disease and strife forever.
The rest of the Old Testament is simply God dealing with a rebellious and barbaric generation in terms that they could understand; until finally He came Himself to straighten the whole thing out.
Of course all options are open to God. He’d already used a flood, the tower of Bable, Sodom and Gamorrah, the Exodus, the Law and the Prophets. He could have just turned the earth into a smoldering cinder and started over somewhere else. But God doesn’t work that way. Love doesn’t work that way. Love is long suffering, merciful and compassionate. Through all the old testament, God never violated man’s free will.
Yes, he could have simply gone “poof” and restored man to his original state, but that’s not love either. Besides, we’d have just done it all over again.
No, He had something much, much better in mind. God would not accept anything less than total victory.
He took on our own flesh. In doing this He sanctified the very matter, the flesh we chose over His love. The same flesh we still choose over His love. He was born and grew up miserably poor. He had a mother and a father, a family, he worked with his hands. He knew hunger and thirst and every trial and tribulation we have ever known. He knew every temptation and worse except that He triumphed and never gave in to temptation. Even with Satan standing before him offering him the entire world, he did not sin.
At the appropriate time He sought out His cousin John to be baptized. But Christ’s baptism was not just a ritual cleansing practiced by the Hebrews. When He descended into the waters of the Jordan River, the water didn’t cleanse Him, He had created the water. No, he cleansed and restored the water to its original potential, thereby restoring the entire world, and by extension all of created matter, to its original sanctified potential.
He lived among us and taught us how to live, how to love. He healed every disease. He raised the dead. But that wasn’t good enough for us was it. We had to beat him terribly and hang Him on across outside the city between thieves. Even then He didn’t sin. What’s more, He forgave us and prayed for us.
Anyone of us at this point would have simply thrown our hands up in disgust and said, “Ok they’re toast.” But God doesn’t work that way.
In His godliness, He submitted to the hate, scourging, humiliation and finally the most hideous death on the cross, outside the gates of the city, with thieves.
We see in this God’s ultimate sacrificial love for mankind.
In His humanity, He sinlessly submitted to the same degradation.
In this we see mankind’s love for God perfected.
Here the two are joined and revealed in victory. Here is revealed the same all-encompassing, overflowing love that created the universe.
In death he descended into Hades.
All through the Old Testament Sheol or Hades is known as a region far removed from God, a place of darkness, dust and silence; a place of utter oblivion. Christ entered this region, no longer separated from God, as a great light. The light of life. He broke all the bonds that held the dead there. And to all who would accept it, He offered a return to life in the presence of God.
His own resurrection, in the flesh, the same flesh he died in, signaled the defeat of death. Christ is Risen from the dead Trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
He opened the Scriptures to his disciples and showed them how all of the Scriptures refer to Him. After spending time with His disciples to assure them and emphasize that it truly was He, in His same body, who taught them and ate with them, He ascended bodily into heaven.
He who bent the heavens and humbled himself, without humiliation, to take on all that man is, then returned Himself “and all that man is”, now perfected, to be seated at the right hand of God the Father, in essence, taking us with Him. For He is the head, we are the body, and the one cannot be divided from the other.
With Christ’s final victory on the cross the Human soul regains its purity and beauty, its former glory, and is made resplendent with Christ. With His ascension we are assured that, at His marvelous second coming, the body will also be resurrected, transfigured and incorrupt, much like our Lord’s glorified body. It will attain the same glorious and incorrupt form as His and will live united with the soul into eternity (Phil 3:21)(1 Cor 15:50).
In Christ, death lost its power.
It is fearful now in name only, not in reality.
The new creation in Christ is much higher than the original one that fell.
God did not simply restore us to the level of Adam before the fall but, through the resurrected and ascended Christ, our mortal human nature is honored more greatly than before.
By incorporating man’s nature into His own Logos, the Head of the Church, God places him very much above the angelic powers and makes him a partaker of divine glory!
Man, who had fallen to such a low place that there was no lower place to fall, by God’s grace and loving kindness, has been raised to a place so high that there is no higher place to rise.
In the beginning the Creator made man in His Image and Likeness. Now He has united man to God.
But for us to make the gifts of the Ascended Christ our own, we must unite ourselves to Christ and live His life as our own.
By the passion of Christ, death is transformed.
Now it bears only the name of death. No longer Oblivion and Darkness. It is now a rest while awaiting Christ’s return and our bodily resurrection unto judgment.
Saint John Chrysostom says that by virtue of the Resurrection “the deception of the devils has been abolished” and “we can laugh at death”
Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
This is the good news. This is the gospel message.
If this is true, (and we believe it is,) then why are we so afraid of death?
In our next podcast we’ll talk a bit about the fear of death and what the Fathers of the church recommend as a cure for it.
I hope you’ll tune in to it and to future podcasts when we’ll address more of the questions we’ve been asked regarding natural Christian Burial.
Please send your questions and comments to us at our website, www.achristianending.com You’ll find the email link at the bottom of the home page.
Check out our blog while you are there and perhaps leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for listening. This is Deacon Mark for A Christian Ending on Ancient Faith Radio, May God grant you many, many years.