"But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are fallen asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope." (I THESS. 4:13)
We served the funeral service yesterday for one of our oldest parishioners, Vasilka Bitsoff. A stroke last January left her quite debilitated for many months, and she died last Sunday, never having recovered. Because of her declining health, she was unable to attend the Liturgy for about the last five years. If you have joined our community in these last five years or so, you would therefore, I assume, not have known Vasilka . For those who knew her well, she was a faithful member of our parish who became part of our community in the earliest years of its formation. She was a member of the Holy Spirit Bulgarian Orthodox church, and that parish united with the early Christ the Savior mission, which resulted in our parish of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit. Vasilka was a refined person with a lively intelligence and over-all wisdom gained through the many years of her life (she was almost ninety-six at the time of her death). She will be missed. May God forgive her of her sins "both voluntary and involuntary" and receive her into His eternal Kingdom. Memory Eternal!
It is my belief that it is virtually impossible to attend an Orthodox funeral and not leave pondering both the universal reality of death, and one's own personal and inevitable death. To do otherwise is to have been totally unaware of the surrounding environment of the church and the service; or to be lost somewhere in "la-la land." Certainly, we put up strong barriers of denial of our own impending demise, but the prayers and hymns of the service, together with the appointed Scriptural readings, should be able to penetrate those barriers if we are attentive and if we have not lost touch with reality. Our death-denying culture ( a "comfortable" casket, an embalmed body with make-up. etc.) tries to shield us from that reality, but all such efforts are rather shallow and meaningless. Thus, as we bid farewell to a loved one or a friend, we are allowed the opportunity to come away with a reminder of our mortality so that we can continue to live our lives with depth and meaningfulness. All, of course, enlightened by our faith in Christ the "Vanquisher of Death."
In sharp contrast to our death-denying culture, the funeral service of the Church places the tragic reality of death rather graphically before our minds in one of the service's hymns, known as an Idiomela:
I weep and I wail when I think upon death, and behold our beauty, created in the likeness of God, lying in the tomb, disfigured, bereft of glory and form.
O Marvel! What is this mystery concerning us? Why have we been given over unto corruption? And why have we been wedded unto death? Truly as it is written by the command of God, who gives the departed rest.
Another Idiomela makes the same point with a certain rhetorical somberness, but ends with a clear reference to Christ as the source of our rest:
What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief? What glory stands immutable on earth? All things are but feeble shadows, all things are most deluding dreams: yet only one moment only, and Death shall supplant them all.
But in the light of Thy countenance, O Christ, and in the sweetness of thy beauty, give rest unto him/her/them who Thou hast chosen: forasmuch as Thou lovest mankind.
Other hymns offer a superb combination of the recognition of death with a prayerful plea to Christ to receive us into Paradise, and in so doing reminding us of our desired goal - our restored beauty in the Kingdom of God:
Blessed art Thou, O Lord: teach me Thy statutes.
The Choir of the Saints have found the Fountain of Life and the Door of Paradise. May I find also find the way through repentance. I am a lost sheep: call me,
O Savior, and save me.
You who have trod the narrow way of grief; all you who in life have taken upon you the Cross as a yoke, and followed me by faith; Draw near, enjoy the honors and celestial crowns I have prepared for you.
I am the image of thine ineffable glory, though I bear the brands of transgression: Pity Thy creature, O Master, and purify me by Thy loving-kindness; grant unto me my desired fatherland, making me again a citizen of Paradise.
O Thou who of old formed me from nothingness, and honored me with Thine image divine, but by the transgression of Thy commandment has returned me again unto the earth from which I was taken: Restore Thou me to that image, and to my former beauty.
This honest combination of recognizing our own sinfulness while in this world, together with our hope that we have placed in Christ as our Savior and as the One who will forgive us of our sins, is captured by this beautiful prayer with its Christ-centered and hopeful exclamation/doxology that is repeated throughout the service and then offered one last time at the graveside (and for forty days):
O God of spirits, and of all flesh, Who hast trampled down Death, and overthrown the Devil, and given life unto Thy world: Do Thou, the same Lord, give rest to the soul of Thy departed servant(s) ____________, in a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, where all sickness, sorrow, and sighing have fled away. Pardon every transgression which he/she has (they have) committed, whether by word, or deed, or thought.
For Thou art a good God, and lovest mankind; because there is no man who lives and sins not; for Thou only art without sin, and Thy righteousness is to all eternity, and Thy word is true.
For Thou art the Resurrection, and the Life, and the Repose of Thy servant(s) ____________, who is (are) fallen asleep, O Christ our God, and unto Thee do we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy and good, and life-creating Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
This prayerful recognition of Christ as "the Resurrection, and the Life, and the Repose," allowed Fr. Alexander Schmemann to write the following about the Orthodox funeral service:
"The Orthodox funeral service is a wonderful expression of this faith. Both its words and music convey to us the certitude that death is not the absurd end, which deprives life of its meaning and permeates everything with its poison of despair, but the passage into the "desired fatherland," the return to Him in whom is all joy, all peace, all fulfillment. Indeed it makes life meaningful - it gives it a sense of direction, it makes it a movement toward Paradise."
If what I said at the beginning of this meditation is true - that you cannot attend an Orthodox funeral service without being aware of the universal and personal dimension of death - then I can equally claim that it would be just as impossible not to come away with a lively sense of Christ as the Victor over death, and that we depart this life with a "sure hope" that by His great mercy and grace, we can make that paschal passage into the life of the world to come. In such a way the reality of death need not have such a corrosive effect upon us and our lives. As someone wrote:
Lord, let not the corrosive
fear of dying someday,
eat away the wonder of
living this day. Amen.
This does not mean, however, that we are "licensed" to "eat, drink and be merry" - or to have as much "fun" as possible before the inevitable end - somehow justified by a religious faith in "life after death." It rather means traversing the road of repentance and constant renewal of our "inner person" as the "outer person" is wasting away. It is about believing and taking to heart the wonderful words of the Apostle Paul:
"neither death, nor life ... shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (ROM. 8:38)