We need to mourn. One of the most tremendously rewarding and challenging aspects of the priesthood is comforting people in their darkest moments of sorrow. Do not be mistaken and think that priests are exempt from the pain of those whom they try to comfort, or that we have magical words that somehow ease the pain or bring order to the chaos of grief. Platitudes are useless in dark days of mourning. Telling someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one that they are “in a better place,” is oddly of little comfort. In a powerful witness of human behavior, Christ “does not say, ‘Well, now he is in heaven, everything is well; he is separated from this difficult and tormented life.’ Christ does not say all those things we do in our pathetic and uncomforting attempts to console. In fact he says nothing—he weeps.”
We need to embrace the grief, and honor the bereavement process. Grief is confirmation that our loved one was a person of value, a beloved son or daughter, a cherished brother or sister, a treasured friend. Grief is how we honor a well-lived life, for the death is grief-worthy. In grieving, we do their memory justice, and follow in the example of Jesus, who wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Like martyrs of the ancient church, like Lazarus in the New Testament, the death of a loved one is galling for those of left behind, for we wonder how we are going to fill the space that they once occupied. The mystery of a future without our friend or relative is a daunting, as the mystery of death itself.
As a priestmonk of the Orthodox Church, I am comfortable with this mystery, as all Christians should be. Death can be a mystery precisely because the triumph over death is not a mystery. As the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote, “in essence, Christianity is not concerned with coming to terms with death, but rather with the victory over it.” In the light of everlasting life, in the name of Jesus Christ, the dreadful threat and dark mystery that is death is transformed into a happy and victorious event for the believer, and “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Cor. 15:54)
So mourning is an ancient ritual, one in which Jesus participated, just as those before Him. For all of us, all people, death is a common element of humanity, the common trait that we share, and the common enemy of our loved ones. And like grief, victory over death binds people together in a larger, more powerful community, the community that is found in the Christian faith. People accuse Christians of being members of a “death cult,” obsessed with a dying savior and focused on the afterlife to the exclusion of the present; but they are wrong. Christianity does not deny life, Christianity affirms life. Christianity affirms life even in death, because for Christians, death does not remove the relationship that exists. In death, as in life, we love and honor our friend or loved one, and death cannot take them from us. Death may take them, but it has also provides us with the opportunity to live with the hope of one day joining them. And a life with hope is a good life.
So for us, death is the beginning of the true life that also awaits us beyond the grave, if indeed we have begun to live it here. Christ, “the resurrection and the life,” (John 11:25) transformed death. Christ assumed human flesh, Christ was crucified, resurrected, ascended to heaven and waits for us there, and Christ ushers us into new life both now and after our death. Therefore, even as death exposes our frailty and our grief, death does not reveal our finiteness; instead it reveals our infiniteness, our eternity. To this end, the Christian does not ponder the mystery of death in a way that is paralyzing, negative and apathetic, but in a way that is productive, positive and dynamic.
God, to whom you have entrusted your soul, is a good and perfect God. This God will do what is right with your child, what is just with your sister or brother, and what is honorable with your friend. There is no saying, no claim, no scripture that will give us peace in our loss right now or even calm our troubled souls; but we can find comfort and peace in God who is present with us, and in us and through us today as we gather in the intimacy of grief.
With love in Christ,
Memory Eternal: I received word yesterday of the death of Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Crestwood, NY, and noted Orthodox Christian priest, theologian, preacher, and speaker. I had the pleasure of meeting him on two occasions, and spoke with him by phone sometime ago. I will always remember him as a priest who cared deeply for others, and who loved God, and loved the Church. Memory eternal, O Lord, grant unto Thy servant, Protopresbyter Thomas.