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About death, which is no longer scary…

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By Pavel Evdokimov

For thinkers like Auguste Comte, the world is full of the dead more than the living. The silence of this vast and silent crowd weighs like a heavy burden on the living. The state “regulates” death, beautifies it or ignores it; her humanity seeks to destroy the thrilling consciousness of death. But death itself does not allow any consciousness to “settle down” and close itself within the limits of the finite and therefore artificial world. In a completely paradoxical way, we can say that death is the greatest sorrow of our being, but at the same time it saves man from the grayness in which he is always threatened by the danger of losing his face.

After Christ, death becomes a Christian death, it is no longer a violent one, but a great enlightener. It is she who brings secret meaning and depth to life. Atheism preaches a double absurdity: it derives life from non-being, from the non-existent, and again it destroys life at the moment of death. But life is not an element of non-being, but death is an element of life. The problem of “death” can only be understood in the context of life. Non-being, death cannot exist by themselves, they are only an aspect of life, of being, only a secondary phenomenon – as a negation following affirmation – and in a sense parasitic on it.

Death cannot be seen as God’s fault because it does not destroy life. It is precisely the balance that has been disturbed, and from that moment the fate of mortals is a logical consequence of this. Death becomes natural, remaining directed against nature, which explains the fear of the dying. Death is a thorn in the heart of existence. The wound is so deep that it requires the death of God, and hence our passage through the catharsis of death. Because Christian athanasius (immortality) is not an afterlife of the soul, and the Bible nowhere teaches natural immortality. We must distinguish between a certain kind of afterlife, which is not a return to nothingness, but a sort of reduced mode of existence, insofar as it proceeds outside of God and is under the power of thanatos-death, and eternal life, in which the whole human being, the body and the soul will be under the power of the Divine Spirit, the pneuma. The Eucharist is the eating of the Flesh and Blood of the Lord, a substance that is heavenly but possesses all the fullness of the earthly and the heavenly. The Nicene Creed clearly confesses: “I await the resurrection of the dead.” But before the coming of Christ, death is a state of decay, although not of disappearance, because in it we are separated from God: “After the decay given to death, they remained to remain in death and corruption”, teaches St. Athanasius of Alexandria [1] .

The Word unites with the “dead” nature to make it alive through redemption. The Incarnation is already redemption. The latter is only the highest point of God’s union—at the moment of His death—with the state of maximum dissolution; the state of the corpse and the descent into hell are the completion of the work of salvation. “He assumed a mortal body, that, suffering in that body Himself for all, He might destroy the lord of death.” [2] “He approached death to such an extent that he joined the state of a corpse and gave nature the starting point of resurrection.” [3] “He destroyed the power of death and transformed the body for incorruption.” [4] “Christ turned the sunset into a sunrise.” [5]

The thought of the Holy Father is extremely clear: the immortality of the human being in its totality is the grace of God, resurrection, which is the penetration of the life-giving energies of the Divine Spirit, the pneuma, into the human being. Already for St. Ignatius, the Eucharist is a medicine for immortality and also an antidote against death.

Saints endure death with joy, they rejoice that they are freed from the burden of earthly life. Death is a birth to true life and a condition for resurrection. For St. Gregory of Nyssa, death is a good thing [6]. She’s not scary anymore. For the martyr, it is even ardently desired: “In me I carry living water, which flows in me and says:

Go to the Father” [7]. The entire wonderful account of Macrina’s death, written by her brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, should be read:

Most of the day had already passed and the sun was setting, but Macrina was still full of life. And the nearer she drew near to her departure, and as though she beheld the beauty of the Bridegroom, the more ardently she strove for her Beloved. And indeed her bed was facing the east.[8]

When “the heart is wounded by the majesty of God”[9], “love overcomes all fear” [10]. “As more wonderful than heaven (…) appeared, Christ, Your radiant grave”, sings the Church.

In liturgical language, death is called “falling asleep”: one part of the human being sleeps, while another part remains conscious. The creature loses some psychic abilities related to the body, its entire sensory apparatus, as well as time-space activity. It is a separation of spirit and body. The soul no longer fulfills its function as an animator of the body, but remains pure spirit as the organ of consciousness. The point here is in the most emphatic denial of any disembodiment; separation from the body does not mean its loss at all, because the resurrection restores the pleroma, the fullness.

According to Orthodox teaching, if the existence between death and the Last Judgment can be called purgatory, it is not a place, but an intermediate state of purification. This difference is very characteristic of the two types of spirituality. The juridical sense of satisfaction in the theology of redemption (St. Anselm) remained forever foreign to the East, as well as the aspect of punishment and satisfaction in penance (in the sacrament of confession in this world and after death) and veneration of the Sacred Heart (based on the same redemptive aspect). This is a completely different understanding of soteriology. The difference is very well seen in the way in which the communion of the saints is understood. If in the West it is associated with the Church and leads to the doctrine of merits – the merits of some contribute to the pardon of others and the good deeds of the former are favorable to the latter [11] – in the East it is associated with the Holy Spirit and is an extension of Eucharistic communion , in which a very special action is assigned to the Holy Spirit – to unite and create from this unity not the good of “extraordinary merit”, but the internal need of the Body [12], the “naturally supernatural” expression of mutual and cosmic mercy, holiness. We are partakers (fellows, companions) of the saints, of the sanctorum socios, because we are in the community of the Holy Trinity. Christ is the Mediator, the saints are intercessors, and the faithful are collaborators, synergon and co-celebrants of the liturgy, united with all in the service of salvation. Heavenly mercy is stronger – and the holy souls of the departed come to join the liturgical gatherings. The saints in heaven participate together with the angels in the salvation of the living [13], because Eastern asceticism is not redemption, but deifying spiritualization. The Greeks speak of purifying sufferings, but never of the punishing satisfaction of anger. It is absolutely impossible for them to use the term “purifying atonement” itself. Even if they talk about torment, they consider the emphasized aspect of “satisfaction” irrelevant. The Greeks reject fiery torments before the judgment, and therefore deny in the most emphatic manner any ignis purgatorium, a purifying fire, and the whole Catholic doctrine of purgatory in its juridical aspect.

The East rejects punitive gratification and teaches purification after death not as purifying torments, but as a continuation of destiny, a gradual purification and release, healing. The waiting between death and the Judgment is a creative waiting: the prayer of the living, their offerings for the dead, the sacraments of the Church flow into it and continue God’s work of salvation. The collective, congregational nature of the expectation is strongly emphasized. It is a communion within the same eschatological destiny. It is not the fault that is being corrected here, but nature. This explains the common image of passing through the “tollhouses”, the thelonies, where the demons take from the souls everything that belongs to them and the souls themselves are freed from it, keeping only what belongs to the Lord.

The eschatological sense of the Eastern thinkers comes from the domestication of the mystery of God. Unrelated to eschatological metaphysics or physiology, let alone the physics of souls after death, purgatory as man’s lot between death and Judgment is not a place (souls are free from their bodies, so neither space nor astronomical time is applicable to them), but position, condition. It is not about torture and fire, but about attaining maturity by getting rid of every impurity that weighs on the spirit.

In ancient Hebrew, the word “eternity” (olam) comes from the root alam, “to hide.” God has shrouded the afterlife in darkness, and we must not disturb the divine mystery. Yet patristic thought clearly asserts that the time “between one and the other” is not empty; as St. Irenaeus says, souls “ripen” [14].

Liturgical prayer for the dead is a very ancient and enduring tradition. The story of the transfiguration, which mentions Moses and Elijah, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus convincingly prove that the dead possess full consciousness. Passing through death, life continues (the question of the fate of stillborn children and Gentiles finds its answer in “preaching in hell”[15] and according to the incredibly deep thought of the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 3:22) even death is a gift of God, provided for human use.

Notes

1. Word about the Incarnation of the Word. 5

2. Word about the Incarnation of the Word. 20.

3. St. Gregory of Nyssa. Catechism. 32, 3.

4. St. Cyril of Alexandria. On the Gospel of Luke. 5, 19; Easter talk. XVIII.

5. St. Clement of Alexandria. Protreptic. Ch. 114.

6. Talk about perfection. PG 46, 877 A.

7. St. Ignatius. Epistle to the Romans. 7, 3.

8. PG 46, 984 B.

9. Rev. Macarius. Conversations. Item 6.

10. Rev. Antony the Great. Benevolence. Item 1, p. 131. On love and fear see: Oskar Pfister. Das Christentum und die Angst. Zurich, 1944; Paul-Louis Landsberg. Essai sur l’expérience de la mort. and also Problème moral du suicide. Paris, 1951.

11. St. Ambrose, PL 15, 1723; bl. Augustine, PL 33, 87; 1044.

12. St. Basil. For the Holy Spirit. Ch. 2 and 6, 61.

13. Origen. About prayer. PG 11, 553.

14. Against heresies. PG 7, 806.

15. Teaching shared by almost all the Eastern Fathers: Origen. Against Celsus. II, 43; St. Irenaeus. Against heresies. V, 31, 2; IV, 27, 2; St. Clement of Alexandria. Stromata. VI, 6, also speaks of the apostolic preaching in hell; St. John Damascene. An accurate exposition of the Orthodox faith. III, 29; also the two Gregorians, St. Maximus, etc.

Illustration: Orthodox icon of St. prophet Elijah.

Source: Excerpt from Pavel Evdokimov’s book “Orthodoxy”, in which he outlines the dimensions of how death becomes sleep, seen from the perspective of the Christian faith…

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