Unavoidable Illness and Death, Our Saving Road
“O Lord, save Your people and bless Your inheritance.” 1
My three year old was impressed with the paradox that God died. We attended Liturgy for the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross, and afterwards she continued to ask: “God died?” I would begin a too-theological response, to which she straightforwardly commented, “He loves us so much. He’s here with us. He saves me.”
In his homily during the service, our priest mentioned that there are two colors for priests’ vestments in Divine Liturgy for the feast of the Life-giving Cross: red and green. On the one hand, the cross marks death, and blood is appropriate. On the other hand, the cross is a symbol of new life. Christ tramples death by death, and upon those in the tomb, He bestows life. There is no greater mystery than our salvation. Fr. Steven Kostoff writes: “How can suffering and death be the path to glorification and life with God?” 2 He answers this question with the fact that the cross is always linked to the Resurrection of Christ, and so it is both an instrument of suffering and death and a symbol of our glory in Christ’s holy resurrection. Fr. Kostoff borrows St. Paul’s response: “’For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’” 3
The cross was not merely a political symbol, as it stood for life and triumph of the Giver of Life, the Lord, in the fourth century. The cross had been in the dark, literally, awaiting Emperor Constantine. When he brought the Cross to light, he allowed honor and witness of the Christians who had been persecuted beforehand. The Christian people sang: “O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance. Grant victory to the Orthodox kings over the barbarians!” This, at the time, Byzantine “national anthem” rightfully attributed to the Cross the spiritual and physical protection of those willing to have faith in God. Fr. Lawrence Farley 4 tells of the history of Christ’s cross, how it was buried during the persecution of Christians, unearthed by Constantine, and how it has been again “forced into the cultural catacombs.” Nonetheless, the power of the Cross comes from the Holy Spirit, Farley reminds us, and is upon those who suffer for their Master. The Cross is not simply a wooden relic, which can be lost to history. It is disciple’s determination to serve the Lord even at the cost of suffering, blood, and death. When reproached for bearing the name ‘Christian,’ Christ’s disciples rejoice and count themselves blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon them. 5
In a correspondence with my spiritual father, he said that Orthodoxy teaches that in this world we will suffer. In today’s culture, it is difficult to unbraid the ills that harm wholeness and holiness in our lives, but if we do not try, then we will continue to be harmed. It is better to realize the truth of our bodies and spirits and what helps us to be well. Yes, we will suffer and die, and a Christian bears the cross, but life is a gift that we fight to preserve, nurturing wellness of the body and spirit as we are able, and as we are called by God to do.
Concerning spiritual health, Isaac the Syrian says, “The sick one who is acquainted with his sickness is easily to be cured; and he who confesses his pain is near to health. Many are the pains of the hard heart; and when the sick one resists the physician, his torments will be augmented.” 6
According to Matt. 12:31, blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is the only unpardonable sin. In the Orthodox Christian Symbol of Faith (creed), we state, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets.” The Holy Spirit is the Lord Who gives life. It is unpardonable when we “blaspheme,” which is to speak evil of God. When we intentionally harm our bodies or others’, we blaspheme the Giver of Life. I believe many of our sins in the “collective” body of our nation follow from ignorance, but it is time to become aware of life and death, preserving that which gives life and turning from that which does not. Life and death is for God to give, according to His will, and for Christians to preserve.
Each one is ill and in need of the Physician of Souls. To be made well, a person has to feel the pains of a broken life—to acknowledge the disappointments, hurts, and wrongs that haven’t been made right, whether because of one’s own actions or the actions of others, and forgive one’s self and all others. Healing is a process through repentance and confession, and God’s forgiveness of sins saves our souls. The words of the priest’s prayer before confession tenderize my broken heart:
O God our Savior who granted David the King pardon of his sin when he repented before the prophet Nathan; in your overwhelming love for all humans, accept the repentance of these your servants who seek forgiveness for the sins they have committed. Overlook all they have done wrong pardoning their offenses and absolving their iniquities, since you once said Lord: ‘I do not want a sinner to die, but rather that he turn from his sin and live:’ and ‘even to seventy times seven sins should be forgiven!’ For your majesty is beyond compare and your mercy is without limit and if you held our sins against us who would stand? But you are the God of those who repent and to you we ascribe glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
When our lives are becoming prayer, even illness and death are opportunities to express the Holy Spirit and Giver of Life. St. Ignaty Brianchaninov 7 says that the mind of mankind has been so darkened by the fall that we forget death. He says that the Jesus Prayer and remembrance of death merge as one activity, “From the prayer comes vivid remembrance of death, as if it were a foretaste of it: and from this foretaste of death, the prayer itself flares up more vigorously.” No matter how many organic apples I eat, or how many afternoon jumping jacks I do, suffering in this world is promised, and mortality is assured.
Just as the cross is an instrument of death and suffering as well as a symbol of resurrection and new life, each of our lives is as a saving road to salvation. The sanctity of life is felt on quiet walks to the lake, prayerful drives to work, and heart-giving prayers in the night. When the new day dawns, Truth rises like the sun in the east and spreads its glorious light. God, the Giver of Life, is everywhere and fills all things. No matter what illness and suffering might accompany the day at hand.
When a person prays throughout life and seeks meaning and purpose in God’s plan for her days, perhaps death becomes a fierce prayer of sorts, asking God for mercy and forgiveness and loving Him and all others with each breath. My spiritual Father told a story of an elderly priest who was widowed and lived in a small apartment. They met and shared coffee and cake after Liturgy, and when the elderly man was asked if he was lonely living alone, he simply said that he was not living alone at all. With him always was the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The body may or may not be healed, but even in dying the soul can become more well. We pray each Liturgy for a peaceful death and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ. Stanley Harakas says “euthanasia” in Greek means a good death where one’s moral and spiritual purity provides a sense of hope and trust in God. In this way, “True humanity may be achieved even on a deathbed.” A friend was diagnosed with stomach cancer years ago, and her tiny body withered to less than seventy pounds. She couldn’t ingest more than a small pea at a time. Once, I brought her some blessed bread and sat at the edge of her bed. The whites of her eyes were yellow and her teeth appeared so vibrant and white. She sipped water and spoke softly. In her feeble beauty, she recounted that she didn’t need to eat; she only wanted to live. She had dreamed that if she continued collecting coins, she could remain alive. She stared into my eyes without flinching, and I couldn’t look away. She said that she wanted to plant flowers in the spring. With waning energy, she gathered some clothes for me to take, both of us knowing that there wouldn’t be another spring for my friend. I held her hands and we wept to the Mother of God. Please help my friend let go, I prayed. “Look with loving-kindness, O all hymned Theotokos, upon my cruel bodily suffering, and heal the sickness of my soul” 8.
Those who perceive the Body of Christ are great encouragements to humanity, in life and in death. And somehow, mystically, we simple human creatures even inspire the Lord Himself as we note in the General Moleben hymn: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”
1 Psalm 28:9
2 Kostoff, Fr. Steven, “Before Your Cross We Bow Down in Worship,” St. Nicholas Church, Mentor, OH, parish bulletin, 13 Sept. 2015.
3 1 Corinthians 1:18
4 Farley, Fr. Lawrence, “Byzantium and the Glory of the Cross,” St. Nicholas Church, Mentor, OH, parish bulletin, 20 Sept. 2015.
5 1 Peter 4: 14
6 “From Homily Two,” Saint Isaac the Syrian, Quotes from Homilies, http://andreaskoutsoudis3.com/orthodox-christian-quotes/saint-isaac-the-syrian-quotes-from-homilies/, WordPress blog, 2015, web, 17 Oct. 2015.
7 189 Brianchaninov, St. Ignaty, “On the Remembrance of Death,” www.orthodoxinfo.com/death/stignaty- death.aspx, Orthodox Christian Information Center, 2015, web, 01 Oct. 2015.
8 From the General Moleben, a service of intercession or supplication.