But he who endures to the end will be saved.

Matthew 24:13

Anastasia was a health “nut.” She was always in the gym, running, and watching what she ate. She would have been the last person one would think would pass away at age 53. It is paradoxical that some people who seem to do everything right from a health perspective pass away at a young age, while some who seem to do everything wrong from a health perspective live to be very old. Anastasia came to the office one day and told me she had just been diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The prognosis was not good. In the course of our conversation, Anastasia told me that “no matter what happens, I will not blame or curse God, I will remain faithful to the end.” This was in October 2014.

Over the course of the next fifteen months, she had many treatments, many of which were very painful and invasive. She never complained. And she tried, as best as she could, to keep on living—she kept coming to Bible study, kept coming to church, and of course she kept being a mom to her five children and a wife to her husband. 

In my parish, we have a custom on Pascha that the light of Christ is given to three women to distribute it to the congregation, in remembrance of the three women who went to the empty tomb at the Resurrection. The name “Anastasia” means “Resurrection,” as the Greek word for Resurrection is “anastasis.” At Pascha 2015, Anastasia was one of the three women who had this honor. She wrote me a letter the next day, that at the moment she received the light, she felt like she was in heaven, and that if this is what heaven was like, she was not worried about dying anymore. 

Fast forward to December 2015, the treatments had become ineffective, and it looked like Anastasia didn’t have much time to live. In mid-December, I went and visited her at home. I considered her a friend, and it was hard to see a friend going through what she was going through. Like all her friends, I was rooting for her to pull through and beat cancer. As a priest, I knew that we needed to have a difficult conversation because it didn’t seem like that was going to happen.

I remember we started off talking about miracles, that there were two kinds of miracles at play. One would be the miracle of beating cancer. One would be the miracle of God opening the gates of heaven and letting her enter them. And that she would get a miracle one way or the other. I remember telling her, in what were difficult words to say to a friend “You know that the treatments are not working and that you are going to die very shortly. Deep down you know that. I know that. And now it is time to start preparing for that.” It was very hard to say these words to a friend who I did not want to die. After a few moments of silence, she looked at me and said, “You are right. I know that I don’t have much time. I should probably make an appointment to see you for confession before I die.” And I replied, “We don’t know how much time you have, it could be any time, we should do confession today, right here.” She thought about that for a minute and said, “Ok, give me a few minutes to collect my thoughts.” And then she went to confession on the back porch of her home. I don’t remember anything of that conversation, as I never remember those details, only that she felt a lot better when we were finished. The lesson there, when death is imminent, take time to prepare while there is still time to prepare.

A few weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, Anastasia’s family asked me to stop by the house, to ask her about her wishes for her funeral. They didn’t want her to think they were giving up on her, but they also didn’t know where she wanted to be buried. We had a conversation, she made her wishes known, she told her family. It was a very mature conversation that many people feel uncomfortable initiating or having. When we were done with that, I asked her if she wanted anything specific for her funeral. A few years before, a friend of ours named Marilyn had passed away fairly young. Marilyn had sung in the choir and before her funeral, we celebrated the Divine Liturgy and the choir sang. Anastasia was at that funeral and she said, “I want you to do what you did for Marilyn for me. I want there to be Liturgy. I want the choir to sing. And I want everyone to walk out of the church and say ‘Wow.’” Then she asked me “When you get up there and talk about me, what are you going to say?” And I replied, “I’m going to say that you were faithful to the end.

The last week of Anastasia’s life saw a steady decline. One week before she passed, she was still walking, eating, and even cooking. At five days before I visited her and she walked me to the door, but with great difficulty. At three days before, she couldn’t walk anymore. I visited her (she was at home this whole time) and we said our goodbyes. It seemed like it would be any time. Anastasia told me that she wanted me to be in her house when she passed away, so that I could comfort her family, and that she would wait for me to get there. The day before she passed, it was a Saturday. And we couldn’t figure out how she was still living as all of her vital signs were failing. I had a thought that God would send His angels for her at the hour of the Resurrection, for her personal “anastasi,” and that she would pass after the Sabbath had passed and before the sun rose on Sunday. Her family knew of her wish for me to be present when she passed, and I told them that if she passed in the middle of the night, to call me, and that if she didn’t pass in the middle of the night, that I would be there at 7:00 a.m. since the sunrise was 7:30 a.m. that Sunday. 

I arrived at her home at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday, January 17, 2016. I went into the room where she was, and my first thought was “Dear God, this has gone on long enough.” She looked emaciated, like a ghost almost. I stepped out of the room to greet her family, and then we went back into the room a couple of minutes later. And in those two minutes, she passed away. Her head had turned from the left to the right, she was looking toward the window and smiling. She went from looking like an emaciated ghost to looking beautiful again. Of course everyone was in tears that she had passed. Someone noticed her smile. I said, “It’s like she looked out the window and saw the angels coming for her, and she is happy.” We all got on our knees, respectfully, again, because I feel that the moment of death for a faithful person is a holy moment, that angels do enter the room and that we should be appropriately reverent. 

Anastasia’s funeral was held the following Friday. Our church was full, and so was the hall. Anastasia knew a LOT of people and a lot of people loved her. The choir sang a beautiful Divine Liturgy. The funeral followed. Because Anastasia had lived her whole life in South Tampa, she was well known in that tight-knit community. Most of the people in attendance were not Orthodox. And to this day, I run into people in South Tampa who recognize me as the priest from Anastasia’s funeral and they still say, “I remember you from Anastasia’s funeral. Wow!” She got her wish. As for my eulogy, it ended with the words “Anastasia was faithful to the end.” Indeed, she was. 

Deliver me from my enemies, O my God, protect me from those who rise up against me, deliver me from those who work evil, and save me from bloodthirsty men. For lo, they lie wait for my life; fierce men band themselves against me. For no transgression or sin of mine, O Lord, for no fault of mine, they run and make ready. Rouse thyself, come to my help, and see! Thou, Lord God of hosts, art God of Israel. Awake to punish all the nations; spare none of those who treacherously plot evil. Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city. There they are, bellowing with their mouths, and snarling with their lips—for “Who,” they think, “will hear us?” But Thou, O Lord, dost laugh at them; Thou dost hold all the nations in derision. O my Strength, I will sing praises to Thee; for Thou, O God, art my fortress. My God in His steadfast love will meet me; my God will let me look in triumph on my enemies. Slay them not, lest my people forget; make them totter by Thy power, and bring them down, O Lord, our shield! For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies which they utter, consume them in wrath, consume them till they are no more, that men may know that God rules over Jacob to the ends of the earth. Each evening they come back howling like dogs and prowling about the city. They roam about for food, and growl if they do not get their fill. But I will sing of Thy might; I will sing aloud of Thy steadfast love in the morning. For Thou hast been to me a fortress and a refuge in the day of my distress. O my Strength, I will sing praises to Thee, for Thou, O God, art my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love. Psalm 59

Sometimes the miracle is not the miracle of healing, but the miracle of eternal life, which we believe comes by God’s grace to those who remain faithful to the end. Memory eternal Anastasia!


Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

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. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced multiple books, you can view here: https://amzn.to/3nVPY5M


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