Orthodox Study Journal~~Youth Issue 7/-May 2019

My biggest battle with death came when I was just a boy. My father faced a hopeless battle against cancer. Slowly, he was reduced from a giant of a man to someone who was frail and broken. His death left me empty, afraid and bitter!

The perfect description of how I felt came the day we buried my father. It was a Saturday. The trip to the cemetery was on the same route that people were going to use for a parade just a few minutes after we passed. I sat in the back of the car with my family. We were all dressed in black. We mourned, but none of the people lining the streets for the parade were aware of what was happening to us, happening to me.

Children didn’t understand why the crowd hushed as the hearse passed. They didn’t know that I lost someone I loved. They held balloons in their hands. They had smiles on their faces. I felt empty and alone. Their world was happy. My world was ending. Death does that to those left to mourn. Few people understand the pain, the loneliness, and the frustration you feel. They are smiling while you are crying. This is the testimony[1] of a young boy on death of his beloved father.

We find this mystery of death terrible, because it breaks the unity between the loved ones, because we lose a person we love. This is a great truth, experienced by those who lose persons dear to them, as in our example, the case of the young boy.

We shall see another example that is expressive; is the funeral oration of St. Gregory the theologian on the death of his sister, St. Gorgonia. St. Gregory says, “She longed for her dissolution, for indeed she had great boldness towards Him who called her”. There had developed in her love towards the loved one, “Who is, I will even say it, her lover”.

She had been made aware of the day of her falling asleep, and, as St. Gregory says, when the appointed day came, she prepared herself for death and departure, “and fulfilled the law towards such matters and took to her bed”.  When she understood that the hour of her soul’s departure from her body was coming, she lay down on the bed and waited for her death. She fell asleep after she had previously counseled her husband, children and friends and had spoken brilliantly about what happens in heaven, and made her last day a “day of solemn festival”. The day of her soul’s departure became for her a day of solemn festival. And St. Gregory the Theologian, speaking of her death, said that his sister “was set free, or it is better to say, taken to God, or flew away, or changed her abode, or anticipated by little the departure of her body”.

At the end of his funeral oration St. Gregory added a detail which, nevertheless, is expressive and indicative of the overcoming of death.

In the room where St. Gorgonia lay at the time when she was nearing her departure from this world, there “was solemn silence, as if her death were a religious ceremony. This description of the hour of death is most beautiful. It amounts to a religious ceremony. The saint was repeating a psalm. Her father came near in order to hear what she was saying. And he preserved the information that “under her breath she was repeating the last words of psalm”, the funeral service. Her manner of dying was, as St. Gregory the Theologian says, a testimony to the boldness with which she was departing.

It is in this that the saints who have boldness with God leave this world. They leave with the hope of resurrection, with the assurance that they will meet the beloved Bridegroom(Christ). The hour of death conceals a mystery. And that is why the suspense then is great. A mixture of feelings prevails. Repentance, prayer, fear, hope, expectation of a meeting. Therefore not only the one who is dying should pray, but all who are around him should accompany him with their prayers. This holy hour should be faced with holy awe and spiritual inspiration.

This makes us think of What am I? What is the meaning of life?

Orthodox Christian teaching on man in general differs from all metaphysical theories. The creation of man is discussed in the first books of the Holy Bible. We read: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26-28).

Some basic truths are manifested in this passage. First, it can be seen that God who created man is a Person (three persons), not an ideal nor impersonal. He is not an assemblage of impersonal ideas.

Then it declares that man is created according to the image and likeness of God. If this passage is linked with another passage (which mentions that God formed the body from the dust of the ground and then breathed into him and thus the soul was created) it is clear that man was directly created by God in a positive way. This means that the soul did not previously live in an eternal and unborn world of ideas, but was created by God at that moment. It also means that the body is not the prison of the soul, but was formed by God at that moment, and man was formed in this way a unity of soul and body. That is to say, the body did not exist before the soul, and the soul did not exist before the body. Man is not simply a soul or simply a body. The soul is the soul of a human person and the body is the body of a human person, i.e., man is always bother, because he consists of both soul and body. Furthermore, this passage shows the Truth that man is created by God to be king, the ruler of all creation and hence have the responsibility to keep the creation from being destroyed and provide it the required nourishment. Therefore, understand that the body is not the prison of the soul, but was created together with the soul in a positive way by God. Both soul and body must have a common course towards God.

However, in studying the human body from a Christian point of view we can look at five phases.

The first phase refers to how the body functioned before man’s fall. Right after man’s creation, the body had the grace and energy of God. That is, the soul was in communion with God and this brightened, gave glory, to the body as well, and through the body this brilliance was extended to the whole of nature.

The second phase is what took place after man’s fall. As soon as man lost his communion with God, the mirror was shattered, and as a result great darkness fell upon all creation. Then Adam and Eve saw that they were naked and felt ashamed, so they tried to cover their nakedness. The body became untamed, because of sin, and all bodily passions appeared, and this means that death entered into man. The body suffered a great catastrophe, diseases appeared, and it became weak and needed more food and clothing to be protected from changes in the weather. The body that we know today is not the body received at creation. It is not the same body as that which was created by God; rather it is the body that accepted the consequences and the results of sin, that is, death.

The third phase of the body starts with Christ’s Incarnation. The Logos/Word of God assumed the human body, indeed, a mortal body, in order to bring it back to its former glory and raise it beyond where is was in the person of Adam. The Transfiguration of Christ, when His face shone like the sun and his tunic turned as white as light, shows the glorification of the human body. So, our God is not simply an idea, He is not just a Person, but the Theanthropos, both God and man. The human body acquired great glory in the Person of the Logos/Word. We also have the opportunity to live within the Body of Christ. We are reborn through the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Church, the Holy Baptism, the Holy Chrismation, and we give glory to the body through Holy Communion.

The fourth phase of the body begins with the soul’s exit from it. Despite the separation of the soul, man’s unity remains intact, the person, the hypostasis, remains. If someone manages with God’s Grace to balance the relationship between soul and body, then his/her body becomes a holy relic. In the Orthodox Church we have several holy relics, namely bodies, which remain incorruptible, give off fragrance, and make miracles. This means that these bodies, without undergoing any chemical process, without being in certain, suitable, climate conditions, are maintained incorruptible, an indication that God’s Grace is within them.

The fifth phase of the body will start with the Second Coming of Christ, when the bodies of all human beings will be resurrected.

Where am I going after I die is a curious question asked by  youth or any person whose interest in such questions is intensified due to the uncertainties he faces in everyday living or who have had such experiences of losing a loved one.

Death[2] is the greatest mystery, which has always occupied man’s spirit. It is the consequence and also the cause of sin. The sin from which death was born is Adam’s fall in the Paradise of delight (Genesis 2:17). After this sin, death did enter human nature—first spiritual death, which is man’s separation from God, and then bodily death, which is soul’s separation from the body at the appropriate time. On the day when Adam sinned he died spiritually, and more slowly he died physically as well. 

In the patristic teaching, death is not a punishment by God, but a fruit and result of Adam’s sin (Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-25; Romans 5:12-14). The term “death” is used to mean man’s withdrawal and separation from God, in Whom is the real life. Thus anyone who withdraws from life, from God, is deadened, he dies. As St. Gregory of Palamas emphasizes “the first to undergo this deadening was Satan, whom God rightly abandoned because of his disobedience”. The deadened devil transmitted the deadening of man as well because man listened to his advice, disobeyed God, and lost His Grace.

Death is not created by God, but is a free choice of man. Death becomes the result and cause of sin. It is the cause of sin— in the sense, that because of decay and mortality[3] which we inherit from our parents, the various passions develop, such as self indulgence, avarice, and love for glory and in general because of mortality we fall into many sins. According to St. John Chrysostom, the biological inheritance of decay that was introduced into human nature by the descendants of Adam is justifiable. “Having become corruptible, such too were the children that they produced”. St. Cyril of Alexandria says the same: After falling into this (death) they procreated children, the offspring from this, being from corruption were produced corruptible.” Indeed St. John Chrysostom observes that we even baptize babies “although they have no sins”, so that they may be added “sanctification, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, membership of the brotherhood of Christ, becoming dwelling-places of the spirit”. This also answers the question on “why do Orthodox Christian’s baptize babies?”

What then is the relationship between Baptism and Death? From the words of St. John Chrysostom on baptism, how is Death conquered?

Christ’s incarnation was in order that death and sin might be destroyed and the devil might be conquered. In fact Christ assumed a mortal and vulnerable body in order to conquer death. Through His Crucifixion and Resurrection He overcame death and gave man the possibility, after being united with Him, to overcome death himself in his personal life.

This aim is achieved through the sacraments of the Church. Through Baptism we become members of the risen Body of Christ, and through Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ we receive the medicine of immortality. Not only is the soul united with God, but also the body receives a sense of this inner change and transformation of the soul. This is seen clearly in the relics of the saints of the Church. Through Baptism man is enabled, of his free choice, to fight sin; the sin which is inseparably linked with the perishability and mortality of his body.

In this sense man’s salvation is God’s operation but also man’s cooperation. St. Gorgonia’s life is the exemplary example of this.

More interesting facts and Orthopraxy on death, for the full issue (for free) click the ‘download’ button below….

[1] Online source

[2] Life After Death- Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos

[3] See further article 2 of this issue

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