PODCAST 3 – UNDERSTANDING DEATH 2
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.
As I said in my previous podcasts, this is the good news. This is the gospel message. Sin and death are defeated and no longer have any hold on us.
If this is so, then why do we fear death so much that we can’t even talk about it, much less consider actually laying our hands on a dead person to prepare them for burial?
All the world’s religions are ultimately concerned with reconciling people to death. They try to provide some solace and comfort in the face of the great, final mystery.
Secular religion relies on science and technology to attempt to prolong death’s approach and, upon their ultimate failure, it tries to ignore it or dress it up with face paint and platitudes.
Atheistic philosophies attempt to ignore death or pass it off as merely natural.
Only Christianity resolves the problem of death. Only Christianity reveals death for what it really is. By proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ we announce the defeat of death as the last great enemy.
In the last podcast I tried to give a very quick overview of what the church Fathers teach was God’s intention for mankind. That being that He created mankind to live forever with Him in an ultimately intimate relationship of love. Also, that there was a similarly intimate relationship between man and woman since they both shared the intimate loving relationship with God.
This relationship was so beyond anything we can imagine that it is very hard to talk about or summarize in a few sentences. One could meditate a long time on what this means.
We also talked a little about the infinite value the human person has for God. God the Word saved mankind, but He also saved ME. He also saved you.
The fact is, that we blew it. The first recorded act of man in the Bible is sin and the second is murder. So here we are.
I do think if we are going to understand Salvation, we have to have some understanding of what we are saved from and what we are restored to.
I believe that most of us live in fear of death because, even though we may go to church regularly, we really haven’t stopped to contemplate and really understand the importance of the gospel message. Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
Christ is Risen………….it’s huge.
I think the Fathers bear me out on this. We are so rooted to this life and all its cares and temptations that we don’t take the time to stop and listen for God in the silence. We are so caught up in the busyness of life, how can we find time to pray, or study or contemplate the importance of the gospel message to our own lives?
I often wonder, “How do you inspire people to give a rip about their own salvation!”
It has always been this way. Even in the early centuries of the church. There have always been plenty of distractions for people to draw them away from spending time with God. St John Chrysostom often criticized his flock for all the time they spent at the races, the theater and sporting events rather than in prayer and in church.
The fear of death is cultivated by Satan to the point of seeing death as an hour of horror and suffering, and the judgment to follow as the terrible and unavoidable wrath of God. But Satan has no real power. His only power is deception. The only real power he ever had was death. But death is destroyed. He is powerless.
The church gives us everything we need to overcome the fear of death. It’s so simple we often forget or don’t even recognize the significance.
It is simply the rudiments of the faith.
I know…you’ve heard it a million times, but it’s true.
That’s right, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, the scriptures, attendance at Church services, the sacraments, Confession and the Holy Eucharist, life itself.
It really is that simple.
What do you know…maybe the Church really does know something after all.
We do these things but somehow we often don’t quite make the connection with the rest of our life.
We need to slow down, at least when we are doing these things and think about what we are doing. It’s hard, I know. I work a secular job too. I’m a manager with responsibilities. I have a family, a house, cars to take care of. And as a deacon, unless I’m off speaking somewhere, I’m at virtually every service of the church. I know how hard it is to slow down, to lay aside all earthly cares, and be present to God.
It really requires a shift in our lives from “fitting church into our life” to living our life with Christ. Living with the constant remembrance of God and what Jesus Christ has done, and is doing for us.
Besides the constant remembrance of God, the Fathers universally recommend that the constant remembrance of our own impending death is a great antidote for the fear of death. St John Chrysostom went so far as to encourage his people to go into the cemeteries to pray, and to remember that tomorrow this will be you.
This sounds like very hard medicine to those of us who live in constant denial of death. But the Fathers don’t prescribe things that are bad for us. It is our fault that we are so removed from the reality of death, not theirs.
We live in a society that worships youth, superficial beauty, money, success, power and every destructive hedonistic vice imaginable. In this world of competition, the race to the top of the business, political or the societal ladder is everything – and death is the end.
Death is the utter defeat of all our life’s work to attain, money, power and status. Even we Christians often get so caught up in this Rat Race that even for us God has to take a back seat. For those who are not Christians, sadly, the race is all they have.
Imagine just for a moment, how different the world would be if at every moment, everyone remembered that this moment could be their last. No matter how young, how healthy, how rich or how powerful we are, we cannot beg, buy, borrow or steal another heartbeat.
How can I be puffed up and proud… if I truly realize that I don’t even control my own heartbeat? I don’t have dominion over my next breath.
Every moment is truly a gift from God.
How different would the world be if everyone lived with the reality that this moment may be my last and the next moment is the judgment?
More importantly, how different would I be if I could live with this reality, every moment of the day?
Would there be so much violence, hate, greed and lust?
Would I speak against my brother? Would I hold a grudge or hang onto hard feelings like I do?
This is why the Fathers recommend the remembrance of death as the first step in conquering the fear of death. ************* teaches that the remembrance of death brings salutary sorrow, which brings forth true repentance, which brings forth the remembrance of God, which brings joy.”
I’ll say that again, because it is so beautiful and so true. “The remembrance of death brings salutary sorrow, which brings forth true repentance, which brings forth the remembrance of God, which brings joy.”
I also love what St. Theophan the Recluse taught. He said we should live with the remembrance of our death on the very tip of our nose, always right before our eyes.
This notion is not really all that different than the popular idea of “live for today” or “being in the moment”. Of course the world’s interpretation is quite different. It usually ends up being something more like “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” That of course is 180 degrees from what the fathers teach us.
Come to think of it, just about everything the world teaches is directly opposed to what the church teaches. But I decided long ago to live for truth and that brought me to Christ, the source of life and beauty and truth. I’ll stick with Christ.
The remembrance of death is why some monks sleep in their own coffin. It’s not morbid. It’s remembrance of death which brings salutary sorrow, which brings forth true repentance, which brings the memory of God, which brings joy.
The Ossuary or bone house is also a very potent reminder of death. In many monasteries and other places around the world, after several years, bones are dug up, polished and put into a niche in an ossuary. Then the graves are recycled. I would love one day to see an ossuary in our church cemetery.
So, We have the rudiments of the faith and the Remembrance of death as our first steps in overcoming the fear of death.
Truly the final remedy for the fear of death according to the fathers is the fear of sin. According to the Fathers, the fear of sin cures the fear of death.
Think about it for just a moment.
Again it is so simple that we tend to overlook it or discount it out of hand.
The fear of sin cures the fear of death.
What we really fear is not death itself but the judgment that follows. Isn’t that right?
But why fear the judgment?
Well because of sin. Because we fear we’ve sinned in some unforgivable way, or because we fear we have sins we’ve forgotten or we’ve been afraid to confess perhaps.
But just think, if we feared sin even half as much as we fear death, then we wouldn’t sin.
If we didn’t sin, we’d have no reason to fear death….right?
The fear of sin cures the fear of death. We need to cultivate the fear of sin, which is the trap of Satan from the beginning and an abiding and overwhelming love of God in our lives. Then we will not fear death.
And the church gives us everything we need in confession and forgiveness of our sins and the Holy, life-giving Eucharist.
This is why the Saints don’t fear death. This is why St John Maximovich the Wonderworker of San Francisco said, “Tell the people, though I am dead, I am alive.”
This is why the martyrs go to their death joyfully. This is why the early Christians often risked their lives and ran to recover the bodies of the martyrs. They caressed them and kissed them as if they were still with them.
The early images in the catacombs, the secret underground burial grounds of the early Christians, were baptismal images. For many years the church met literally underground. The church met where they buried their dead. Sometimes the altar was set up on the tomb of a martyr or Saint. Many churches have been built over the graves of Saints as well. An extension of this is the relics placed inside the altar of every consecrated church and also the relics sewn into the antimens.
These catacombs were decorated with frescos of scenes of the life of the church. Many of these scenes were baptismal scenes because as Christians, our baptism is our death. It is death to the old man, death to the world. When we descend under the sanctified waters in baptism we participate in Christ’s own death and burial. When we emerge from the water we are reborn into Christ’s own body, into His own resurrection.
In truth, we have already died. We have died and risen again to new life in Christ. Physical death no longer holds sway over us. It is fearful in name only. It is powerless over those of us who have already died and risen again in Christ.
In short the Holy Fathers and the Church teach us that there are three kinds of death. There is our “real” death at baptism which is an actual participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ unto eternal life.
There is physical death, which for those of us who have died in Christ, is no death at all, but a rest from the labor of life awaiting the resurrection unto life eternal in the presence, and on the right hand of God.
But according to the Father’s, the only true death is separation from God.
God is the source of life. Separation from Him obviously would be true death.
But this must be chosen.
God will not, under any circumstances violate our free will. He cares so much about us, as individual persons, that He will not force His will upon us….even to save us. He created us as persons, with free will and of ultimate value, each and every one of us. He will not force us to accept His love.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, death remains a terrible and awesome mystery from which there is no return. One place we will not go in these podcasts is beyond that veil.
Everything beyond death is pure conjecture. If caring for three dying parents taught us anything, one of those lessons was that there are some things we don’t even talk about. We leave them to His loving care.
There are a few things we know for sure.
God is love. He created me with infinite value. I know that death is not natural. That God did not create it, we did. He loves me. I know that He loves me so much that He came and suffered and died to destroy the threat of death in my life so that I can live forever with Him. He has given me all the tools I need to attain to life everlasting in His Grace and love. How I use them is up to me. And finally, I know that God’s justice is not my idea of justice.
God’s justice IS mercy.
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
I hope this has made some sense to you and perhaps, has given a bit more of an Orthodox perspective on death. I hope you’ll tune in next time when we’ll talk about the problem of suffering, which goes hand in hand with the topic of death.
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Thank you for listening. This is Deacon Mark for A Christian Ending on Ancient Faith Radio,
May God grant you many, many years.