Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany” and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.”
Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believe in Me shall never die.” John 11:25-26
Good Morning Prayer Team!
Last week, a woman named Anastasia passed away. She had tremendous faith, even as she battled illness and lost her life at a young age. Throughout her illness she glorified God. And when she was about to pass away, she told me that she hoped that somehow God would be glorified, even in her passing. With permission of her family, for today’s prayer team message, I am sharing the eulogy I offered at her funeral, in the hopes that her story will inspire faith and bring glory to God.
Every year, when we celebrate the feast of the Resurrection in the Orthodox Church, at midnight the lights are darkened. Only one light remains lit. It is the Light of Christ, the Light that never sleeps, exemplified by the vigil light that burns at all times on the altar table. The priest lights one solitary candle, the curtain of the altar is opened, and he steps through the doorway, the narrow but beautiful gate, and sings to all “Come receive the Light from the everlasting Light, and glorify Christ, who is risen from the dead.”
With hundreds of people in attendance, it is impossible for everyone to step forward to receive the Light, and so each year, I ask three women of our parish, representing the three women who went and found the empty tomb on that first Easter, to come forward and receive the Light, and then distribute it to the people. Last Easter, just over nine months ago, one of those three women was Anastasia Garcia.
As she knelt to receive the Light, I grabbed her hand, along with the other two women, and I said a prayer for them. And I looked Anastasia in the eye, and I said, “this moment, a few friends around the Light of Christ, this is what I think heaven will be like.” Then Anastasia rose, with the other two ladies, and they went to distribute the Light to everyone in the church. Quickly, the darkened church began to be filled with the warm glow of the candles, now alight in the hands of each person in the church. The other two women, having lit many candles, came back to the front of the church, so that we could make the procession outside. Anastasia did not. She kept on giving the Light of Christ to as many people as she could find. Her enthusiasm even delayed the service for a few minutes because we couldn’t continue until she came back. She was eager to share the Light. And people were eager to receive it from her.
Not even ten months later, we have returned to the scene of that beautiful night. As her family and friends, we are filled with sadness. Our dear friend, who brought so much joy and light to so many people has left us, far sooner than anyone would have wished. I can’t imagine how devastated are Mark, her beloved husband, her wonderful children, Mark Alan, Andrew, Irene, Alexander and Katherine; her brothers and sisters in law; her dear parents, who have to lay their child to rest; and the rest of her very large family. I can find words that will bring you some comfort today, but tomorrow, next week, next month, there are going to be some tough times ahead. And this is where I hope you’ll lean on each other, on your church community, and most especially on our Lord, to find the comfort and the strength that you are going to need.
When I think of Anastasia in the years to come, there is one thing I’m going to remember more than anything. And that is, that despite the pain of her illness, the horrific treatments, the uncertainty over the outcome, and the sadness that life as she knew it was coming to an end, I never heard Anastasia say one bad thing about her illness, about her treatment, or about our Lord. She fought cancer not only with tenacity, going to every corner of this country, seeking any and every kind of treatment no matter how painful it was, but that she fought cancer with grace. She seemed to rise above all of the medical treatment and uncertainty with an almost angelic-like glow about her.
As we do each Easter, we read in the Gospel at the Divine Liturgy, that the “Light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.” And that “there was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the Light.” (John 1:5-8) When I think of Anastasia, these are the verses of scripture that come most quickly to my mind—The Light of Christ was shining in her, and the darkness of cancer could not overcome that Light. And that Anastasia spent a good part of her life, especially at the end of it, bearing witness to the Light, bearing witness to Christ. She personified the commandment of the Lord to “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) If Anastasia were here giving this eulogy about herself, I’m sure that what she would tell us all, is to be Lights in the world, as she was a light in the world; to give glory to our Lord, as she gave glory to our Lord.
Anastasia wasn’t perfect. No one is. But she was a fighter, determined to succeed at all costs. In our home, we have a sign which says “We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.” Indeed, this is a good motto for marriage. For no marriage is perfect. But 28 years of marriage, with a friendship going back to the 7th grade, says a lot about Anastasia and Mark, and their commitment to each other. We don’t take vows in our church, but when you get married in the Orthodox Church, it is implied that you pledge to stay together for better or worse, in good times and bad ones, in sickness and in health, until death do you part. Mark and Anastasia made good on that commitment. Anastasia’s last words in this life were to her husband—she said “I love you Mark.” Indeed she did.
Anastasia loved her children. Her life’s work was raising five children. It can’t be easy when you are outnumbered. As they would say in basketball, you can’t play man to man, you’ve got to play zone against so many. She loved each of you in your own unique zones. Mark Alan, you were her first, her crown prince, a leader among your siblings, focused, competitive. Andrew, she loved your free spirit—she loved that you loved adventure and saw the good in everyone. Irene, she loved your intensity and your conviction, you are tenacious, just like your mom. Alexander, she loved your tenderness. She told me a couple of weeks ago, Alexander is so sweet, he calls me every day. And Katherine, you were her baby. She loved you so much, and held on so long because she wanted to be a part of your daily life for as long as she could.
Nick and Chris, she looked up to you both, respected you as the leaders you both are, adored and befriended your wives, and delighted in your children. Mike and Irene, she was so grateful for the life that you gave to her, she shared with me many memories from childhood that were made possible by you. She was grateful to have lived in South Tampa for her entire adult life, to live in close proximity with her brothers, parents, nieces and nephews. She loved all of you, her many friends, who have come from far and near to remember her today. Anastasia and I spent a lot of time together these past 11 years. She had quite a diverse life experience and spoke with me about many of the people she met along the way. Thanks for coming today to honor her.
Last night, we heard beautiful tributes about her life. I want to spend a few minutes talking about the last year of her life, because I hope that you, as I have, will take inspiration from not only how Anastasia lived, but how she passed from this life. When she was first diagnosed with cancer, one of the first people she called was me. And she asked if we could pray together. Before receiving any treatment, she wanted to be armed with Christ. Then the treatments began, and she began an intense battle against this insidious disease. Cancer didn’t stop her from coming to church each Sunday. It didn’t stop her from laughing. Each time she’d have a setback, she’d pop right back up. And each time she had a win, she would thank God. She took a trip to Greece this past summer. I found a newspaper article last week in one of my files from when I first got here in 2004—it was about our preparations for the festival. And there was a picture of Anastasia and her mother, working in the prep room. Not even three months ago, Anastasia was here for the entire weekend of the festival, in the prep room, making salads all weekend, because that’s where you’ll find the Kavouklis clan each year and she wasn’t going to miss this year. Anastasia made her small bible study group a priority each week. And many times she’d come either alone or with a friend, to our church, during the week, so that we could pray and talk.
When things started to take a downturn in December, I went to her house one day, that beautiful home in South Tampa, where the back yard looks like a scene out of a rain forest, the home that was open to not only family, but friends and even friends of friends, and I said to Anastasia, “I think we need to have a talk. In case things don’t go the way we hope they are going to go, you need to be ready to meet the Lord.” And so began a conversation that lasted well over two hours, where she went through her life, talked about her joys, owned up for her shortcomings, and made her peace with God. This was a powerful moment to witness. I don’t remember the details of the conversation. When God sends down His grace to wipe out the sins of those who confess, He wipes out the memory of the confessor. All I remember is being extremely moved by our conversation.
There has to be a real spiritual maturity to have the conversation we had. Sadly, most people push a priest away, resisting any thought that the end of life might be coming. I don’t know if it is fear, or lack or faith or what it is that prevents these conversations from being had, because sadly, I do not have them often with people at the end of life. Anastasia asked me that day “Father, do you think I am going to get a miracle?” And I answered, “Anastasia, you are going to get a miracle. It’s either going to be a miracle of physical healing, or it’s going to be the miracle of eternal life. Either way, you are going to get a miracle.” That’s what made Anastasia so amazing—she was determined to fight cancer until every avenue was exhausted, but as paths started to close, she was preparing for the other miracle as well.
In one of our final visits, I asked her what she would like for her funeral, another heavy and difficult conversation. She wanted the choir to sing, for the liturgy to be celebrated, for God’s glory to be on display for all. I’d like to think this is what she had in mind.
During the last week of her life, she asked me to visit her as much as possible, to give her Communion often. This wasn’t superstition or fear. It was actually joy and building anticipation. She wanted to spend as much time with her family as possible. She wanted to spend as much time with God as possible. During those final visits, we recited the Creed together, we sang Christos Anesti, Christ is Risen, the hymn of the Resurrection together. For those who don’t know, the word Anastasia means Resurrection. We said our goodbyes. The last thing she whispered in my ear last week, when we spoke for the final time, was “I’m going to miss my family, but I’m excited.” How beautiful it was for her to hear her family reading her favorite Bible passages to her, for her children to be in the home all together, for her parents to be around, and for Mark to be attending to her constantly.
When the end of her life came, that too was amazing. The Lord sent His angels for her at the hour of the Resurrection, after the Sabbath had passed and before the sun came up last Sunday. It was raining in South Tampa—even the angels were crying. At the moment of her death, Anastasia was smiling, she was looking out the window, up towards the heavens. She was at peace. I believe her daughter Irene said it best, “Look at how peaceful mom looks. She’s seen the face of God.”
We are left to wonder why did this happen? The answer comes from a human condition that we all share—we are all equal sharers in an imperfect nature that will ultimately cause physical death to each of us. Sometimes we know the cause of death—people make bad decisions all the time that shorten their life span, like when people don’t eat healthy and get heart disease. And that certainly wasn’t the case here. Anastasia was a health nut! Sometimes others are at fault, like when someone drives a car too fast and kills someone. And sometimes the answer is that breathing imperfect air, drinking imperfect water, having imperfect gene pools, living life in an imperfect world causes some to have learning disabilities, some to get dementia, some to have low self-esteem, some to get cancer, and everyone to get something. Why some make it to 100 and others only make it to 53 is a question we’ll have to ask God when we meet Him. As for the why—we’re equal sharers in an imperfect nature which at some point will cause the death of all of us.
Does that mean we shouldn’t enjoy life? Or get married? Or have children? Or leave the house to drive somewhere each day, knowing that our life might be cut short? Of course not. Because if you don’t do these things, you’ll never truly live. We should live life with purpose, and we should be preparing at all times for our date with God, so that if it comes at 53, 43, 33 or 103, we are ready to answer to our judge, ready to receive His reward.
We are left to wonder, were our prayers unanswered? So many people prayed for Anastasia. So many people prayed for her healing. As I said last Sunday—there are three kinds of healing—instant healing—Jesus touched the mother-in-law of Peter and her fever left her instantly. There is gradual healing—the ten lepers were told to show themselves to the priests. They were not healed instantly but along the way they were healed. And then there is ultimate healing—Jesus allowed Lazarus to die, so that the ultimate healing could take place. We all prayed for Anastasia to be healed. How that fits in God’s plan is again something we’ll have to ask Him. We know from reading the Bible that many people who saw God’s glory experienced much pain and suffering on the way. The Virgin Mary, the blind man, the Paralytic, all saw God’s glory and all paid a heavy price in order to do it. We all prayed for Anastasia to be healed, and I would like to believe that while gradual healing did not occur in her body, the ultimate healing occurred in your soul. And that today she is beholding God’s glory in heaven.
We are left with two challenges—first, how we will continue on without our beloved Anastasia. There is hurt and pain that for some of you will take a long time to heal. And second, we have our own thoughts about our own mortality to manage—there is no guarantee I will live to see the Liturgy this Sunday. So, we have to be preparing constantly, letting our Lights shine, glorifying God, having those hard conversations, owning up for our shortcomings, and anticipating the joy of heaven.
I want to close my remarks by sharing parts of a letter Anastasia wrote me last Easter, where she reflected on the experience of the night before:
Dear Father Stavros,
Christos Anesti! You have mentioned throughout Holy Week you pray that we feel the presence of God. You have also talked about in celebrating His Resurrection your prayer is that we get a glimpse of what heaven may be like for us one day. Well Father, the Holy Spirit was so alive and present last night that I did not want to leave. If I could have made my transition from this world to the next, I would have picked last night. . .I feel so much joy today that it feels as if I am going to burst! I know God has placed His healing hand on me and the light inside of me is brighter than any sickness could ever be. . .I have no doubt that God is leading me and no doubt that He is giving me all the tools I need to be cancer free one day. Pray that I can glorify Him on my journey. . .Your Sister in Christ, Anastasia
Indeed Anastasia allowed God to lead her. He gave her the tools of patience and joy and she used them. Today she is cancer free. I know we all wish that she was cancer free and sitting with us. What I know most of all is that she glorified Him on her journey. And I have no doubt that He is glorifying her today. She has shown us what it is like to be in pain but still have joy. May our pains turn to joy, may we remember Anastasia always, may we glorify God in our journey to Him. May we share in that glory one day with our God, and with our Anastasia, in His heavenly Kingdom.
On one of our last visits, when we talked about her funeral, Anastasia looked me in the eye, and with a tear in her eye, asked me “Father, when you bury me, what are you going to say for me?” And I answered her “I’m going to say, ‘Faithful to the end!’ Can I say that?” She answered me “I’d be honored if you’d say that.” Anastasia, it is I who am honored to say that today. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for your inspiration. Thank you for your example of patience in tribulation. You were faithful to the end. A real light in the world, who shared that light so eagerly with others. May His Light shine on us through your memory, and may that Light help us to overcome our sadness. You were faithful to the end. May we be so as well!
May your memory be eternal our dear sister who are worthy of blessedness and everlasting memory!
Be Lights in the world, as she was a light in the world!
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