Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
In the petition for a painless, blameless, peaceful death, we are praying for essentially a “good death.” Throughout this unit, I want to sprinkle in some stories of people who have actually had this petition come true for them. Obviously, many deaths are tragic, or drawn out, or painful, or sudden. This story is the story of a sudden death but one that I think was really a miracle. It certainly was the best death I have ever been privileged to witness.
Eva was a wonderful lady, a member of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Asheville, where I was privileged to serve from 2000-2004. She was 77 years old. And she was also a dear friend. In fact, in 2004, we had made plans for her, my wife Lisa, and I to get together the Saturday after Pascha (Easter) to plant flowers in her yard. On Holy Wednesday 2004, she was the last person to get anointed with Holy Unction. In fact, she remarked to me, “I’m glad I got to be last tonight, so that we can chat for a few minutes.” The conversation wasn’t particularly memorable, in fact my only memory of the conversation was that we had one, on what would turn out to be her last full day on earth.
On Holy Thursday evening, she attended the lengthy service of the 12 Gospels. She sat in her usual seat in the back pew on the right side in the seat closest to the center aisle. During the service, after the procession of the crucified Christ, I allow people to come up row by row and venerate the cross as we continue the service. At some point after the Procession, the priest censes the congregation. I remember walking down the center aisle, censing the congregation. As I came to the back pew and censed the pew where Eva was, she did something unusual—instead of bowing or making the sign of the cross, as is the Orthodox custom, she waved at me. I thought that was odd. As I was censing in the narthex, I looked through the glass partition separating the nave from the narthex, and saw Eva through the glass, and it looked like she had a halo around her head, also something odd that I filed in my mind.
Now, when people come up to venerate the cross, I always tell them to stand or kneel and offer the prayer of the repentant thief, “Remember me O Lord when You come into Your kingdom.” (The actual verse of Scripture is “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Luke 23:42) The repentant thief said this to Christ, who answered him, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
So, a few minutes later, Eva came up to venerate the cross. I was later told that she waved to people as she made her way up the aisle. She knelt in front of the cross, offered her prayer, went back to her seat and sat down, and had a massive heart-attack. No trauma, no loud cry, she just fell over and stopped breathing.
The ushers came into the altar to tell me that someone was in medical distress and they were calling 911. I asked, “is it Eva?” because then I knew why she had waved to me. The service continued, the paramedics came, I went to the back of the church briefly to anoint her with Holy Unction, the service concluded and they were still working on Eva. Rather than have people leave, I asked everyone to come up to the front of the church, we knelt around the cross, 150 people, and sang hymns and offered prayers. After Eva’s body was taken out by the paramedics, I followed to the hospital where she was pronounced dead on arrival. They had actually never gotten a pulse, she had most likely passed away in the church.
I stayed at the hospital for a few hours, then returned with her great-niece to the church to retrieve her car. Her great-niece, a close friend, asked me to drive Eva’s car back to her house, and she followed me in my car. I remember sitting down in Eva’s car at 2:00 a.m. on Good Friday morning, I turned the ignition on, her radio station came on, there was a card with a reminder about her dentist appointment for the following day. And I thought, how surreal, who parks their car at church and thinks that the next person who drives the car will be my priest, because I will be dead? Probably no one. Probably no one has ever had that thought in the history of the world!
I didn’t get much sleep that night, nor did anyone else who had witnessed what had happened. Good Friday morning, I went to church for the service of the Royal Hours, a service normally only attended by a few people, and was shocked to see the church almost full, as it had been the night before. It seems that no one got any sleep, no one could go to work, and no one felt that they could do anything but go to church. Our Good Friday adult retreat turned into a large group counseling session. I told people, “We didn’t have a tragedy in our church last night, we had a miracle. 150 people came up to the cross and said ‘Lord remember me in Your Kingdom.’ And to one He answered, ‘Today you are with Me in Paradise.’ If you wanted to pick a way to die, what better way than in church, surrounded by friends, with your last words being ‘Lord, remember me in Your Kingdom,’ and dying at the same hour that we commemorate the death of our Lord.”
The Tuesday after Easter, the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of Sts. Nicholas, Raphael and Irene. Eva’s funeral was held on that Tuesday in 2004. A liturgy that normally is not well attended, in 2004, we had a packed church, for LITURGY. The choir sang, it was like the Resurrection Service all over again. It seems that no one could go to work, we all wanted closure with the woman we all knew as a friend, who died in front of all of us. After the Liturgy, I went out of the church to escort the casket in. As I entered the church, everyone stood up and sang Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen! As is the custom during Bright Week, we chanted the hymn 10 times, with the Psalm verses from Psalm 68—which happens to be one of my favorite Psalms. After the first couple of times of Christos Anesti, I stopped and mentioned this is what it must sound like when someone goes to heaven, a choir of all the angels singing Christos Anesti and welcoming the new arrival. I turned toward the casket, holding the censer and my Paschal candle, and intoned the verse, “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; let those who hate Him flee before Him!” (Psalm 68:1) a verse of triumph and victory for God’s people, and I looked at Eva, and then I looked up and saw the empty cross behind the altar (according to our tradition, the figure of Christ is removed for 40 days as a sign of our Lord’s Victory over death), and I felt not joy, I felt euphoria, ecstasy, and this remains one of the happiest moments of my life. That there is a God, who rules over all, even over death, and He provided a miracle for a wonderful lady, a dear friend and a dedicated Christian. Who could have lined up everything so perfectly, other than the perfect God?!
The death of Eva was not a tragedy—it was a MIRACLE, witnessed by the entire congregation at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Asheville, NC, on Holy Thursday evening in 2004.
Remember Thy word to Thy servant, in which Thou has made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction that Thy promise gives me life. Godless men utterly deride me, but I do not turn away from Thy law. When I think of Thy ordinances from of old, I take comfort, O Lord. Hot indignation seizes me because of the wicked, who forsake Thy law. Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage. I remember Thy name in the night, O Lord, and keep Thy law. This blessing has fallen to me, that I have kept Thy precepts. Psalm 119:49-56
If one could say there was such a thing as a perfect death, this was it!