Monday, May 18, 2009

I Look for the Resurrection of the Dead...

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!

"I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life in the world to come." (Nicene Creed)

Presvytera Deborah and I spent a few days in London last week - London, Ontario, Canada, that is. With a population of 350,000 inhabitants, it can be described as a large town or a modestly-sized city. Either way, a delightful place to live or visit half-way up the 401 between Detroit and Toronto. We were visiting former parishioners and friends that we have stayed in contact with over the years. (I served in a mission of the Antiochian Archdiocese in London between 1985-1989, "on loan" from the OCA). We stayed one evening with a very pious and deep-believing Greek Orthodox couple, named Dimitros and Dimitra. The timing of our visit was such that we were there for the tenth anniversary of the death of their son, Peter (Panayioti) who was killed in a single vehicle car crash at the tender age of nineteen. He was a fine young man who was a good friend of our children growing up. There is also an older sister in the family, now married with three children. On a beautiful spring evening we went to the cemetery together for a memorial service that I was honored to serve. (We returned to London for Peter's funeral in 1999, at which I also served). The deep Christian faith of Peter's parents is their strength in the daily struggle of living with his untimely death. Singing "Christos Anesti" together at his graveside was deeply moving and a great source of consolation as the perfect expression of our ultimate hope in the victory of Christ over the "sting of death."

Peter is buried in a section of this cemetery that is filled with members of London's Greek Orthodox community. There is also a section in the cemetery reserved for members of the local Russian Orthodox Church. As Dimitra was pointing out the various graves and monuments to us, we came upon the resting places of other former parishioners and friends that died either during our stay in London, or at some point after our departure. These were people that we knew well, worshipped together with, and often were guests of and recipients of their warm and generous Greek-style hospitality. Every meal was an epic feast! As the saying goes, there was a "flood of memories," both joyful and sad. We stopped at certain graves for the offering of a prayer and the singing of "Memory Eternal." These were persons that we knew particularly well and were very close to.

First, there was Soterios, one of the most good-hearted and loveliest boys we have ever known, who died of cancer at the age of fifteen. This was an extended ordeal that lasted for about two-three years. Soterios first lost his leg from the hip down while we were still in London. I remember this well, as it was a deeply-traumatic experience for the entire extended family. The vigil at the hospital during the amputation surgery was particularly sombre. When you know someone well who has lost a limb, you acutely feel their sense of diminishment. Yet, as a deeply religious and cheerful teen-ager, Soterios handled this well and learned to walk with a prosthetic leg. Right before we left London, Soterios invited Presvytera Deborah and me to his Junior High graduation. With great sadness, we learned of his death in September 1991. He was very mindful of his parents and was always preparing them for his death with words that revealed a wisdom well beyond his fifteen years. We returned for his funeral, at which I both served and delivered the homily. To this day, we have remained in touch with his family. An unforgettable teen-aged boy. Memory Eternal!

We next came to Angeliki and her son, Antonios, a thirty-five year old mother and her ten year old son, who were killed in a car accident returning from a wedding late one night from Toronto. Her husband Vasilios, a restaurant owner and, I believe, the other children - two or three - survived the crash and death of their mother and brother. They would often come to our small mission church and we got to know them pretty well. We can only imagine the impact of this tragic event on the entire family. Presvytera Kyriaki, the wife of the local Greek Orthodox priest, Fr. Eustathios, was also killed in a car accident at the young age of about thirty-five back in 1989. Her death and funeral occurred very shortly before we left London for Cincinnati. She, however, was buried in Greece.

One other tragic victim whose grave we prayed before, was Soterios' uncle Nikolaos. Nick was a very pious man who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in around 1996. Part of his itinerary was to also travel to some of the ancient monasteries of the Egyptian desert. While in Egypt, Nick was killed with about six other pilgrims by an Egyptian militant/terrorist group. Their van was machine-gunned. I was unable to attend Nick's funeral, so it was good to be able to visit his gravesite and offer a prayer and sing "Memory Eternal." Nick and his family often came to and supported our mission, and we were often visitors in their home.

Although the Greek Orthodox community in London, Ontario, is of substantial size, the above is in itself a good deal of tragedy for one community within a fairly-limited span of time. Such tragedy is unavoidable as we know from our own parish experience. I noticed that on the gravestones of these various people, one would invariably find the final statement of faith expressed in the Nicene Creed - "I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." This is significant, for it was the Greek mind that gave the world belief in the immortality of the soul, but it was the biblical revelation that conveyed to us the greater truth that the whole person, body and soul, will live together with God in the age to come. The preaching of the Gospel converted the Greek mind to accept the biblical doctrine of the resurrection of the body. So these gravestones admirably reflect a sound Orthodox faith that is built upon the bodily Resurrection of Christ. As I mentioned above, the various persons that I wrote about above were all deeply-believing and practicing Orthodox Christians, as are their respective families to this day. Although severely tested to say the least, their faith sustained their lives, and this same faith sustains the lives of their remaining family members. As Demitrios said to me at the graveside of his son, Peter: "I better lead a good life so that I can be joined together with my son one day."

This trip to the cemetery made our short and enjoyable trip significant in addition to adding some depth to it. And we thank God for that.

Christ is Risen!

Fr. Steven

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