Death is all around us, even though we often try to ignore it. Whether natural disasters like we’ve seen over the past months in our country that bring unexpected tragedy or long-term illnesses that numerous people in our Church family continue to battle. Of course, we have this ongoing pandemic. Every day we can read about tragedies and death happening throughout the world. Here in our Sts. Constantine and Helen Family, we’ve had three recent deaths – from the young age of 26 (which today we have the 40 day memorial for Tom Lareau) or through old age. We all know various family, friends and acquaintances of all ages, who have died prematurely.
Whether we like thinking about it or not, death is everywhere around us. Death – the great, unwanted and often unexpected guest that looms over our entire lives. It can come at anytime, and take any one of us, whether through violence or natural disaster, through sudden illness or an accident.
Death, on one hand, is the most fundamental reality of our lives. From the moment we’re born, we know we’re going to die. Yet as obvious as this fact is, how many of us choose to ignore this harsh reality and focus our lives only on the here and now? How many of us in the Church may even tune out my words and sermon today, thinking that this topic of death is too morbid, uncomfortable and depressing to think about?
Well, I draw our attention to the theme of death since it is the focus of the Gospel reading today. We hear about Jesus and his disciples approaching the city of Nain as a great crowd processes in a funeral procession. Deep pain and sorrow overwhelm a widowed mother, as she mourns the loss of her only child. As Jesus witnesses her sorrow, he has compassion on her and performs one of his most amazing miracles. He touches the casket, as the bearers stop, and commands, “Young man, I say to you rise!” And the dead man sits up and begins to speak!
An unbelievable miracle in raising the dead! Up to this time, the people had heard about Jesus healing the sick. They heard about him giving sight to the blind and making the paralyzed walk. Lepers were cleansed and the deaf could hear again. Demons had been cast out of the possessed, and his disciples had seen how Christ even controlled nature itself, by telling the wind and the waves of the sea to stop. Our Lord forgave sinners, no matter what sins people committed, and he restored deformed and distorted souls to their original beauty. Yet now, he showed His ultimate authority over the greatest evil of all, death itself. He raised a dead man to life!
I could preach about the absolute power and authority that Jesus Christ possesses and how nothing, absolutely nothing, is impossible for him! Raising the dead is the culmination of all miracles! Yet, we know that in His ministry, Jesus didn’t raise all the dead people of his time. In the Gospels, we only have four accounts of Christ raising the dead – when he raised this young man, when he raised a little girl, when he raised his friend Lazarus after being dead four days in the tomb, and when He raised Himself from the dead.
Since such miracles are not so frequent, I don’t want to focus on them today. Instead, I want to use this opportunity to focus on something that is a part of all of our lives – the reality of death itself. Yet I don’t want to focus on death alone, but on what we can learn from meditating on death from an Orthodox Christian perspective!
Our Lord Jesus talked openly to His followers about death as well as the end times. He gave very clear and firm warnings to his disciples, “Be vigilant and ready… for no one knows the day or hour when the end will come [we could say ‘when our death will come], but it will be like in the time of Noah. In those days before the Flood, people were enjoying themselves with parties and weddings, eating, drinking and not thinking of anything else.” The end will come like lightening across the sky – suddenly, unexpectedly.
Don’t be deceived into thinking that we will live a long life. I hope we all live long lives but reality shows something different. Each week when I offer my proskomidi prayers before the Divine Liturgy I pray for hundreds of people who have deceased. Every week I am reminded that death shows no partiality but takes people of all ages. We all know that, and yet, somehow, we listen to the quiet deception of Satan, when he whispers in our ears that we have plenty of time, and we then focus only on the here and now. “Don’t think about death now,” he seductively whispers, “you have time!”
Contrary to this attitude, our Lord Jesus states the opposite, “Be vigilant and ready now!” St. Paul listened to this advice and encouraged the early Christians to not only be prepared for death but even to look forward to the end. He often concluded his letters to the early churches by saying, “Come quickly Lord Jesus.” The Fathers of the Church kept this spirit alive by repeating the command, “Keep death always before you.” Now, to be vigilant and ready and to keep death always before you is not gloomy advice! It is sound counsel for the most basic reality in our lives.
If we are waiting for our Lord to come and if we are waiting for the possibility of death itself each day, how differently we would live our lives! The thought of death would not paralyze us and lead us to live in fear and dread! No! When the saints reflected on death, or the end of the world, they emphasized two things – the joy of meeting our Lord as well as the need for us to be attentive and live life now with an eternal perspective.
We must realize that many of our pursuits and the comforts and pleasures of this world – much that seems so important in our lives today – are all temporary. Our daily passions and concerns will quickly pass away, and what will remain? The thought of death radically helps us change our view of what is truly important in life!
When we keep the thought of death in front of us, many things that seem so important and urgent, diminish in significance. Think for a moment, “How eternally important is it if the Red Sox win the World Series? How eternally important is it if Mac Jones plays well with the Patriots? How will your excuse to skip worshipping our Lord on Sunday for golf look from the perspective of God?”
Now, don’t misquote me? I didn’t say there was anything wrong with watching the Red Sox or Patriots, or playing golf or occupying yourself with other hobbies. I’m simply raising the significant question, “At the end of our lives, when we stand before our Lord face to face, how important will these things truly appear?”
The constant thought of death changes our perspective on many things and leads us to reflect on the existential questions of our being: Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? How can I fulfill my potential as a child of God? When the pursuit of these answers consume our lives, what is superficial will slowly wane away.
One of the most fundamental changes in our perspective will be the way we await death itself. From a healthy Christian perspective, death becomes something we no longer fear but can joyously accept when it comes. Our Lord Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die… Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged, but has crossed over from death to life.”
Always remember, if we are united with our Lord now, death will only be a door for a greater union with Him! That is why St. Paul could say, “For me to live is Christ and TO DIE IS GAIN.”
The thought of death can be a great teacher. Reflecting on death reminds us of how short life actually is and how we must take care to live these brief years on earth with a focus on eternity. Death reminds us that only a life of love, only a life of service to others, only a life of sacrifice for the other can prepare us for our ultimate end on earth.
Natural disasters, wars and violence, illnesses and accidents, whatever the cause, we need not be afraid of death when it comes. As St. John the Theologian says, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” As we cultivate and focus on such love in our lives, we will be ready to say with the Apostle Paul, “O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? I am ready. Come, Lord Jesus!”