By Fr. John Parker
Published as "Easter Seen as Victory over Death" in the Post and Courier, Pascha 2007
We stood for days by his bed, a small offering by comparison to that of his wife Sarah (names are changed), who barely left his side in the last four years. Timothy had struggled with Alzheimer’s for some time, but following his most recent bout with pneumonia, there was “nothing further the doctors could do”. Though ravaged by a deteriorating mind in the last several years, Timothy lived a full life. His children drove great distances to be with him—a son from Atlanta, a daughter who raced from York, Pennsylvania.
We encircled Timothy in his room at the beautiful new Hospice of Charleston, just up from the Port off Long Point Road. We prayed. We cried. We laughed. We commended Timothy to his Maker, our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Orthodox ritual included long and beautiful hymns, as well as an anointing with holy oil—in this case, myrrh which had been wept miraculous by the eyes of St. Nicholas in an icon from Michigan. The heavenly fragrance filled the air.
To some, this is absolute madness. A vain effort to console ourselves and the one who is dying. What silly humans do when “the doctors can do no more”. Prayers uttered into the deaf ears of the air. The oil has no beauty, no power—just superstition. A ritual whose end it to make sense of a senseless existence and a more meaningless departure. Voodoo.
One could come to such a conclusion if facing death only through the lens of science. Chemistry in the brain affects the body. The heart stops working. Oxygen depletion then shuts down organs. Breathing ceases. Life ends. Words don’t change science; oil doesn’t add oxygen to the brain.
But Christians do not view life strictly this way. It is impossible! Life is so much more than biology. Of course, there is the science of it all. But what of beauty, love, tears, fear, and joy? And Timothy, like all of us, is a human being with a name. He is a unique, unrepeatable individual. He was married. Had Children. And Timothy’s life—and death (as slow and agonizing as it was)—make sense precisely for one reason, and one reason alone: Because God became man, died to conquer death, and He is Risen! Truly He is Risen! In time and space.
Jesus Christ lived and died as God-made-man. His life and work, his death and resurrection, are documented by Jew and Gentile alike—believer and unbeliever. After his brutal crucifixion and death at our hands, after his tomb was sealed and guarded by an extra regiment of soldiers—to be *sure* that no one would steal his body and then *claim* he was raised from the dead—He did this very thing. He conquered death and was raised from the dead, appearing to countless scores of people, beginning with his closest friends and disciples—who then went out to announce joyfully, if not with bewilderment, “Christ is Risen!”
We prayed at Timothy’s bedside precisely in light of this great gift to humankind by God Himself—the conquering of death by his death. The prayers prayed at Timothy’s funeral were prayed precisely because it is what we pray on Holy Friday as Jesus hung on the cross and died, fulfilling the law. “Tetelestai”—“it is finished”, “it is accomplished”, “it is fulfilled.” A portion of the hymns sung at Timothy’s funeral were sung precisely because they are sung for our Lord on Holy Saturday, when, fulfilling the story of the Three Holy Youths (Daniel 3) Jesus descended to the dead, and raised those bound by death, breaking their chains and releasing them from ‘fire eternal’. The whole context of Timothy’s funeral—and every Orthodox Christian funeral—is the Resurrection. No, there’s no superstition here—just the celebration of an eternal and timeless victory. A victory won within time and space by the Creator of all who condescended to become created; a victory the effects of which ripple both forwards and backward in time.
Words from the greatest homily ever preached on Pascha (proclaimed by St. John Chrysostom, the 4th century Patriarch of Constantinople) echo still in our ears reminding us of this great wonder, this great miracle, this great gift:
“Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hades when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said, "You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below." Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see. O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life is liberated! Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be Glory and Dominion unto ages of ages. Amen!”
For this we gathered to pray for Timothy in his death. For this reason, our sadness is joyful—for death has not had the final word. For this we have hope, not in vain, since God Himself was dead but is risen. Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!
Fr. John Parker is Priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at 843.881-5010 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.