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The Mystery of Death

July 3, 2009

[This is not a published complete talk but rather a transcript and notes of 3rd July’s talk]

First of all, I must confess my great difficulty in preparing tonight’s talk. Death is something I know very little about. It’s not somewhere I’ve been. Nobody’s come back to tell me about it, yet death is a mystery that all of us will experience. As the old adage goes – there are only two things for certain in life: death and taxes

We live in uncertain times, there are many variables in our lives, things happen unexpectedly, things we cannot plan for. Just yesterday they released footage of Michael Jackson rehearsing for his planned concert at the O2, here in London. There he is fully alive, dancing, looking healthy (well as healthy as Michael Jackson can look). Within two days he was dead. A whole life chasing dreams of perfection.  Trying to find the perfect face, perfect body, trying to find happiness. All that talent, all that skill.  And what is happening now? He is going to be buried… his body will rot in the ground like everybody else’s.

Last Sunday’s Gospel said it all. Jesus says quite clearly: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you  shall put on. Is life not more than food, and the body more than clothing?…” then he goes on “Seek first the Kingdom of God and all this will be given to you” A friend of mine quite astutely pointed out that Michael Jackson’s tragedy was that he was looking for fulfilment in his life, but he was looking for that fulfilment without God. That was his great tragedy. In fact you see this in many walks, psychologists noticed within the 12 step movement have– trying to resolve/help people with addictions. Addicts can’t help themselves, it really is a disease, an illness. But they have discovered that belief in God can help them. Turning their lives over to a Higher Power, to God, admitting they are not in control – that God is a way of being healed of these addictions – whether it is alcohol, drugs, overeating, pornography or any other addictive indulgence.

St. Augustine says: “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in God”. As the Gospel: “Only one thing is needful … seek first the Kingdom of God.”

Jesus quite clearly says that this numbing of ourselves in luxury and worldly cares leads only to death, and this is the worse kind of death for the Christian, spiritual death.

One thing is absolutely certain. We are going to die. We may not know the day or the hour. It is unavoidable. It is going to happen. For the Orthodox however, it is not important when we die, but how we die and where that death leads us.

What is death?

So what is death? I’m going to examine this by taking a passage from the Bible:

The Rich Man and Lazarus and looking at the analysis of this passage given by Bishop Hierotheos of Nafpaktos in his book, Life After Death. Then looking at certain aspects of this in more detail.


The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. In hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus in his bosom. So he called to him, `Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire’.

But Abraham replied, `Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us’.

He answered, `Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment’. Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them’.

`No, father Abraham’, he said, `but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent’. He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead'”.

Intermediate state of souls

  1. Death exists: In the text of the parable it says: “The time came when the beggar died…”, and “the rich man also died and was buried”.
  2. There are the Angels and Demons
  3. We are the same person after death as in life– n,b, the name of the Richman not mentioned
  4. Abraham’s bosom = in communion with God: In uncreated light
  5. Hades (not Hell) caustic energy of God.
  6. Knowledge of the world left behind
  7. A great chasm between the realms (χάσμα μέγα)
  8. No repentance in this state – death of sin – although there is a  Way of Repentance in earthly life shown by Moses and the Prophets

Let’s look at some of these aspects in turn.

Eternal Life

Our life does not end here. We find death so abhorrent because it is not our natural state. It is a result of the fall. It happens to us all, but is unnatural.

For Orthodox Christians death is not the end; it is the beginning of the true life that awaits us beyond the grave, if indeed we have begun to live it here. After all, why do we celebrate saints days? What we are celebrating is their birthday into heaven. As Fr. Zacharias says, “Our death is our birth into eternal life. Our efforts in learning how to pray, how to humble ourselves, how to have confidence, not in ourselves, but in the living God, have but one aim: namely, to train us for the great day of our death. And in which God do we put our trust? In God which raiseth the dead (2 Cor. 1:9)”[1] Christ, “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), came, was crucified, resurrected, and ascended to heaven and waits for us there, as He assured us: “I go (to heaven) to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). Death does not reveal our finiteness; it reveals our infiniteness, our eternity. It is not the end, but the beginning.

When we receive communion we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus for eternal life. We certainly want to know Christ, and we want to trust Him “when the time comes, when our bodily powers have failed us, and we will be beyond human help”[2] That we receive eternal life is the foundation of our beliefs.

Even more fundamental to our faith is the belief in the Resurrection:

“Christ is Risen from the Dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life”

We should not be afraid of death. It is those who are afraid of death that are overcome by it. We should have courage and pursue it. Keeping a healthy attitude of mindfulness of death.

This is the great victory. The Apostle Paul, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, beginning with Chapter 15:50, gives an account of the Christian understanding of death, saying:

“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.'” (1 Cor. 15:54)

He also points out that you cannot be a Christian if you don’t believe in the Resurrection. “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:13-14)

Isn’t it wonderful that in our Church the most important ceremony is Pascha, the Resurrection! Even if an Orthodox Christian rarely goes to Church, the one time everyone makes the effort is at Easter. It is such a powerful and moving service. I have heard story upon story of people being converted to Orthodoxy when they attended a Resurrection service. Either it set them on the road, or confirmed what they were already looking for. What greater symbolism than the journey from darkness to light – the light of Christ who shines on all.

I don’t want to go into great detail about heaven and hell and such things. The truth is I am pretty ignorant about it.  I can recommend some books though:


What the parable does tell us is that we only have this life for repentance after that it is too late. And what, after all, is repentance, nothing more than metanoia – a change of mind, a change of attitude. An attitude of turning towards God. How do we turn to God? In prayer, with a prayerful attitude. The Fathers point out that the best preparation for the hour of death is prayer. It is the training ground for the battle; or rather this is where we wage the battle to gain immortality and eternity. We need, therefore, simply to call on God, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner” remembering who we are, mortal, fallen sinners. This may all sound a bit miserable and morbid, but really it isn’t.

St. Paul says “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12). Part of it is a bit about being afraid. We could happily continue our lives, with the illusion that we are immortal. The fact is, this life is preparation for the next. However, we should be aware, that we sing “With thy saints give rest O Christ to the soul of thy servant the soul of servant. Where there is neither sickness nor sorrow, nor sighing.”

Let us look in detail at the funeral service, memorials and kollyva:

A commentary on funerals, memorials and kollyva

Hope in the Resurrection

Ultimately, the funeral services express hope in the resurrection.

Saint John Chrysostom beautifully observes:

“The Jews of the Old Testament wept for Jacob and for Moses for forty days. Today, however, during the funeral of the faithful, the Church raises hymns and prayers and psalms. We glorify and thank God, because “He crowned the departing,” because “He relieved the pains,” because “He expelled the fear,” and has the deceased believer near Him. This is why the hymns and psalms reveal that in the event of death there is pleasure and joy following the glorious Resurrection of the Saviour Jesus Christ. For the psalms and hymns are symbols of joy, according to the Apostolic word: “Is any cheerful? Let him sing praises” (James 5:13). This is why we sing psalms over the dead—psalms which move us to have courage and not to despair over the death of our brother.” (St. John Chrysostom, On the Holy Martyrs Bernice and Prosdoke the Virgins and their Mother Domnina)

Christ was betrayed, condemned to death, and delivered to the Gentiles who mocked Him, and spat upon Him, and scourged Him, and killed Him. But three days later He rises again (Mat. 20:18; Mk. 10:34; Lk. 18:32).

We  are called to take part in this Resurrection. As we said at the beginning – we live in difficult times. Yet, no matter what happens to us, no matter how harshly life treats us, no matter what sickness, sorrow and sighing overwhelms us, the light of our only hope — the light of Christ — should shine within us. We must keep that light of Christ burning in our souls and not let it god out.

True life is found in focussing on the “one thing which is needful” (Lk. 10:42). The sure promise (Rom. 4:16) of Christ is “eternal life” (1 Jn. 2:25). Real death is not death of the body, but this spiritual death where we forget Christ. As long as we are in Christ we are truly alive. The declaration that Christ trampled down death by His own death is not just a piece of history, but something that we live in the here and now. It should be the measure of our faith and the and the criterion of all our life. There can be no fear of death, if death is no more. If death is no more – sin is wiped out in our lives too.  We are  freed from death and liberated from sin. (Rom. 5:12)

“Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).

Χριστός Άνέστη!

[1] The Inner Man of the Heart, p.45

[2] ibid

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jonathan permalink
    June 11, 2012 8:40 am

    I believe that jesus came and died to save all mankind including you and me. In him i trust. Lord forgive me of my sins give new start in jesu’s name i pray amen.

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