December 13, 2008
When we Orthodox come to a funeral we understand two things at once.
First we see in vivid detail the fleeting nature of life and the sin with its mortality that touches us all. Even the best of us, the most sainted, must die and every work of our hands is slated to pass away. We all, as our funeral prayers say, will be one day “bereft of form, disfigured…lying in a tomb.” We discover again in moments like these that truly “All things are but feeble shadows; all things are most deluding dreams; yet in one moment only, and Death shall supplant them all.”
For the Orthodox Christian death is not a natural thing, it was not something we were designed to experience but rather something we chose when we rejected the life God had for us. Death is the separation of the soul from the body and comes to us in trauma or sickness, by stealth or after long struggle but none of us would prefer it if we had the choice and always within us, no matter how hard we rationalize it, is the nagging sense that this mortality in our bodies, this aging, sickness, struggle and the end of our life is not how we were meant to be and none of the formidable skills of our morticians can change it. An Orthodox monk once said that all of us should keep a jar of dirt with us in our home or office so we remember what we will one day be.
And so we mourn for the passing of life, for the loss we feel, for the presence of one we loved that is taken from us. Our hearts are broken for the good things lost, and the emptiness of a future absent from the ones who shared this short journey we call life. Our love reaches out to the object of our affection and because it is gone our heart feels empty and our feelings become tears. This has been the lot of every human from the mists of time and in this moment we experience it again.
Yet it is not, for we who are Orthodox, the completion of the story. Death is real and we feel its sting but even as the pain flows through us so do the still small voices of hope. We have no life in ourselves but we understand that the God who gave us life came to us in our Lord Jesus Christ and took on every bit of pain and darkness there is in the world, including the greatest of them all, death, and in doing so broke their ultimate power.
This, for Orthodox Christians, is also real, and even more real because at a day of God’s choosing it will have the last word. We do not put those we love to rest in the ground merely for sentiment and a place to visit in the days to come but rather we commit them to their grave with an intense and real hope. We believe, always have, in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. We believe that when God is ready our graves will be emptied, our mortal remains transformed into immortality, and the fullness of who we are, body and soul, will enjoy the presence of God forever. We believe that the faithful enjoy a taste of this glorious reality already. We believe this not out of wishful thinking or our own fears but rather because we have the fact of Our Lord’s own resurrection as the pledge of ours and the validity of all that He is as the proof of his promise.
So truly we see death here but the discerning eye, the eye of faith, will also see something greater. For now we cry but the tears will not have the best of us. For now we will mourn but we will not be forever in despair. On this day we will place the mortal remains of the one we love in the earth not as a permanent fact but rather as a place of rest until the angels call out “Arise!”
Comfort each other with the pleasant memories. Call to mind the good deeds she did while she was with us in this life and better yet emulate them. Be together as family and friends and keep the bonds strong. Knowing that life, even the longest one, is short in the greater flow of history resolve not to live in fear but to live well, cherishing and doing those things that truly matter. Remember her and each other in your prayers.
But more than that direct your hearts, your mind, your souls, and your lives to God in this time and always. Seek refuge in Him. Find rest in His presence. The world is often uncertain, but God remains sure and steady. All things and every one of us will pass away, but God remains. A life lived in God endures beyond time, a hope in God reaches out and grasps eternity, and those who truly journey with God, will always find their way home.