God and Death
Fr. Thomas Hopko · July 5, 2013
Fr. Thomas gets down to basics with this episode by saying everything the ancient Christian Church believes about the world, society, nature, sex, humanity, and everything else comes down to its view of God and death.
We have passed through the Great Lenten period and then the Paschal-Pentecostal fifty days in our Church tradition. We’ve celebrated all the saints, and we bring to a conclusion the Pentecostarion, the service cycle of Pascha and post-Pascha. Now we return to what has often been called “normal” time: the summer months where we begin the gospels after Pentecost.
But in this big effort again this year of Lent and Holy Week and Pascha and the Pentecostal fifty days, I was struck by something that I would just like to share with the listeners on Ancient Faith Radio today, just to kind of bring my musings before you. I think I’ve mentioned that our son characterized our podcasts as “stream-of-consciousness musings.” Well, I’d like to have some stream-of-consciousness musings today about God and about death, as we experience these realities and confess our understanding of them in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church following the Scriptures and the liturgical services and the Church Fathers and the icons and all that are testimonies to our Orthodox Christian faith.
I’d like to describe that again and then contrast it to our society today in the United States and Canada, of course, particularly the United States, where I live, but North America generally, and we might even add Western Europe and Australia in our reflection today, because what struck me more than ever this year—and it’s something, obviously, that any Orthodox Christian would know with their mind, with their brain, but sometimes it really hits you in your heart, or, as they say, in your gut, something really strikes you. What really struck me this year that I’d like to share with you today for a few minutes is how radically different, how completely and totally opposed to each other are the teachings of the Scriptures and the services, the sacraments, the saints—put simply, orthodox Christianity, certainly Eastern Orthodox Christianity of the Orthodox Church—and the societies in the Western world in which we live on, on the issue of God and on the issue of death.
What struck me is that the Scripture and the services and the saints of our Church and all that we just went through and will continue to go through to the end of the world as Orthodox Christians is primarily, essentially, and in some sense you might even dare to say exclusively about God. It’s about God. It’s about the one, true, living God; about the only God that is God, the only God that exists or supra-exists or super-non-exists, but is a reality; God almighty. Everything about human life, made in the image and likeness of God, is ultimately about God. It’s from God; it’s toward God. It’s with God; it’s in God. It’s culminated and fulfilled in God. It’s all about God, God almighty.
And it’s all about who God is and what God is and how God is, and we might even say why God is, why this real God is; why is there this existence of God, and the God that we pray to and worship in our Orthodox Christian Church worship, which, as some of you know, I have a commentary on Ancient Faith Radio running right now about worship in spirit and in truth, a kind of commentary on the Divine Liturgy. I think I have over 50 podcasts on that subject so far, and I’m only at commenting on the Trisagion singing, the singing of “Holy God” at the Liturgy of the Word. So we have a long way to go with that subject.
With that subject, the word of God is central, and every liturgical service in the Orthodox Church that begins with the chanting of the Great Litany which is, I would say, basically a statement about everything that we are concerned about and pray about and will pray about in the Divine Liturgy. It’s a kind of a synopsis of what every prayer and all worship is about, it’s contained in that Great Litany.
But then it ends, that Great Litany ends, in the Divine Liturgy, and at Vespers, at Matins, whenever it’s served, with this exclamation, the ekphonesis which completes the prayer at the end of that litany, and that prayer says:
For unto thee are due all glory, honor, and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Now, at the Divine Liturgy, the prayer that is the end of the prayer—the whole prayer which mostly people don’t hear in church because it’s said silently by the priest while the deacon is taking the Great Litany; in some churches it’s read out loud; we read it out loud at the monastery because we’re not going anywhere; we have plenty of time, and the nuns are there every day, and of course it really helps them if they hear every word—but the prayer goes like this:
O Lord our God, your power is incomparable; your glory is incomprehensible; your mercy is immeasurable; your love for humanity is inexpressible. Look down on us and on this holy house with pity, O Master, and impart the riches of your mercy and your compassion to us and to those who pray with us. For to you are due all glory, honor, and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Here what I’d like to point out is that we claim, when we worship, that worship is due to God, that we creatures are worshiping beings by definition because we’re creatures of God. If there is a God—and, of course, Orthodox Christians believe there is God—there’s the one God and Father, and then there is his divine Son and Word and Image incarnate in total humanity like we all have and share, that’s the Lord Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah, the Savior of the world, the One for whom, through whom, by whom, in whom, toward whom all things are made, who came into this world being born of the Virgin, becoming a real human being, suffering our life, taking on our infirmities, healing our diseases, dying our death, bearing our curse, taking on all of our fallenness in order to purge it out and cleanse it and get rid of it by his own blood on the Cross, forgiving our sins and granting us, when he is glorified, being raised from the dead by God his Father and enthroned at the right hand of God, which means in the very presence of God, on the same throne with God, for us and for our salvation, taking our humanity with him into the depth of the Godhead, and sending to us the most-Holy Spirit, so that we could live through him and with him in communion with the one God and Father who is the only true God, whom Orthodox Christians identify as the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and [the] twelve tribes of Israel and Moses and Joshua and Caleb and Hannah and Samuel and David and all of the prophets.
It’s this very same God, and it’s the God whose Logos, whose Word is incarnate as Jesus Christ and whose Spirit is the Holy Spirit who is in and on the human Christ, showing him to be the Anointed of God, the Messiah, and then given to us by Christ when he is raised and glorified, from God the Father, so we can be christs ourselves, by grace; so that we could be by grace what Christ is by nature, namely really human, and then by grace divine also to have the same relation that Christ has with God the Father. This is our confession. This is our faith. This is what everything is all about, and it’s all about God, and therefore God and us, and our relationship to God, and it’s about the revelation of God to us on the planet Earth.
We Christians would say that that has been accomplished in Christ, and especially when he’s crucified and he says, “It is finished. It is fulfilled. Everything is fulfilled,” and then he’s raised from the dead into everlasting life. He’s known now in the Spirit and in glory and no longer do we just think of him as a man who walked on the earth a few thousand years ago and gave us some teachings and then was claimed to be raised from the dead. He is alive in the presence of God and with us by his most-Holy Spirit. This is what everything is about, and we can just say everything is about God and how God is and how he acts and what he does and what we believe he does and how we relate to that.
I like to say—some of you have heard me say this before, but we like to say that the Scriptures, the Bible, it’s not about the Bible; it’s not about some religious experience of some people in a certain part of the earth. It’s about God. It’s about God revealing himself. As our holy Fathers say, and as many scholars say, including Jewish scholars like Martin Buber and Joshua Heschel and others, Karl Stern—of course, Karl Stern became a Christian—but they say that the Bible is God’s version of us. It’s God’s version of creation, of humanity, of existence, of plants, animals, birds; it’s God’s understanding and the revelation of his understanding about what it means for creatures to be creatures, and very particularly for us human beings who are creatures of God, what that means for us.
It’s God’s version of us; it’s not our version of God. It’s not a record of human beings seeking God. You have plenty of records of human beings seeking God on the planet Earth. Or if you want to put it more generally, seeking truth, if one still believes that there is an objective truth that can be discovered and found and obeyed and rejoiced in and adored—truth and beauty and life and goodness. I mean, not everybody believes that.
In fact, nowadays in our world, most people believe that all those things are whatever anybody wants to make them to be. They’re products of our own subjectivity; there isn’t any objectivity to all that at all. So the human beings are constantly deciding themselves how reality is. Some claim to believe in God or various kinds of gods; some believe in no god, but still believe in some eternal destiny of human beings, like, for example, Buddhists. Then there are just plain atheists, who just don’t believe in God at all and believe that that’s a neurosis; faith in God is a neurosis, and it’s something to be gotten rid of. As Marx said, he thought the human race would outgrow it, but it didn’t work. Marxism is what corrupted and fell and we’re still around, believing in God, at least some of us.
But then who is that God? What’s that God like? What does that God do? If you’re a believer in God, is it the God the way the Muslims understand God; is it God the way the philosophers understand God? There is this issue, and it’s the life-and-death issue. It’s what really reality is about. This is what really strikes you in the Orthodox Church, that this is about God. Scripture is about God. The worship of Church, Liturgy, it’s about God. It’s not about Liturgy; it’s about God. The holiness of the lives of saints is not about holiness and saints; it’s ultimately about God, and therefore it’s about holiness and saints.
But it is the activity of God acting in and with us and toward us for the sake of our salvation, for the sake of being delivered from foolishness and ignorance and darkness and deceit and delusion, being delivered from the enslavement and the captivity to our own minds or to the minds of some sort of social leaders who decide things for us and then push their beliefs on us, whether those beliefs would be of some form of Christianity or Judaism or Islam or of secularization or of whatever. For Orthodox Christians, it’s about God and the real God and how God really is.
In America today, in North America and in certainly the Western world, isn’t it true that the one thing you can’t discuss with anybody is God? Isn’t it true that the claim would be that if you are a sane and moral person, you would realize that this is a product of one’s subjectivity and convictions anyway, and we really shouldn’t push ours on anybody else’s, even if they are atheists? If that’s what they choose to be and want to be, we should affirm it, not just tolerate it, but affirm it, say, “Yeah, that’s your right! You can envision reality that way, and it’s not any better or worse than ours. We like to go in church and sing ancient Hebrew psalms and read Scriptures that are a couple thousand years old, and we like to make smoke with incensers and make icons that we then venerate and kiss and carry in processions, and wear fancy liturgical clothing, the clergy anyway, to make a statement about the kingdom of God that is brought to the world in the Lord Jesus Christ and which we hope to enter into at the end of the age, and that on the earth the Church is the image of that coming kingdom; it’s a sacramental, mystical presence of the kingdom of God on earth until the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the King of the kingdom, returns at the end of the age.”
Our society says, “If you want to do that, go ahead and do that, but don’t push it on anybody else. Don’t say that this is the truth of all truths, and that this is really the true, right understanding and vision of God, that you have. Don’t say that. Keep it for yourself, and if other people want to be atheists, or if they want to believe something else about God or have another definition of God, then it’s welcome. We should include every single possibility and never consider one better or worse than the other. The reason being even, you might say philosophically in our time, is because nobody knows about this anyway, and in the spiritual realm, it’s all basically subjective. It’s what people imagine and choose to believe.”
So if you’re a really good American citizen, you have to affirm all that. You have to affirm everything as being as good, right, and true and beautiful for some people as what you believe is right, good, true, and beautiful for you, but there’s no debate or disputation about which one is true or which one is false—except that when some people start saying that the one that they see is true, and they want to preach to others that it is true, then they become dangerous people. The claim would be: if such people actually got in power, oh my goodness, what they would do! But the flip-side of that is equally true, because there’s always going to be some kind of power.
So there can be some kind of authority that doesn’t believe in God at all, or believes in such pluralism and inclusivism that there can be no debate about these issues whatsoever, all you can do is not just tolerate, but affirm them all, and say, “We’re all good people, and we’re all nice, and we all want to help each other; we all want to share the wealth and the goodness of the world,” and everything like that, but how we understand that ultimately is up to us, and there should be not only no fighting about it or hostility, there really shouldn’t even be any debate. How can you debate something that is purely subjective? How can you do that? And you don’t need to do that, and it only needs to trouble. It only leads to sadness and wars and all these kinds of things. So this is what our society is saying to us today.
So they’ll say, “Well, you’ve got to be a moral person, and a moral person would be the one who actually affirms that there is no objective truth for everybody that we are all supposed to worship.” In other words, you can’t say, “For unto thee, O God, are due all glory, honor, and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” You can’t say there’s any due to anyone or anything except as you subjectively think that that may be the case, but others do not, and therefore they, again, not only have to be tolerated; they have to be affirmed as being of equal value and as true and as acceptable to the people who want to have it, as you do.
So if you take, let’s say, the issue of, I don’t know, gay marriage, the classical Christian tradition would be: this is not according to the teaching of God, that two people of the same sex should marry each other, and that that marriage would be identical and of equal value to a marriage between a man and a woman. We just could not say that in conscience, and we Christians have to be ready to say that we cannot say that, and if people hate us because of it or consider us dangerous or whatever, so be it. We’re just going to have to accept it, but at the same time, while we are not ready to affirm the marriage between peoples of the same sex, we still have to love those people, die for them.
The Lord Jesus told us: Love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us. And we know how often Christians themselves did not do that. Often Christians themselves were very unjust and unloving and hostile to people who were not Christians. We have these holy wars, even holy wars among the Christians. It’s a great scandal of Christianity, and it’s no wonder that nobody in their right mind nowadays who hasn’t been raised in it from the inside wants anything to do with it, because it’s considered to be such a destructive presence among human beings and human life on earth.
But we have to be honest and say that kind of behavior isn’t just of Christians or religious people; that’s of atheistic people, too. Look at the Communist period. Look at the former Soviet Union. As Solzhenitsyn said, 70 million corpses in 70 years. And look at Hitler; look at Naziism. That certainly was not Christian. Kind of neo-pagan or whatever you want to call it, but it certainly wasn’t Christian.
And we know, when we look at history, I think we’ve just got to say that in every single age and generation, even from the time of Abraham, not simply from the time of Jesus, those who really loved God with all their mind, soul, heart, and strength believed in the God as God had revealed himself and especially, ultimately, in the Person of Jesus Christ, those who followed the Gospel strictly in practically every age and generation—I would say in every one…
First of all, all those who somehow connected with Jesus did not agree with each other from the beginning about who he was and what he did. Some said that he’s only a divine being who only appeared to be a human being, never really became man, and never was crucified on the Cross. The Gnostics teach that, and Islam, Muslims, teach that, too. The Quran says Jesus was a great prophet, he was born of a virgin, but he never really died, because God’s prophet can’t be humiliated and die. So he was whisked away from the cross, but he is not divine.
But others would say: he’s only human; he’s not divine but only human. So some say he’s only divine but not human; some say he’s human but not divine. I mean, you have this from the beginning, and all kinds of controversy and fighting that often led to blood. And this isn’t just the practice of ancient Christian traditions and Catholics and Orthodox or something. I mean, Tyndale was burned at the cross; Wycliffe’s body was dug up and burned. Protestants have been known to be somewhat violent also about their faith in their holy wars and so on. And you find this among Hindus and Buddhists and everywhere on the face of the earth. Just look at the evening news.
I think we have to say, as a matter of fact, and I certainly would say, that in every generation, those who were really holy, righteous, virtuous people were very few, and they were often persecuted also. Sometimes they didn’t understand each other when they were alive upon the earth. So it’s a very, very complicated issue, but I believe Orthodox Christianity teaches that everyone who hungers and thirsts for what is really right, really true, really beautiful, really good, who want love that is real love and life that is real life, that they ultimately are already found by God and that by the blood of Christ and his victory over evil, by God’s grace they will certainly enter into the kingdom of God and live forever with God and all the other people who want what is good, true, beautiful, and come to see, at the end of the age, Christians believe, that this is fulfilled and given to us perfectly in the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Holy Trinity, the one God and Father of Jesus Christ, the Son of God himself, and the Spirit of God. This is the ultimate divine reality.
It’s interesting that our Church Fathers, like, for example, Gregory of Nazianzen, the Theologian, in his Theological Orations, he says very clearly: debate and philosophize all you want about the age and the future age and about life and death and how it all works and about angels and demons and about whatever it is, but when it comes to God, then there has to be one heart, one mind, and one affirmation of who this God is, and that has to be witnessed to. Of course, he would claim that the God, the real God, the true God, that has to be witnessed to is the Father of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, who is the One that the whole world desires, as the Church says on St. Andrew’s day—“We have found him whom the whole world desires, the only hope for mankind”—and we have found him ultimately, truly, in the Person of Jesus Christ, revealed in the face of Christ, which is the face of God for us, now and in the age to come, and by the most-Holy Spirit.
This is the important thing; this is the essential thing. This is what it’s all about. Everything comes from this, for Orthodox Christians. This is the only thing that’s really essential and important. If you go to church and read the Scriptures and sing the songs and celebrate the sacraments, this is what is being celebrated and being taught and proclaimed and defended all the time. The claim would be: if you cannot know God as God really is, if God really is, and if you cannot come to know him as he really is, you do not yet have eternal and everlasting life dwelling in you.
You may be on the way to it; you may be in it without being aware of this is what you want, but, as Jesus said in his last prayer to God the Father before his Passion, that is read in our Church on the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost, the last of the long discourses in St. John’s gospel, he said, “I thank thee, Father, I have completed that which you have given me to do,” Christ says to him, “and to give to the world eternal life, that those who believe in me”—and then he says, “and this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ”—meaning himself”—whom you have sent into the world,” and then whom you have glorified after having him endure his Passion and death, for the sake of the life of the world.
God is the center of it all, but it’s certainly not the case, not only in secularized societies where even, let’s say, atheism would be in America now—I mean, how many are atheists and don’t believe in God, or believe in other various kinds of gods—but one thing is sure: that for the ancient orthodox catholic Christians in the beginning, and I would say even in the Protestants even as late as the 16th century, they were really thinking that they were trying to understand and to come to terms with God as God really is. God was still the essential issue: how God saves us, how he redeems us, how Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection, how they work. Because, of course, the original Protestant Reformers believed in the Incarnation; they believed in the divinity and the humanity of Jesus. They didn’t accept the Latin understandings of this in many ways, and the Orthodox didn’t understand the Latins or the Protestants either, for that matter, but there was still this consensus that there is ultimate reality that is due all glory, honor, and worship, and that is what, at least for Orthodox Christians till today, life really is all about.
Now, since that is so—I think it’s very clear that that is so for Orthodox Christians, that the only really essential, important issue is God—we see that’s the one thing in our society that is considered negligible. You don’t debate those things. You don’t discuss them. You don’t argue with them. You let everybody affirm it as they would like to affirm it—theistically, deistically, atheistically, non-theistically, however they want to do it—and you’ve got to affirm that it’s all alright; it’s all okay, as long as we’re good, moral people. But then we’re still going to argue about what is good and moral, because some folks would say that if you don’t support marriage between people of the same sex, you’re immoral; you’re unethical; you’re an evil person. You have to do that; this is what must be done. And then, of course, there are others who say, “In conscience, I can’t do that, because I don’t believe it is good, right, and true.” Those who do may find grace in God, and they may find love, and in the end, by God’s mercy, they may find salvation in the coming kingdom, but until that comes, we simply still have to say we don’t think that’s a good thing, and we don’t think that is what God himself intended. Then we can philosophize about how we think it all came about.
In Orthodox Christian tradition, the claim would be: all these things came about because of sin; not just the sin of one couple in one garden eating a piece of apple from a tree or something, but wherever you have humanity on the face of the earth, you have corruption, perversion. You have missing the mark; you have evil. I mean, certainly the Judeo-Christian tradition would claim that was from the beginning and God knew that it would happen. The first thing that happens, so to speak, in Scripture, after man and woman decide to follow their own way and to try to be god without God and make sense of things without God, is they produce, you know, two brothers who then kill each other. So fratricide is the first act of, you might say, the mythological history of Christianity, the pre-history of Christianity. But in any case, you have that all the way through.
Now, the conviction or with the claim here [is] that I’m inviting you to think about God. About God. Is there God or isn’t there God? If there is God, how is God; who is God; why is God? How does it work? This is what we want to do, and hopefully we would allow on the table every possibility to present its convictions and then, not simply to say, “We should tolerate all the others because none is better or worse,” but no! We’d foster a real discussion, a real interaction about what is true and what is false without killing each other, without vilifying each other. Here I would be the first to say Christians have been guilty of that terribly throughout history.
It’s about time we repent of it, but repenting of it doesn’t mean that we can simply surrender our convictions and say, “Well, for us this is what we want, but for you that’s okay, and let’s just all hug each other and love each other in our common humanity,” which leads then to the other point I want to raise, and that is death. Death. Because if there is one thing that all human beings really do share in common, whatever their culture or color or race or sexual orientation or whether they’re straight or gay or bi-sexual or transsexual or whatever, whether we are Asian, African, whatever we are and whatever mixtures we may be, there’s one thing for sure: we’re all mortal, and we’re all death-bound, and we’re all going to die at some point, and we’ve got to come to terms with death.
Here again I would say that the scriptural teaching, the biblical teaching, the classical Judeo-Christian teaching—whatever anybody else was teaching—and certainly the ancient Christian faith teaching was that death is at the heart of the matter also. In fact, nothing really matters very much in relationship to death, because we could have all human flourishing, as they say today. You believe in God for the sake of human flourishing; you don’t believe in God for the sake of a future kingdom and certainly not one in which a crucified Jew is sitting on a throne, judging the whole world and is God’s own eternal, divine Son, who was begotten of the Father before all ages and born of Mary on earth. No, no, you don’t want to have that, but you could also understand what you think about death or not death.
But one thing that seems pretty clear in our American way of life and even in our Christian church is there is no terror at death any more. There isn’t any much concern about death any more, and when somebody does die, you’re supposed to celebrate their life no matter what they thought or how they acted or what they did or how they lived, with very little exception. So now you have these funerals in America: you could have your football funeral, your golf funeral; you can you have your racecar-driving funeral, and that can even take place in a Christian church, and the minister or priest is expected to get up there and say, “Charlie was on earth and he was a good guy, and now he’s playing golf in heaven forever,” and they put golf clubs into his casket when they bury him into the ground, or whatever it is.
Or it’s not faced at all, or it’s denied, or then it’s celebrated as some kind of passage into a holy, good life no matter how you’ve lived or no matter what you’ve done. Here I think you could even look at some deaths in our time as examples of what I’m talking about. I always think that the two examples that are most striking are of two women who knew each other on the earth and even were somehow friends with one another and had respect in some sense for each other who died within a week of each other, and those two women that I have in mind are Princess Diana, Lady Di in England, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Look at the funeral of Lady Di. There’s not one word there about sin, evil, death, or corruption of death or perversion. There’s just a celebration of her life as if she was the most marvellous person who never did anything wrong whatsoever. She stands as the ultimate icon with people like Jackie Kennedy and others of how we want to be. When she died, there’s a whole outpouring of love and flowers and grace and tears and everybody stays up in the United States in the middle of the night to see her funeral, and then Elton John is playing the song and writing it. But there’s no Christ; there’s no Cross; there’s no guilt, there’s no shame, there’s no need for remission of sins, there’s no resurrection—but there is, you know, the claim that whatever’s happening to her will be good, and that’s what we should affirm: that somehow the soul goes on or however you want to put it or explain it or make it up or create it or fantasize about it.
But if you look at Mother Teresa’s funeral, still it’s a classic Christian funeral. They prayed that God would forgive her whatever sins she had. That’s amazing. Here’s this woman who almost every Christian would believe is a saint and who had to endure divine darkness all of her adult life. She had the vision of the Lord in the beginning and was called to her ministry, and then for whatever reason, the Lord hid himself from her for the rest of her life, but she stayed faithful. I think, actually, that’s what deification is. It’s when you love and you have the sense that God is absent.
That’s what Jesus did on the cross. He endured being forsaken and abandoned by God, which people who are in sin are, for us and for our salvation so he could overcome it and destroy death and raise the dead and give us everlasting life, but he loved even when he was abandoned in his humanity. And the myrrh-bearing women, for example, they loved Jesus even when he had nothing to give. They went to his tomb expecting a corpse that would be stinking. Then they found an empty tomb, and that was the beginning of Christianity, the Christian faith: the empty tomb. It certainly wasn’t the earthly teachings of Jesus.
St. Paul didn’t even know the earthly teachings of Jesus. He never quotes Jesus once in his fourteen letters attributed to him in the New Testament, but there is a conviction about God and about Christ and the Holy Spirit that Christians from the beginning would hold, and they would be baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and still to this day, and that would be our baptism into Christ and with him, dying with him to be raised with him in order to live by the Spirit of God with him, and to have everlasting life.
And the Gospel claims those who believe in him, they cannot die; they will not die, but they will have everlasting life if they are really with him. And those who really want what is good, true, beautiful, and suffer for it, they will be with him, too, even though they’ll be very surprised by it at the end of the age. Gregory the Theologian speaks about baptism of desire, baptism by fire. “Desire” meaning you want what is good, real, true, and ever, and you will see at the end of the age what that is: it’s Christ, crucified and glorified. Or baptism by fire, where you really suffer for your neighbor, you give your life for the other, and there’s no greater love than to give your life for the other. There are people who do that. I mean, firefighters and police persons who are good, and those who really try to defend innocent people from evildoers, and until the Lord comes in glory that has to take place.
So we’re dealing with death ultimately as the key issue that we all share. Then I’ll say this again: whereas in the modern, secularized world there’s no discussion about this except to affirm some kind of ongoing life if you want to, or simply to say that there isn’t anything that’s the end of it, and that’s okay with me, because I try to life a full, happy life on earth and I had sexual fulfillment and I had human love and I played a role and I was life-changing and I served in the congress or whatever it is, I broke the genome code or whatever, but then I just die like a dog and I don’t even exist any more. No, some people say, well, you will; you’ll be reincarnated on earth until you hit Nirvana and are absorbed into the One or something. I mean, there’s different ways of dealing with it.
But one thing’s for sure—to me, any way, this year, which I’d like to share with you—the ancient Christian faith is about God and about death. Those are the two key things. How we understand them are deeply interrelated, because we would say that a person who isn’t hungering for what is good and true and right and beautiful and is just living for themselves or their own power or position or to be in People magazine or to break some record in swimming or basketball or something like that, they’re not living yet; they’re surviving. They have no life. They’re spiritually dead.
But then there is the biological, physical death, which some people see as a friend. When you don’t want to suffer any more and you’re old and you’ve fulfilled your life and you can no longer play the piano or have sex, well, you call someone to help you to kill yourself, and you commit suicide, and everybody says, “What a good person Joe was, and he even took his own life at the end, not to be a burden on other people,” or something. Well, some people could have that view. That ain’t the ancient Christian view. Not at all. In fact, the ancient Christian view is that God almighty himself reveals himself in a dead Jew.
The Cross of Christ, for ancient Christians, is not a concealing of God; it’s a revelation of God. It’s where we finally see God as God really is in the Person of his Son. It’s where you finally understand that the writing of the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, with all its violence and blood and everything else, madness, it still is the truth, that the Yahweh-God, the Adonai Elohim of the Hebrew God, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, that this God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger ultimately, long-suffering, plenteous in mercy and compassion, and totally true and totally faithful. And that God is the Abba-Father of Jesus Christ, who has all those qualities because he himself is God from God. He is divine with the same divinity, and then he becomes human born of Mary the Theotokos, mother of God, and becoming exactly like us in his humanity.
But death is at the center of the story. If you take the four gospels, literally half of the content [is] about the passion and the death of Christ. The one thing that distinguishes orthodox catholic Christianity from all the other versions of Christianity in the earliest period and through the centuries is—the Cross. The Gnostic gospels, for example: none of them are centered in the Cross. They don’t even have them. For them, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, is not even the real God. The God of Jesus is another God, and that you’ve reached perfection by Gnostic initiation and knowledge. Whereas in the classical orthodox catholic Christianity, the ancient faith, it’s not about knowledge; it’s about love. And everyone can love. And everyone can love God with all their mind, soul, heart, and strength, and love their neighbor, including their worst enemy, as themselves—if they want to and they believe that they ought to because they believe this is what God wants them to do, and they don’t kill anybody, but when people kill them, they say, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”
So you’ve got to come to terms with death, and I believe that what we see is that coming to terms with God as God really is demands that we come to terms with death also, and how we deal with death in our society. You know the famous sentence of John Paul II, the pope, where he said we have a culture of death. We actually affirm death. Look at the TV programs; look at that smashing, the violence, the killing. And then we wonder why a kid like Adam Lanza will get his mother’s guns and go shoot up kids. Let’s wake up already! It ain’t about getting education in pre-nursery school and giving equal opportunity in the classroom and we’re all special and all that—that’s nonsense. That’s crazy. It’s just plain not true.
Life in this world is about suffering. It is about love, and love is about suffering. The greater the love, the greater the knowledge, and the greater the knowledge, the greater the love, and the greater the love and the greater the knowledge, the greater the suffering. That’s what the Christian faith teaches. Those words that I just quoted are St. Silouan of Mt. Athos in our own time. He died a year before I was born, on Mt. Athos. So death is at the center of it, and we must come to terms with death, especially those of us who go to church every time we go and celebrate the holy Eucharist, the center of our worship is a memory of a death. “Take, eat. This is my Body, broken for you. Drink of it, all of you. This is my Blood, shed for you, and for the life of the whole world.” It’s about a crucifixion. Through the Cross, joy comes into all the world.
We have that prayer that’s in our services—it’s in the Sunday Matins; it’s in the Divine Liturgy—where it says:
Having beheld the resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless One. Thy Cross, O Lord, do we adore, thy holy Resurrection we praise and glorify. You are our God. We are your people; we are all the work of your hands, and we call on your name. O come, all you faithful, let us worship Christ’s holy Resurrection, for through the Cross, joy has come into all the world, ever blessing the Lord, to whom are due all glory, honor, and worship.
Ever blessing the Lord, let us worship his holy Resurrection, for by enduring death for us, he has trampled down death by his own death.
So God and death go together, and how we relate to them is the definition of our entire life. And all I would say today to end this musing, an invitation of contemplation, is: the classical, ancient Christian teaching, which many Christians no longer hold, and it even was the Judeo-Christian teaching. It has to do with the real God and the issue of death, and how these come together. Those are the two things that the modern society, even so-called Christian society, will not have us come to terms with. They’re not on the table.
God and death are not on the table, except when you can’t avoid it, like: Can you kill a fetus when it’s already formed in the mother’s womb, because you decide that that fetus is not worth living? Can you take your own life? Can you assist somebody else in taking their life? And when a person does die, what do you say? How do you understand it? Is it a tragedy, or is it just a natural occurrence? How are we to relate to these things? Here, I believe, this is where ancient orthodox catholic Christianity and the Hebrew Scriptures part company with our present Western European, Canadian, and American and Australian so-called cultures and societies. There’s a radical difference on these two central issues of life, and we have to face it, and it is extremely painful to do so, but we have to.
Christian people, certainly members of the Orthodox Church, must witness to the conviction that the true God is the Father of Jesus; there is a divinity, a Godhead, of three Persons—Father and Son and Holy Spirit—and the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have created us for life, and we must choose life, as it says already in the law of Moses, and not death. And we must be convinced that there is a personal God who loves us, to whom are due all glory, honor, and worship, and in whom and with whom and for whom life itself is found. And we have to witness to that no matter what, but loving even our worst enemy as our very self in order to bring the love of God to them.