The series now continues with the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s podcast on chapter six.
In this chapter, Fr. Schmemann weaves a look at the way our culture approaches life, death, and health in and around his exploration of the Orthodox funeral rite and healing sacrament. Death thrust its way into my life and consciousness at an early age, but as I’ve moved into and through middle age, it seems that funeral attendance has become an ever-increasing part of my life. Since my family and friends are spiritually diverse, that means I’ve been exposed to funerals and attitudes toward death across a broad spectrum of traditions, Christian and otherwise. Curiously, they have not actually been very different from each other when you scratch beneath the surface appearance.
In subsequent posts, I plan to walk slowly through this chapter. I found myself highlighting almost everything Fr. Schmemann wrote in it, so it’s going to take some work to trim down what I actually use. In this first post on the chapter, though, I’m going to capture and explore some of my encounters and reactions to the American attitude toward death. After all, one of the things that continues to draw me into Christianity is its outrage at death. It’s an outrage I’ve shared at least from that day when, as an eight year old, I watched my stepfather’s lifeless body wheeled out to an ambulance. Jesus weeps outside Lazarus’ tomb. And twice, John notes that he is deeply moved, he is outraged, he is angry. In Jesus, we see God’s response to the death of the eikon. We were meant to live. And in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus truly trampled down death by death. It is no longer the nature of man to die.
But you would never know that from attending virtually any Christian funeral or memorial service in the US today. Consistently, those grieving are told they are grieving for their own loss, that their beloved is happy now and “free” from suffering. However comforting they are meant to be, such sentiments are a denial of John 11, and almost a slap in the face of those grieving. Yes, it is true that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Our hope and trust is in Jesus. We do believe that he has defeated death. Nevertheless, we grieve, and not simply for our own selfish pain of separation from our beloved. Jesus grieves at the death of his friend. God is outraged at the death of his icon. Death is an abomination. Death is the ultimate enemy. We are not selfish when we grieve and it dishonors those grieving when they are not given proper room to own their grief.
What about the picture of our beloved “freed” from suffering and “at home” with the Lord? What about the message that they are “happy” now and we should try to be “happy” for them? Yes, to sleep in the body is to be with Christ, which is far better. (Though I will note that that is one of the very few things Scripture actually says about the period between the time our bodies sleep and the general resurrection of the dead.) I won’t argue with that at all. But to say that I would be perfectly happy and content even as I know that those who love me are suffering painfully from my death denies my own humanity and love! Would I not continue to pray for those I love? Might I not even be able to love them better? Might I not pray for some sign or other form of comfort for them? Would I no longer seek to help them? We need to listen to the messages we actually send with our words.
It’s also common to tell those mourning that the body is not their beloved, that their beloved has “left” it behind, that it’s just a shell. It’s probably this sentiment that has led to the modern acceptance of cremation among Christians. But such an idea is not even vaguely consistent with Christian faith. It’s nothing more than a form of ancient pagan dualism revived and given a veneer of Christian language. First, the idea that you are somehow not your body, that the material body is merely a container for the “real” you (usually coupled with at least a disdain for the “physical” as opposed to the “spiritual”) can be found in a host of non-Christian sources. But the one that probably most influences modern Western thought is likely Plato. Even if you’ve never read a thing he wrote or studied him in any way, some of Plato’s perspective on reality and the nature of things seems to permeate modern Western culture.
No. The Christian perspective is very different. While we are more than merely our physical bodies, our identity and personhood cannot be separated from those bodies. We are embodied icons of God created for a reality that is both physical and spiritual, intertwined and intermingled. Those we love have only known us in and through our bodies and we have only known them the same way. The promise of Christianity is not one of disembodied spiritual existence like Plato’s happy philosophers. No, Christianity rests on the hope of resurrection of which Jesus is the first fruit. We are our bodies and however God sustains us in this interim period while our bodies sleep, we will be resurrected. Like Jesus, our bodies will be more than they are now, but will be continuous in some manner with our present bodies.
Finally, if the beloved has been a Christian, then that body has been the temple of the Holy Spirit. When you look upon the body of a Christian, see it with the same lens as the ground upon which Moses stood before the burning bush, compare it to the presence of God with the ark of the covenant, see in it the shekinah glory of the Lord filling Solomon’s temple, see the clouds of glory filling Isaiah’s vision. If what we believe is true, then that body is as holy as any of the above and should be treated with the same honor and reverence. Even if the person was not a Christian, that body was still created as an icon (image) of the one true God, shaped and formed to reflect the love of God into creation. That reality does not suddenly change in death. Remember the story of Elisha’s bones, how contact with them raised the dead to life.
It seems to me that if we hope to ever exert any sort of Christian influence within our culture, we have to regain a Christian perspective on life and death ourselves. And right now, we seem to have largely lost that perspective.