Friday, August 18, 2017

A 'Deathless Death' - Hope and Leaven for a world filled with death


Dear Parish Faithful,




Yet More Death - We hear again of two more mass-terrorist attacks in Europe, this time in Barcelona and the region of Catalonia, Spain. At least fourteen people were killed and hundreds wounded. Truly, a horrific event. The Islamic State group is taking "credit" for the attack. Those who kill in such a manner only serve to dehumanize themselves. Yet, innocent persons are the tragic victims of this process. We can only openly deplore the resort to this type of violence that is meant to spread mayhem, fear and intimidation within normal levels of society. Or so that seems to be one of the key motives behind such attacks.

Looking at the world today, one is tempted to think that things are spinning out-of-control. Divisiveness seems like a stronger attraction than unity as insular group mentality seems to plague the entire spectrum of what we label "the right" and "the left."

On the surface our own theological/spiritual vision of life seems to be ineffective in changing the world. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that that vision works as a "leaven" or as a "mustard seed" that cannot be visually seen to expand or grow. But there is imperceptible growth beneath the surface, as the leaven effects the whole loaf and the mustard seed grows into a tall tree (Matt 13:31-33). These are parabolic images of the Church. And it is through the vision of life that we embrace in the Church that we preserves our sanity and retain our humanity as "children of God" (Jn 1:12).  That is our witness to the world today.

Even if the commemorations that mark the internal life of the Church may seem hardly "relevant" to a confused and violent world today, perhaps, on further reflection, what we are doing in the Church is precisely for the sake of the world and its ultimate salvation.

Therefore, the recent feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the sign of hope in a world filled with death and destruction caused by human sinfulness. It is not an archaic celebration but an affirmation of life beyond the narrow confines of our short earthly existence. It is the sign of hope when hope seems to be in short supply. And it reminds us that victims of irrational violence are not merely "gone" but, by the grace of a loving God, "translated to life."

The following meditation is offered in that spirit of hope that the Church brings to the world.

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The Dormition of the Theotokos - Celebrating a 'deathless death'


Dear Parish Faithful,

"A Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless and peaceful ... let us ask of the Lord."

We continue to celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos through the Leave-taking next Wednesday. For the Feast, in the center of the church was the tomb with a beautiful icon of the Mother of God in blessed repose to be venerated by the faithful.  (This icon will remain in the tomb which will be put back in its new normal spot in the back of the church, where everyone can venerate the image until the leave-taking of the Feast  on August 23). 

Dormition, of course, means "falling asleep," the Christian term par excellence for how we approach the mystery of death. And here we further approach the paradox, from a Christian perspective, of death itself: the "last enemy" that causes great anguish and grief; but yet which now serves as a passage to life everlasting, and thus a cause for festal celebration in the death of the Mother of God. For the Virgin Mary truly died, as is the fate of all human beings; and yet "neither the tomb nor death could hold the Theotokos" who has been "translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!" 

Without for a moment losing sight of the reality of death (notice the weeping apostles around the body of the Theotokos on the Dormition icon), from within the Church we can actually celebrate death during this "summer pascha" because of the Resurrection of Christ.

Thus, the Feast of the Dormition clearly raises the issue of death and dying, and what we mean by a “Christian ending to our life.”  For the moment, though, here is a challenging paragraph from Fr. Thomas Hopko about some of our own misconceptions – basically our fears – that often find us wandering far from an Orthodox approach to death and dying:

I believe that the issue of death and dying is in need of serious attention in contemporary Orthodoxy, especially in the West, where most members of the Church seem to be “pagan” before people die and “Platonists” afterwards.  By this I mean that they beg the Church to keep people alive, healthy, and happy as long as possible, and then demand that the Church assure them after people die that their immortal souls are “in a better place, basking in heavenly bliss” no matter what they may have done in their earthly lives.  —  From Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attractions, p. 89, note 2.

To add a bit more to this, here is a passage from Bp. Ilarion Alfeyev, that reinforces the Christian understanding – and hope – that accompanies us at the moment of death:

For the non-believing person, death is a catastrophe and a tragedy, a rupture and a break.  For the Christian, though, death is neither a catastrophe nor something evil.  Death is a “falling asleep,” a temporary condition of separation from the body until the final unification with it.  As Isaac the Syrian emphasizes, the sleep of death is short in comparison with the expectant eternity of a person.  — From Orthodox Christianity, Vol. 2, p. 496.

St. Gregory of Nyssa states this Christian hope with clarity:

By the divine Providence death has been introduced as a dispensation into the nature of man, so that, sin having flowed away at the dissolution of the union of soul and body, man, through the resurrection, might be refashioned, sound, passionless, stainless, and removed from any touch of evil.  – Great Catechetical Oration, 35.

This is precisely why we can call the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, “pascha in the summer!”   The Virgin Mary and Theotokos died a “deathless death.”  Now we have the opportunity to participate in this mystery in the celebration of this event as nothing less than a Feast.

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