Memento Mori and Resurrected Life

Memento Mori and Resurrected Life

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Esophageal cancer killed Jerry, my father-in-law. Dying’s final indignity was when the hospice nurse informed him that he couldn’t wear his 501 Levi’s anymore. Too many years of stress as an IBM executive extracted its toll on his body. The surgeon thought he caught the cancer early enough. But the doctor kinked his colon during surgery. The second surgery to fix the mistakes of the first surgery and a subsequent staph infection didn’t give him the time he needed for chemo or radiation treatments. But Jerry did have enough time to set his spiritual house in order. He used his remaining time on this earth wonderfully and wisely. Sitting in his favorite chair in the sun room, he would stare for hours at the picture of Megan, his beautiful grand-daughter, and at the icon of the Theotokos cradling her Son, the Resurrection and the Life, the Savior of the world.

One day, we ran into a wise Greek Orthodox priest at the hospital. He spoke words completely counter-intuitive, but which resonated with all of us. It was time for Jerry to trust in God, rest, and let go. His words and serene countenance gave my in-laws tremendous comfort. Jerry let his family and friends take care of him, and he trusted us. A man used to making a host of decisions in both work and for his family, simply trusted, in child-like surrender.

In his last days, Jerry courageously resolved issues dredged up from his past. He forgave those who had offended him. He never ranted or complained. He bore his suffering with noble patience. A life of self-sacrifice for his family prepared him for a grace-filled ending.

When Jerry died, he wasn’t officially Eastern Orthodox yet, but he was on his way. The courage he displayed in his dying witnessed to his trust in God, and his baptism of suffering compensated for his lack of formal baptism. In the wondrous oikonomia of Eastern Orthodoxy, our bishop consented to a complete (or nearly complete) Orthodox funeral service.

We couldn’t hold the funeral services at our own modest San Jose parish, so we held it at Saints Peter and Paul instead. Six hundred friends and family showed up for Jerry’s funeral. You can scarcely imagine a greater witness to the power of one man’s life. Jerry’s goodness reverberates to this very day.

But the Eastern Orthodox funeral service is a package deal. If you die an Orthodox death, even the funeral home recognizes the rubrics. You don’t cremate the corpse, throw your loved one’s ashes into the San Francisco Bay, and then sail back to the dock in time for cocktails and brunch. True, every Pascha we sing out joyfully “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death” for forty days. But for good reason, Orthodox Christians wear crosses around our necks. The sober truth is that, before we are raised with Christ, we all must die and appear before God’s fearful judgment seat. The Orthodox funeral service refuses to sugar coat death’s shock. We refuse to shelter illusions about Death and the fearful hour of his power.

“Alas! What an agony the soul endures when from the body it is parting; how many are her tears for weeping!”

Orthodoxy speaks gut-wrenching truths about Death. Death is neither natural nor beautiful. Death breaks our hearts. It rips a fearful hole in the fabric of our lives.

We don’t deny the goodness of God’s creation. We are not Manichean dualists. Everything that God created is beautiful. But Death cheats us of every good thing we love and cherish in this life, great and small. Yes, nothing is better than a Maui sunset, the self-satisfied glow of another SF Giants World Series victory, an ice-cold Lagunitas, or your spouse’s tender kiss first thing in the morning. But Death corrupts all these truly good things and renders them meaningless. The one who dies with the most toys still dies.

But God refuses to let Death have the last word in the story. Jesus the Lord of Life instructs us how to live our lives with courage and hope. Despite its terrors, Death cannot separate us from those we love. Our hearts hurt, we lament, and we grieve. But we don’t grieve without hope. Because our Lord has shown us the true and living way.

A culture like ours that has made a covenant with Death desperately needs a lesson in basic Christian theology. In 1956, a French Lutheran theologian (not nearly as odd as it sounds if you’re from Alsace-Lorraine) named Oscar Cullmann wrote The Immortality of the Soul or the Resurrection of the Body: The Witness of the New Testament. His little book states the dilemma our culture faces. Are we Christians, or are we really Platonists? To be blunt, we don’t sing, “Hallelujah, Jesus is alive! His soul is immortal!” at Pascha.

Socrates, as good a Platonist as any, tried to convince his disciples not to fear Death. Why agonize over Death if your immortal soul is trapped in a material shell? Socrates was convinced his soul was immortal and his body was a tomb. The body is a mere shell that we should jettison without fear, an unconvincing reply that spiritualists asserted then and that New Agers whistle in the graveyard now. If we believe only in the immortality of the soul, you don’t need a Savior and you certainly don’t need Resurrection. Any theory of metempsychosis is good enough.

But the Christian anthropology is quite different. The tragedy of human existence is not that our spirits are good, matter is evil, and we want to escape this rotten stinking material world. The tragedy is we love a universe so beautiful that it breaks our hearts to think that Death – not Beauty, not Love, not Life, not Goodness – speaks the final word before our cosmos collapses into the Abyss of Nothingness out of which it came. Death cheats our lives of any final meaning.

Unless, of course, Death does not have the last word.

Theology 101 teaches us about a God of goodness and faithfulness who creates the universe from nothing and gives life to the dead. We are not immortal souls trapped in corrupted vessels, but human beings created in God’s image whose bodies are destined for splendid resurrection. Second Temple Judaism bequeathed to us Christians glorious treasures beyond any human calculation or expectation. Creation and Resurrection are not wishful thinking. These are wondrous truths smelted in the crucible of Israel’s exile and suffering, burnished to shine like gold in the refiner’s fire. Where martyrs confess, dilettantes dare not whisper.

The United States in 2014 have become a faithless people who decided that they would rather befriend Death than choose Life. But instead of making a treaty with Death, angels sing, saints boast, and ordinary Christians rejoice that God the Father raised Jesus His Son somatically from the dead in the power of the Holy Spirit. To their considerable shock, Mary Magdalene and the myrrh-bearing women discovered that the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth was empty. With many convincing proofs, the Risen Lord appeared to the disciples over the course of forty days that He is risen from the dead. And then He ascended in glory to the right hand of the Father, where He shall come again, to judge the living and the dead. To the very marrow of our bones, we know that love is stronger than death, and that God’s love is even stronger still.

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Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

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John Stamps

I am currently Lead Information Developer for BMC Software in San Jose, California. I hold a BA in Greek from Abilene Christian University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and did work towards an STM in philosophy of religion at Yale University. I am married to Shelly Stamps and attend St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Campbell, California where I sing bass in the choir and teach an occasional catechism class.