Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Returning to the Grace of the Most Holy and Life-Giving Spirit

Baptism of Christ Magnet

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"The aim of the Christian life is to return to that perfect grace of the most holy and life-giving Spirit, which was originally conferred upon us through divine baptism."
- St. Ignatius Xanthopoulos and St. Kallistos

Today is the Leavetaking of Theophany, so perhaps we can offer a parting opportunity, within the context of this great Feast, to reflect upon the great Mystery of holy Baptism.  We can do this effectively by turning to some of the great saints and theologians of the Church, who consistently and brilliantly illuminate the meaning of this Sacrament of Illumination.  At times, what they have to say may seem to be "unrealistic" - as if their rhetorical skills in describing the effect of Baptism outstrip a realistic assessment of Baptism as experienced by the great majority of members of the Church. However, we should also keep in mind that the Fathers of the Church were "maximalists" when describing and delineating the full effect of the "life in Christ" as it presented itself before them as something to be lived and then shared with others through their example and their writing.  The Fathers always presented us with the fullness of the Gospel, so that we, in turn, would not be tempted to reduce that same Gospel to the level of an uninspiring moralism or conventional religious piety. 

It is St. Cyril of Alexandria (+444) who explains how the Lord's Baptism establishes the "pattern" and sets an "example" for our own baptism.  And St. Cyril links together baptism and "never-ceasing prayer:"

    It was necessary, therefore, that the Word of the Father, when He humbled Himself unto emptiness, and deigned to assume our likeness, should
    become for our sakes the pattern and way of every good work. For it follows, that He Who in everything is first, in this also set the example.  In
    order, therefore, that we may learn both the power itself of holy baptism, and how much we gain by approaching so great a grace, he commences
    the work Himself; and having been baptized, prays that you, my beloved, may learn that never-ceasing prayer is a thing most fitting for those
    who have once been counted worthy of holy baptism. 

It is St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th c.) who explained the meaning of a Sacrament as a genuine participation in what we could call the reality of grace that lies hidden within - and is then conferred upon the participant - through the rite of the Sacrament.  Through "imitation" of the death and resurrection of Christ through the rite of Baptism, we sacramentally die and rise with Christ "in truth:"

    O what a strange and inconceivable thing it is!  We did not really die, we were not really buried; we were not crucified and raised again; our imitation of Christ
    was but in figure, while our salvation is truth. Christ actually was crucified and buried, and truly rose again; and all these things have been transmitted to us, that
    we might by imitation participate in his suffering, and so gain salvation in truth.

A true Baptism must include the invocation of the Holy Trinity, as Christ taught His disciples (MATT. 28:16-20). Fr. George Florovsky makes this point clearly:  "The Trinitarian invocation is required because outside the Trinitarian faith it is impossible to know Christ, to recognize in Jesus the Incarnate Lord, "One of the Holy Trinity."  A fine explanation of the meaning of the Trinitarian invocation and its effect upon the person being so baptized is found in a passage from St. Nicholas Cabasilas (+14th c.):

    As the name of the Trinity is invoked, the candidate is immersed three times in the water and then three times rises up from the water once more; and immediately
    he enters into possession of all that he seeks.  He is born and created; he receives the good seal; he is granted all the happiness that he desires; darkness before, he
    now becomes light; non-existent before, he now receives existence.  God claims him for his own and adopts him as a child.  From prison and utter enslavement, he
    is led to a royal throne.
       The water of baptism destroys one life and reveals another; it drowns the old man and raises up the new.  To be baptized is to be born according to Christ; it is to
    receive existence, to come into being out of nothing.

And yet, a Sacrament is not some form of "holy magic," as if conferring a kind of mechanically bestowed grace regardless of a person's level of commitment to the life in Christ.  The process of salvation - which we often refer to as theosis (deification) - is a synergistic process combining divine grace and human freedom. This also implies an ascetic struggle.  We must cooperate with God if we are to experience the transforming grace of holy Baptism.  St. Gregory of Nyssa (+395) said this well in his Great Catechism:

    ... If the life after initiation (baptism) is of the same quality as the uninitiated life (before baptism), then, though it may be a bold thing to say, I will say it without
    flinching; in the case of such people the water is merely water, for the gift of the Holy Spirit in no way shows itself in what takes place. ... A child born to any one
    is entirely akin to his parent.  If then you have received God, and have become a child of God, display in the purpose of your life the God that is in you, display
    in yourself the Father that gave you birth.

A great saint of a more recent past - Seraphim of Sarov (+1833) - places Baptism in the context of one's whole earthly existence.  This is  part of God's providential care for each of His "adopted" children.  If life is indeed a period of testing, then the grace of Baptism, which is nothing less than the gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon us in the Sacrament, gives us the strength to prevail in this "lifelong test of man on earth:"

    And what in the world can be higher and more precious than the gift of the Holy Spirit sent down to us from on high in the Sacrament of Baptism?  This grace of
    Baptism is so great and indispensable, so vital for man, that it is not taken away even from a heretic until his death.  That is, it is not taken away from him until the
    end of the period of appointment on high by God's providence as a lifelong test of man on earth - a test to see what a man can accomplish by means of the strength
    of grace given to him on high in the time allotted to him by God.

Within the life of the Church all theology is ultimately best expressed through doxology - the living praise of the living God that brings joy and gladness to our spirits through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Doxology - the glorification of God - is a kind of prayerful/poeticized theology that allows us to approach the mystery of God in Christ with humility and praise. One of the many wonderful hymns of the Feast of Theophany summarizes the theological and spiritual content of the Feast in a manner befitting the depth of its significance for us:

    The true Light has appeared,
    and grants enlightenment to all.
    Christ who is above all purity is baptized with us;
    He sanctifies the water
    and it becomes a cleansing for our souls.
    The outward sign is earthly,
    the inward grace is higher than the heavens;
    Salvation comes through washing,
    and through water the Spirit:
    Descending into the water we ascend to God.
    Wonderful are Thy works, O Lord:  Glory to Thee!

When all is said and done, in the end we approach God and sing "Glory to Thee!"     


Monday, January 5, 2015

Theophany - the "manifestation of God"

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Within the Orthodox Church, today is the Eve of Theophany, designated as a "strict fast day."  We enjoyed the longest fast-free period in the Church from December 25 - January 4 inclusive; but in preparation for the Great Feast of Theophany we fast in order to fully appreciate the feast to come.  Unlike the Western Epiphany that commemorates the visit of the Magi and the offering of their gifts to the Christ Child; Theophany itself is the commemoration and actualization of Christ's Baptism in the River Jordan - and further of the public revelation of God's Trinitarian nature.  This ultimate revelation finds wonderful expression in the well-known troparion of the Feast:

        When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity
        was made manifest!  For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee,
        and called Thee His beloved Son! And the Spirit, in the form of a dove,
        confirmed the truthfulness of His word.  O Christ, our God, who has revealed
        Thyself, and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee!

Theophany, of course, means the "manifestation of God," His "showing/shining forth" to the world openly when the Messiah is baptized and anointed upon His descent into the waters of the Jordan and the Holy Spirit simultaneously descends in order to "remain" upon Him.  (JN. 1:32)  The "Great Blessing of the Water" is the central, distinguishing rite of this Feast.  In his book, The Celebration of Faith, Vol. II, Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes the following about this popular rite:

        Go into a church on the eve of Theophany while the "Great Blessing of Water" is being celebrated.
        Listen to the words of the prayers and hymns, pay attention to the rite, and you will feel that there is
        more here than merely an ancient ritual:  it has something to say to us today, just as it did a thousand
        years ago, about our life and our perpetual and unquenchable thirst for purification, rebirth, renewal
        ... In this celebration water becomes what it was on the firs day of Creation, when "the earth was
        without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving
        over the face of the waters."  (GEN. 1:1-2)  The words of the service echo this in praise and thanks-
        giving: "Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works, and there are no words which suffice
        to hymn Thy wonders ..."  Once again, a beginning.  Once again, humanity stands before the mystery
        of existence.  Once again, we experience the world joyfully and we see its beauty and harmony as
        God's gift.  Once again, we give thanks.  And in this thanksgiving, praise, and joy, we once again
        become genuine human beings. (pp. 63-64)

To "once again become genuine human beings."  Now that sounds like a New Year's resolution worth making and striving for! 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Christ is Born!"

Dear Parish Faithful,


Not only is Christmas long gone by now, but we have also reached the final day on which we openly celebrate the Nativity of Christ.  On January 1 - the day of the Civil New Year - we commemorate the Circumcision of the Lord on the eighth day after His birth.  Following this we will begin to prepare for the great Feast of the Theophany of the Lord on January 6.  However, as we leave the open liturgical celebration of the Nativity, I wanted to share a very small excerpt from the justifiably famous Nativity Homily of St. Gregory the Theologian (+395).  If you have ever wondered about the origin of our festal greeting of "Christ is Born!" you will see that it was first said by St. Gregory as the beginning of his homily. From here, it was eventually incorporated into the Church's liturgical tradition through its use in the  first ode of the Nativity Canon of Matins; and then as the greeting and response that we use among ourselves as a kind of imitation of the paschal greeting of "Christ is Risen!"  St. Gregory was a profound theologian and a gifted orator, who employed the rhetorical techniques of late antiquity to great effect in describing the Mystery of the Incarnation of the eternal Word of God.  He also revels in the paradox of how divinity and humanity - the eternal and the temporal - are uniquely united in the Person of the Son of God made flesh:

        Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!  Christ is from heaven, go to meet Him.  Christ is on earth, be lifted up.  "Sing to the Lord,
        all the earth," and, say both together, "Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice," for the heavenly one is now
        earthly. Christ is in the flesh, exalt with trembling and joy:  trembling because of sin, rejoicing because of hope.  Christ
        comes from the Virgin ... Who would not worship the one "from the beginning?"  Who would not glorify the "last?"

        ... I myself will proclaim the power of this day. The fleshless one takes flesh, the Word is made coarse, the invisible one
        is seen, the impalpable one is touched, the timeless one makes a beginning, the Son of God becomes the Son of Man,
        "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and for all ages."  Let Jews be scandalized, let Greeks mock, let heretics talk
        until their tongues ache.  They will believe when they see Him ascend into heaven, and if not then, at least when they      
        see Him coming from heaven and sitting as judge.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

There would be no Cross without the Nativity

"Nativity of Christ" Russian Icon Triptych

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

It was St. Gregory of Nyssa (4th c.) who said (somewhere) that the Son of God did not die because He was born; but rather that He was born in order to die.  The Incarnation finds its fulfillment in the Death and Resurrection of the Savior.  This is signified by the fact that the newborn child is wrapped in swaddling cloths (LK. 2;12), and this "wrapping, " in turn, strongly resembles his burial wrapping in "linen cloths" (JN. 20:6) following his crucifixion.  The cave of the Lord's birth resembles and prefigures the tomb in which he was buried.  This is why myrrh was one of the gifts of the wise men, for myrrh was used specifically for burial.  These similarities and connections are depicted in the iconography that accompanies the biblical texts.

This is simply a short introduction to a fine passage being presented today from Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou, who nicely establishes the theological link between the Nativity of the Lord and Great and Holy Friday.  The Feast Days that we celebrate are not just a loose collection of fragments from the life of Christ; but deeply and organically related in their essential unity that reveals the Mystery of Christ in its various aspects:

    Why is there such a similarity between these two apparently very different feasts - the one a joyful celebration of life, the other a sorrowful commemoration of death?    Because in both feasts the Church is inviting us to consider the same paradox.  On Great Friday, the paradox is how can God, who is eternal - who has no end - be  killed?  On Christmas Eve, the paradox is how can God, who is eternal - who has no beginning - be born?

        How is He contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain?  How held in His Mother's arms, He who is in the bosom of the Father?
        This is according to His good pleasure, as He knows and wishes.  For being without flesh, willingly He was made flesh; and He Who
        Is, for our sake has become what He was not.  Without departing from His own nature he has shared in our substance.  Wishing to
        fill the world on high, Christ was born with two natures.  ( Matins of the Nativity, Kathisma after the Polyeleos)

    God entered the world in order to take on the fullness of human existence, which means not only the fullness of human life, but also the fullness of human death.  He  was made in our "image and likeness" in order to die like us and raise our humanity with Him to God the Father, to restore and complete in us His image and Likeness  in which we were made.  Thus we cannot remember the Lord's birth without also considering His death and Resurrection.   There would be no salvation for humanity  without the Cross, but there would be no Cross without the Nativity.
(Meditations for Advent by Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou)

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Great Mystery of the Incarnation.

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christmas is actually the Feast of the Nativity/Birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is actually the Feast of the Incarnation - of the Word becoming flesh (JN. 1:14).  As we draw closer to December 25, I would like to provide everyone with a modest-sized anthology of excerpts from the Fathers of the Church and contemporary theologians on precisely that great Mystery.  These texts will also include the Mystery of the Motherhood of the Virgin Mary; for it is impossible to speak of the Incarnation without including the Mother of the Incarnate One.  The Virgin Mary is bound to her Son (and God) in a manner wholly unique to  her incredible vocation. Se is the Mother of the Son of God who received His flesh from her. We should marvel all the more, when we realize that she was chosen for this vocation from all eternity.  These texts are meant to be deeply-pondered over (as the Theotokos pondered these things in her own heart) in the hope that we continue to contemplate the Mystery "hidden before the ages" with a sense of awe and prayerful thanksgiving.  And perhaps these texts will assist us in focusing our dispersed minds and hearts that are driven to distraction by the other attractions of the Season, on the Incarnate Lord.

This first text from St. Nicholas Cabasilas (+14th c.)  has become something of a "classic" as it beautifully balances the divine initiative and the free response of the Virgin Mary:

    The Incarnation of the Word was not only the work of Father, Son and Spirit - the first consenting, the second descending, and the third overshadowing - but it was also the work
    of the will and faith of the Virgin. Without the three divine persons this design could not have been set in motion; but likewise the plan could not have been carried into effect
    without the consent and faith of the all-pure Virgin.  Only after teaching and persuading her does God make her his Mother and receive from her the flesh which she consciously
    wills to offer him.  Just as he was conceived by his own free choice, so in the same way she became his Mother voluntarily and with her free consent.

Here is an excerpt from a homily by Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, a very prominent hierarch from 19th c. Russia.  Met. Philaret was known and respected not only as an excellent theologian, but also as a genuine ascetic, and an outstanding preacher.  In fact, he may be best known for his superb homilies in which deep thought and a kind of exalted style of expression combine to impart a sense of the majesty and holiness of God in His activity toward the world.  The following short text is actually a small excerpt from a homily on the Feast of the Annunciation.  But the Incarnation actually occurs when the Son of God is conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  Thus this passage bears witness to the essential role that the Mother of God fulfills in the Incarnation, very similar to what I shared yesterday from St. Nicholas Cabasilas.

    During the days of the creation of the world, when God uttered his living and mighty words: Let there be ... the Creator's words brought creatures into existence.  But on
    the day, unique in the existence of the world, when Holy Mary uttered her humble and  obedient Let it be, I would hardly dare to express what took place then - the word
    of the creature caused the Creator to descend into the world.  God uttered his word here also:  You will conceive in your womb and bear a son ... he will be great ... and    he will reign over the house of Jacob forever.  But again that which  is divine and incomprehensible occurs - the word of God itself defers its action, allowing itself to be
    delayed by the word of Mary:  How can this be?  Her humble Let it be was necessary for the realization of God's mighty Let it be.  What secret power is thus contained
    in these simple words:  Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your will - that it produces an effect so extraordinary?  This marvelous power
    is Mary's pure and perfect self-dedication to God, a dedication of her will, of her thought, of her soul, of her entire being, of all her faculties, of all her actions, of all her
    hopes and expectations.
The following is from St. Cyril of Alexandria (+444), the great patriarch of that thriving cosmopolitan city, and perhaps the Church's greatest "Christologian" (if such a term actually exists).  Or, we could say that St. Cyril is one of the Church's greatest theologians who wrote with exceptional penetration, depth and insight about the Person of Christ.  In the heat of a very polemical atmosphere, in which St. Cyril had to defend the Church's understanding of the Person of Christ against the inadequate, misleading, and even heretical teachings of one Nestorius, St. Cyril was able to explain the union of the divine and human natures in the one Person of Christ in such a convincing manner, that his approach is to this day accepted as the criterion for Orthodoxy.  He did this by defending the term Theotokos for the Virgin Mary when that term was attacked and rejected by Nestorius.  If the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Second Person of the Trinity - the eternal Word and Son of the Father - then she must be granted the title of Theotokos, for God was born of her in the flesh that He received from her.

His most complete treatment of an Orthodox understanding of the Person of Christ (Christology) may be in his major work known as On the Unity of Christ. Below is just one excerpt from a book overflowing with endless insights into the Mystery of the Incarnation.  Notice how St. Cyril endlessly develops the paradox of God becoming man, building on and extending the Apostle Paul's pregnant phrase:  "He was rich but became poor for our sake, so that we might be enriched by his poverty" (II COR. 8:9)  This became one of the Fathers most cherished methods for explaining the wonder of the Incarnation.

    Christ is understood as the Heavenly Man, not as if He brought down His flesh from on high and out of heaven, but because the Word who is God came down from
    out of heaven and entered our likeness, that is to say submitted to birth from a woman according to the flesh, while ever remaining what he was, that is one from on
    high, from heaven, superior to all things as God even with the flesh.  This is what the divine John says about him somewhere:  "He who comes from above is above
    all" (JN. 3:31).  He remained Lord of all things even when he came, for the economy, in the form of a slave, and this is why the mystery of Christ is truly wonderful.
    ... Indeed the mystery of Christ runs the risk of being disbelieved precisely because it is so incredibly wonderful.  For God was in humanity. He who was above all
    creation was in our human condition; the invisible one was made visible in the flesh; he who if from the heavens and from on high was in the likeness of earthly    
    things; the immaterial one could be touched; he who is free in his own nature came in the form of a slave; he who blesses all creation became accursed; he who is all
    righteousness was numbered among transgressors; life itself came in the appearance of death.  All this followed because the body which tasted death belonged to no
    other but to him who is the Son by nature.  Can you find any fault in any of this ...

    On the Unity of Christ, p. 61)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Homily of Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Dear Parish Faithful,

As is our tradition, at the Thanksgiving Day Liturgy I always read to the parish the final homily of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, given on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. This was the last time that Fr. Alexander served the Liturgy before his death a few weeks later on December 13 (the day of the repose of Fr. Herman of Alaska).  It is a short, concise, but extraordinary "last testament" from a man who knew he was dying. It is a perfect expression of all that Fr. Alexander believed in and committed himself to as an Orthodox Christian priest, theologian, teacher and writer.  That homily is accessible from the link below:

Fr. Alexander Schmemann was the dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary for many years and up until the time of his death in 1983. (I graduated from the seminary in 1981 and Fr. Alexander became sick with the cancer that would take his life the following year) He was the most charismatic person that I ever knew personally, and it was a great privilege and joy to be a seminarian when he was still a vigorous and illuminating presence. The atmosphere in a room was always transfigured the moment that Fr. Schmemann entered it, and his presence was almost magnetic in how he attracted immediate attention.  And he almost always had something memorable to say. Some people are naturally charismatic, and I think that this was true in the case of Fr. Schmemann.  However, I also believe that his charisma was derived from the fact that he was imbued with a profound sense of gratitude for the gift of life and for the gift of salvation in Christ.  Fr. Alexander had an extraordinary sense of the gift of life in all of its variety and richness.  There was hardly anything about "life" that he did not enjoy; and for him this all came together in the Liturgy when we offer the world back to God in adoration with the words: "Thine own of thine own, we offer unto Thee of all and for all."

When Fr. Schmemann died in 1983, a brief tribute to him was filmed by CBS News.  Reminding me of this, Mother Paula (Vicki Bellas) sent me the following note and link.  I would like to share it with anyone who may be interested.  Fr. Alexander appears briefly at the beginning, so there is a brief glimpse of him and his style. The rest is a series of tributes to him from various bishops, scholars, friends, etc. including the words of Fr. Thomas Hopko, who was his son-in-law.  The video ends with Fr. Alexander's funeral, an extraordinary event that I returned to New York for.  I recall approaching Matushka Anne Hopko (Fr. Alexander's daughter) and making a comment about the unique atmosphere of the funeral. She smiled, and then replied:  "Yes, just like Pascha!"  That response caught the essence of Fr. Schmemann's life - and his death.

Bless Father, perhaps you have seen this.

Interview by Fr Tom Hopko

Monday, November 24, 2014

On Death and Our Daily Lives

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In the Orthodox Prayer Book under the heading "Before Sleep," we find the following:  "A Prayer of St. John of Damascus, said pointing at the bed."  This particular prayer begins in the following manner:

    O Master Who lovest mankind, is this bed to be my coffin?  Or wilt Thou enlighten my wretched soul with another day?

As St. John was a monk we could, of course, dismiss or ignore such a prayer as "monastic excess" or even as a morbid and medieval fixation on death.  (It seems that whenever our contemporary ears  encounter anything  strange, unfamiliar or jarring from the past the label of "medieval" allows us to disengage from any thoughtful consideration of what is being said).  If we are sleepy, but essentially healthy, as we prepare for bed on any given evening, then it seems quite unlikely - thank God! - that our bed will serve as our coffin as we prepare to enter into it. The inevitable seems safely postponed for the moment and we feel confident that we will rise with the sun the following morning.  And yet a moment of serious reflection on our common destiny - that great equalizer that we call death - should alert those who are spiritually vigilant, that such a prayer cannot simply be dismissed as either monastic or morbid. Understood in the over-all context of how and for what we may pray before sleep according to the Prayer Book and our personal prayers, it is an open-eyed, and hence realistic, reminder that "you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  (GEN. 3:19)  Perhaps a bit more poignant for those of us who are working on a second half-century that will most assuredly not be completed.

This theme comes to mind on this Monday morning because of yesterday's Gospel reading at the Liturgy:  the short parable of the "rich fool" as found uniquely in LK. 12:16-21.  Short but devastating.  The foolish landowner is far-reaching in his plans for the future.  He will tear down his old barns, now inadequate to store his abundant crops, and build "larger ones."  Anticipating the enjoyment of a life of ease based upon his accumulated wealth, he says:

    I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry."  (LK. 12:19)

However alluring, this was not to be.  For the very next thing we hear in this parable are these frightening words:

    But God said to him, 'Fool!  This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure
    for himself, and is not rich toward God.  (LK. 12:20-21)
Such planning is mere foolishness in the eyes of God.  (As Tevye the dairyman said: "The more man plans, the harder God laughs").  The brevity of life and the uncertainty of our end has - although containing a timeless and universal truth but perhaps because of sheer repetition - often been reduced to the level of a pious cliché or religious platitude.  For that reason, spiritual vigilance is essential.  In the Church's spiritual tradition we are exhorted to cultivate the "remembrance of death." And yet our highly-secularized society convinces us to practice the "forgetfulness of death."  Which is more realistic? Or true to life?  Try as we might, we cannot forget death, of course.  So, as living human beings "go for it" in terms of life in this world the unwanted "remembrance of death" is there to trouble the mind.  In his book, God With Us, Fr. John Breck, in a chapter entitled "The Thought of Death" captures this underlying and unresolved tension:

    A great many people actually do chastise their soul with the thought of death.  They suffer acute anxiety at the thought that their life will come to and end,
    that they will die and be buried in the earth.  They fear death because of the unknown.  What lies beyond the threshold behind that veil?  Heaven?  Hell?
    Nothing?  The dread of death, which provokes questions like this, can, with tragic irony, push a person over the brink and into suicide. (p. 101)

The "remembrance of death" taken in isolation, especially among those who "have no hope" (I THESS. 4:13), can have a horrible effect upon the soul. It only makes sense to forget about it!  The Christian practice of the "remembrance of death" needs to be the result of a lively faith in Christ, the Vanquisher of death, for it to be the spiritually positive practice it is meant to be.  St. Paul has said it with an unmatched clarity and eloquence from the very dawn of Christianity:

    If Christ is not raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If for this life only we have
    hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a
    man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  (I COR. 15: 17-22)

From an intolerable reality that leaves us as creatures to be pitied, death itself becomes a passage to life in the risen Lord.  St. John Chrysostom could therefore write: "what was the greatest of evils, the chief point of our unhappiness, what the devil had introduced into the world, in a word death, God has turned into our glory and honor."  With the powerful words of both the Apostle Paul and St. John in mind, we can fully understand what Fr. John Breck further relates in his chapter about the thought of death:

    Our physical death remains before us, certainly and inevitably.  But is has been emptied of its power.  For those who are "in Christ," true death
    occurs at baptism, when we go down into the baptismal waters, then rise up from them, in a mimesis, or reactualization, of Christ's own death
    and resurrection.  Baptism effects a "new birth," but only because it signifies the death of the "old Adam," or former being. (p. 101)

The daily practice of the "remembrance of death" is a Christian practice that - besides its realism as mentioned above - allows us to further meditate upon the overflowing love of God that has been poured out for our salvation in Christ, the "Coming One" whose death has overcome death, fully revealed in His glorious  resurrection.  It may not be the most timely subject for dinnertime conversation or the banter of the workplace; but it has a crucial and time-honored place in our prayer life and in our "search" for those essential truths that we meditate on throughout the course of our lives. Imbued with a Christian realism that we embrace with open eyes and the virtue of hope that leaves the future open-ended, we can consciously avoid the foolishness of the rich man of the parable, but rather heed the teaching of St. James:

    Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain; whereas you do not know
    about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall
    do this or that."  (JAS. 4:13-15)