I’ve been looking forward to June’s post for a long time, because it’s brought to us by Evan Abla, who, despite being a long-time NazToo admin, is actually an all-around awesome guy. Evan is a former Nazarene pastor, a Nazarene pastor’s son, Nazarene pastors’ grandson, Nazarene pastor’s spouse, and 5th generation Nazarene. He enjoys hiking, camping, Lego, hot sauce, but he is most adept at watching television. He lives in Sheridan, Wyoming with his first wife, Julia, three daughters, a mother in-law, and a jack-weiler named after a goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann (Celtic pantheon) of healers, poets, smiths, childbirth and inspiration. The dog’s name is Brigid Wiggle-butt Abla. When asked who is his favorite daughter, he answers Brigid. His favorite comedians are Mike Berbiglia, Jim Gaffigan, and Dave Chapell. His favorite place in the world is Hagia Sophia, located in Constantinople (what you people call Istanbul), but that’s nobody’s business but the Turks.
I am privileged. That’s it. That’s the end of my blog. . . not really. But it’s the recognition that I need to make as a former Nazarene pastor who came home to the Orthodox Church. I recognize love and work in the time of coronavirus brings serious and deadly consequences to the other. I am privileged to be an “essential worker.” And I’m not just talking about being an essential worker who works in health care where I actually am at risk. I’m privileged because I’m an essential worker who doesn’t have to have any physical contact with people at all. Privilege is not what this is about. My privilege is where I start.
In monasteries, both Orthodox and Roman Catholic (RC) all across the world, there is a brother assigned to remind the other brothers and fathers of their mortality. “Brothers and fathers, brothers and fathers, let us take thought for ourselves, since we shall die, we shall die, we shall die.” But why would we need to be reminded of our mortality?
It begins with the Fall. In Western Christianity, because of Adam’s sin, a person not only receives the consequence of “Original Sin,” but the person receives the guilt of “Original Sin” as well. It is as if a person were in the Garden doing the same thing Adam did even though the person was not there. This is just not true of Christians in the East. In Orthodoxy, the person only receives the consequence of the Fall. We deal with the consequences because Adam put is in this predicament. And because the wages of sin is death, we must be concerned with Death. However, Death is not our lot as Christians; it is not what God had in mind for us when God created us.
There is a beautiful hymn, the Paschal Hymn, of the Orthodox Church. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” We sing it at midnight just after the Matins procession on Holy Saturday. All is dark in the temple. We each have candles. We walk around the building three times in silence. Bee’s wax candles are the only lighting in and out of the building. After the third time around we stop at the door. Each of us then duck under the Antimension, symbolizing our own death and resurrection as we stand back up. At this point all the lights in the temple are lit, the lilies have been placed around the ambo, and it is Pascha. We sing the Paschal Troparion.
Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!
As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish; as wax melts before the fire,
So the sinners will perish before the face of God; but let the righteous be glad.
This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the grave bestowing life.
This is all, of course, after 46 days of fasting (no meat, no wine, no oil, and no dairy), Holy Week full of services both dark and hopeful, a glut of prostrations during each service not on Saturdays and Sundays during Great lent, and a vigil of Psalms readings from Vespers on Good Friday until Matins on Great and Holy Saturday night. The 46 days of Great Lent draws upon images of temptation in the desert, humility, and our own mortality, death. Pascha draws upon new life and it leads us to Pentecost, and what Nazarenes call sanctification or what we call union with God.
Union with God is the whole, entire purpose of Christianity. Not righteousness, or holiness, or purity, or sinlessness, second blessing, baptism by fire, or getting to go to heaven, or “Kingdom building,” etc. When we are unified with God, we become like God. We take on God’s energies. Think of it like a blacksmith. A blacksmith shapes iron by placing the iron in the fire. The iron, in the fire, takes on the energies of the fire, the heat, the glow, and it becomes malleable, but it does not become the fire (think essence). And it is this union with God that is disrupted by the consequences of Adam’s sin.
“Adam did not fulfill his vocation. He was unable to attain to union with God, and the deification of the created order. That which he failed to realize when he used the fullness of his liberty became the impossible to him from the moment at which he willingly became the slave of an external power.” (Llosky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 133.)
Death, in the Orthodox Church, is not natural. It is not something that is a normal part of life. Death is the Enemy. Death is evil. It is not the natural state into which we were created. It is an aberration. Death is the consequence of receiving the knowledge of good and evil.
The consequence of Adam’s sin is death. Death is not normal, yet it is expected. Death is not the intended state, yet death is inevitable. We all die. What is that old cliche? The only certain things in life are death and taxes. So, if death is not natural, why is there so much death? And why are the Orthodox so genuinely obsessed with death? Why do Orthodox monks whisper into the ears of their brothers and fathers, “Brother, we are going to die”?
In Orthodoxy, we are not obsessed with death. We are obsessed with one thing, union with God. Athanasius said in his little book, On the Incarnation, “God was made man that man might be made God.” Nazarenes call this thing Sanctification. In Orthodoxy, it’s called Theosis, Deification, or union with God. There are differences, primarily because we begin at very different points. However, the intention is the same.
Because Jesus the Christ IS God, and because, as Jesus states in John 12:24, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We must die. We are called to die.
The one who clings to life is bound for death. But Christ has trampled death by death. Death is a threshold. Death is THE threshold. Death is the Threshold to resurrection. But Christ has not promised us Nirvana or some pie in the sky life beyond the grave. We are promised something different that is a cooperative work, a work that God works hand in hand with us.
The Saturday before Palm Sunday is called Lazarus Saturday. In the Orthodox Church we celebrate the Divine Liturgy and commemorate Lazarus’ resurrection, an incident that leaves Jesus in tears and desperation. He raises Lazarus, though not permanently. A week later, we celebrate Pascha, the Great Resurrection, the trampling down of death, but we must follow Christ through death, the Threshold.
In his book, Christ the Eternal Tao, Hieromonk Damascene writes, “He who wants the things of this life/Craves for this life./He who wants the things of this life, but cannot have them,/Craves for death./But he who has quenched desire/Craves for neither life nor death./The two are the same to him./And he passes from one to the other/Without fear or agitation,/As from joy to joy./He is like the Way of Heaven Himself,/Who “creates and nourishes life,/Yet creates without possessing.”/Because the follower of the <Tao> does not take possession of life,/Death does not possess him.”
Brother, Sister, we are going to die. Coronavirus be damned. It matters not the manner or time, we are going to die. What matters is how we treat our acceptance or rejection of this life. There are many things in this world to care for, but none of it is for our possession. In fact, when we care for the other, whether by wearing face masks at our substantial discomfort, socially distancing, giving financially to a charity that cares for the poor, or as I am doing tomorrow (at my and my family’s health risk) delivering food and basic supply boxes to two indigenous people tribes in Montana, we are giving the evil of death the middle finger. We are saying “Death, where is thy sting?” But at the same time, we are whispering in our brothers’ and sisters’ ears, “We are going to die.”