Archive for March 27th, 2007

The Boundary of Death

March 27, 2007


Having spent two-and-a-half years as a Hospice Chaplain, I had opportunity to be present to over 200 deaths (that does not include the many I have witnessed in my years in ordained ministry. As you sit with someone who is dying, there finally arises a boundary beyond which you cannot go: death itself. I can pray for the “departure of the soul from the body” (the priestly service done at the time of death in Orthodoxy), and I can pray and even know the fellowship of the saints and the departed.

Christ told His disciples, “Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me. Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come. Then said the Jews among themselves, “Whither will he go, that we shall not find him?”

Christ has been where we have not and entered where we cannot yet go.

The experience of death, and the boundary it represents, also hides from us a reality we can only know by faith. And, according to Scripture, it is probably the greatest occasion for fear.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he[Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

I sometimes think that most fears are really about death on some level. The loss of power over our own lives that we frequently imagine to be true during our healthy years. It is admitting this powerlessness that is inevitably the case that gives us pause, and engenders fear.

I had a cousin, about a year older than myself. She was diagnosed with Childhood Onset Rheumatoid Arthritis (a very virulent form of the disease) when she was only ten. In the summer I used to go and stay a week or two with her family near the South Carolina mountains to be company for her. We gained a closeness that never seemed to leave the relationship over the years. She was among the most honest people I’ve ever known.

I recall talking to her in the months before she died  (it was becoming apparent that this was the case), we were both in our forties. In the conversation the subject of faith, God, heaven, etc. came up. She spoke with great tenderness about God. I remember asking her, “How is that you’ve been in pain and crippled for the 35 years and yet speak so kindly of God?”

Her answer was very enlightening.

“I haven’t always felt this way about God,” she said. “There was a time when I would wake up in the morning and curse God.” But then her voice lowered and she added meekly, “That was before I knew He was good.”

It is among the greatest professions of faith I have every heard.

To stand at the boundary of life and death, and to stand without fear, we must know that there is a good God. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles someone says of Aslan, “He’s not a tame lion, but He’s good.”

This is the fear of death: that goodness does not win in the end. I believe it therefore to be utterly necessary in the preaching of the gospel to remind people again and again, “He is a good God and loves mankind” (the words of the traditional Orthodox dismissal).

In is only in Christ, finally, that we have the perfect image of the perfect God and can say, based on that revelation, “He is good.” I rejoice in that goodness, and pray to know more each day as we journey to Pascha and beyond.

In Accordance with the Scriptures – Part 2

March 27, 2007


Another candidate for consideration within the New Testament (particularly the New Testament as Interpretation) is the Johanine Corpus, the writings of St. John.  I am particularly intruiged by its development of a theology of “glory.” Glory is not new to the Jewish Community. The glory of God inhabits (or once inhabited) the Temple. I would grant, in a mood of generosity, that early Christians might describe Christ as “glorified.” What becomes utterly astounding in St. John’s writings is the identification between glorification and crucifixion. There is not a logical step between one and the other, and yet it is there. In the 13th chapter in particular, Christ’s glorification and crucifixion are synonymous.

It is one thing for us to make that observation this many centuries along, but to say such a thing within the first century itself is an amazing leap! There is a radical reinterpretation of terms. This very paradoxical quality seems to be the hallmark of all of the teachings of Christ as we have received them in the canon of the New Testament. The first are last; the last are first. Love of enemy. Lose yourself to find yourself. On and on the list goes. And here, in its most extreme form is His glory which is nothing other than His crucifixion.

Admittedly there are the “suffering servant” passages in Isaiah with which we have become familiar. Their reading automatically echoes with sounds of Handel’s Messiah in our heads. But when we speak of the first century it is not a suffering servant that came to mind with the idea of a Messiah. Even after the resurrection the disciples are largely clueless, asking, “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

It is the development (which again I can only posit as originating with Christ Himself) of a radical hermeneutic, an interpretation of the Scriptures in which the story is no longer the conquering of Rome, or Egypt or any other worldly entity, but the conquering of Death and Hades, and that through the paradoxical means of weakness and death. This is new and it carries with it not only that stirring climax of resurrection, it also has an ethic that is of a piece with this same action.

It is not just Christ who loves His enemies – now we are to do the same. It is not only Christ who takes up His cross, but we must do the same if we are to be His followers.

This is not the evolution of the Christian gospel over the centuries, but the gospel as it has been heard from the beginning. The Orthodox faith has not moved from this interpretation other than to push deeper into its life and implications.

This is not an evolved faith – but a teaching which shows every hallmark of what is claimed – this teaching was handed down to us from God.