When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and He will place the sheep at His right hand, but the goats at the left.
The Divine Liturgy is the consummate prayer. It covers every kind of need we can think of—for peace in the world, for our parish, for the clergy, for the country, for travelers, for the sick and suffering, for good weather, for forgiveness, for repentance, and so many more things that we pray for, not only for ourselves but for everyone. The Divine Liturgy provides a lens through which we can view the world. I may not be sick on a particular day, but there are plenty of people in the world who are sick and when we pray for the sick in the Divine Liturgy, it gives me the opportunity to remember, pray for, and show empathy for those who are sick. At the center of the Divine Liturgy is the offering of bread and wine, and a prayer for God to send down the Holy Spirit to consecrate these gifts to become the Body and Blood of Christ. The faithful then receive the consecrated Gifts in the sacrament of Holy Communion.
One of the dozens of petitions that we pray is “And let us ask for a Christian end to our life, peaceful without shame and suffering, and for a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ.” (The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, 2015 Translation of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, p. 43) This petition essentially entreats the Lord for a “good death.” On any given day, we know that someone is at the end of life—it may be someone we know, or someone we don’t, but people die every day. And just as we pray in the Divine Liturgy through a global lens for things like peace in the world, we also pray for a good death for everyone in the world, especially the people it is happening to today.
What is a good death? One that is painless, blameless and peaceful, and one that is ready for a good accounting at the awesome judgment seat of Christ. We will discuss in this unit why people die and what happens when we die (according to what is in the Bible). Jesus reveals that at the end of time, there will be a great judgment that awaits every person who has ever lived. And that judgment will determine who goes into everlasting life and who goes into everlasting punishment.
We may or may not hear some of the petitions in our divine services in a personal way. I am not a civil authority or a bishop, so those petitions are never for me, but they are my prayers for others. Sometimes the prayers are personal—I know people who are sick and suffering. However, this petition, for a Christian end to life, is very personal. Because it is going to happen to all of us. And I would argue that this is the most important petition of the Divine Liturgy, because when life on this earth ends, the only thing that will matter is our passing—will it be Chrisitan, painless, blameless, peaceful and will it have a good accounting at the awesome judgment seat of Christ? At some point, good health, good weather, and even peace in the world won’t matter to us—when we are on our death bed, the only thing that will matter is this petition.
Each time I offer this petition in a service, I make the sign of the cross, and I hear it in a personal way. As I begin writing this unit, I am 51 years old. I am 2,500 weeks away from turning 100. I don’t think I’ll live to see 100. Both my parents passed at 78. If I follow their track, I have less than 1,500 weeks to live. And who knows, there is always the possibility that I will die in a car accident today. Suffice it to say that sometime in the next 2,500 weeks I am going to die. And so, as I hear this petition, I hear it in a personal way, and pray to God about my own death, that it will be painless, blameless, peaceful, and especially Christian, and that I will have done enough to be accounted worthy of a favorable judgment before the throne of God.
We would never take a journey without a destination. We would not walk around or drive around aimlessly. Everyone who goes anywhere has an idea of where they are going. Everyone who embarks on a project has an idea of where they want it to go. Of course, there are always changes and surprises along the way, but there is a goal and a destination. The destination of every life is to pass away from this life. The goal of every life is (or should be) to be ready by being a good steward of life—using our time and our talent in a way that glorifies God and serves others.
Thus, the church is very wise in keeping this goal in front of us at all times, not in a fatalistic way or in a way that should make us sad, but in a way that should keep us focused and motivated. It is surprising to me that many people do not think about their own death at all, even people who are elderly. Children don’t think about losing parents, even though this is the natural order. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited people who are terminally ill or even actively dying who not only are in denial that they are dying, but are confused as to why we die. I remember visiting someone many years ago (and this scene has played out several times in my ministry) who was dying and as I visited them in the hospital, they asked “what happens next?” I said, “You are going to die, and then go to the Lord for judgment, and He will then place you where you will be for eternity.” It was as if I was speaking a foreign language, as if they’ve never heard of the concept of death. I pointed out this petition of the Divine Liturgy, since this was a person who had faithfully attended the Divine Liturgy. And I said, “where you are right now is what you’ve actually been praying for your whole life.”
And here is another thing that we will explore in this unit, according to Christ and to the church, death is a good thing. It opens up the gates to heaven. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised, or scared, when this moment is upon us. The Church, in its wisdom, has the destination in front of us at all times. And not as something to be feared, but something for which we are to prepare, and actually embrace.
How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to Thy word. With my whole heart I seek Thee; let me not wander from Thy commandments! I have laid up Thy word in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee. Blessed be Thou, O Lord; teach me Thy statutes! With my lips I declare all the ordinances of Thy mouth. In the ways of Thy testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on Thy precepts, and fix my eyes on Thy ways. I will delight in Thy statutes; I will not forget Thy word. Psalm 119:9-16
When you hear the petition “For a Christian end to our lives” in the Divine Liturgy, pray that for anyone you know who is dying, and pray it also for yourself. And sing the response “Grant this, O Lord,” for them and especially for YOU!