Nativity, News, and Death

OrthoAnalyika Shownotes: 03 January 2010

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The Nativity Epistle of the Permanent Conference of Ukrainian Orthodox Bishops beyond the Borders of Ukraine


NYTimes reports on the recession’s silver lining: “In Recession, Americans doing more, buying less”. I like to think this is true – our addiction to stuff is really unhealthy (spiritually and economically). I like to think that good sense will prevail if encouraged.

Naive reporting: the NYTimes implied that U.S. evangelicals caused the Ugandan government to adopt the death penalty for gay sex. No one listens to them here … except those who already agree with them. Why – if one approaches the issue without prejudice – would it be any different in Uganda?

Dealing with poverty: how comfortable should the government safety net be? Is civil society too atrophied to take up the slack? Should we reinvigorate it? How? Recommended reading for thinking outside the (statist) box: Tolstoi’s “What then, should we do”; Kropotkin’s critique of the state; and just about anything by St. John Chrysostom.

David Brooks gets it right in “The God that Fails” on the limits of government – and our refusal to accept them. (and Rod Dreher)

Case study on the vanishing Orthodox parishes of Philadelphia.

Rod Dreher hits a home run on his new blog: FWIW, I wouldn’t be convinced about God from the arguments, either. It’s the actually experience of the numinous that does it – and Orthodoxy frames it perfectly.

Local priest and multimedia personality, Father Peter-Preble, gets taken to task for supporting a candidate on his personal blog and for preaching about social issues (background info).

Volya Moment: dealing with death

There is an interesting division between some people’s expectations of a funeral, and what Orthodoxy offers; (e.g. open casket, ritualized service) this is especially evident when it comes to the homily. The Orthodox Church typically does not eulogize the departed during the course of the funeral services. The homily offered is supposed to focus on Christ’s triumph over sin and death through the Resurrection.

Another point worth making is that funerals are one of the increasingly rare occasions where under-and un-churched people (whether associated with the parish or not… but many are/were) have the opportunity to directly interact with Christian ritual and theology.

All this puts a lot of attention on the service itself; something which could create a lot of stress for a priest (especially a young and inexperienced one like me) – were it not for the incredibly moving power of the services and the clarity of the Orthodox teaching on death and the Resurrection (something that comes across naturally through the poetry, readings, and actions of the funeral).

FWIW, I prepare a “new” homily for every funeral (the preparation is similar to a Sunday homily, with the additional input of the spiritual journey of the reposed and the family and friends), but all of them to date have been somewhat similar to this one. I include it here in hopes it will be helpful to those dealing with death and dying.


The death of a loved one is difficult. There is a hole in space where the loved one once was. And so, in the course of our memorials and of our daily lives, we pray for the strength and comfort of the bereaved. They are the ones who perceive most strongly the hole in space – that place where they expect to see the reposed, but are always surprised and taken aback by their absence. This hole continually reminds them of what they have lost. It evokes not just warm memories and gentle reminiscenses of times gone by, but also anger, pain, and frustration and perhaps a bit of fear.

But like St. Paul, “I would not have you ignorant concerning those who have fallen asleep…” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

Two dangers that the ignorant – both believers and unbelievers – fall into:

1) to make too little of death.

a. many unbelievers ignore the reality of death. our society does everything it can to pretend it does not exist. to remove its grim reality from our everyday lives. they can pretend that it does not exist. even during a funeral, with the open casket before them, they will refuse to allow it to really enter into their minds.

b. but believers can fall into a similar trap. perhaps in an attempt to reconcile their belief with their immersion in a society that refuses to face death, or perhaps because they have never progressed beyond the nursery school theology of children; they make too little of death by dressing it up with fat baby cherubs, streets of gold, and a fuzzy warm heaven of all you can eat buffets and perfect weather.

2) on the other hand, we can make too much of death

a. unbelievers do this by assuming that death is the end. that there is nothing past it. that sickness or sudden catastrophe (or simple old age) can take away one’s existence and turn all relationships into memories.

b. believers make too much of death when they turn God into some kind of vengeful tyrant who is keeping a list of wrongs we have committed in hopes of finding something that would allow him to bar us entrance into His kingdom.

All of these are nonsense.

Death is real – the Orthodox funeral service is largely designed to help us confront it and assure us that we, too, will repose as departed has.

Death is not pleasant [soul rendered from the body: violent].

But death is not the end. “Death” is not correct. “Fallen asleep”. Eternal soul. Eternal body (one day reunited).

God is not a tyrant, but a healer. Not a bouncer keeping you from his kingdom, but one who looks for every excuse to bring you in. Who wants you to join Him in perfection and perfect joy so much that He suffered and died for you.

The Truth offers balance and reassurance. But it is not the comfort of a sedative – rather it offers the real comfort of the arms of a loving God. We should approach death in the same way that we approach sin: by recognizing that it is real, but knowing that through His Passion and Resurrection, Christ has defeated both sin and death, and that through Him we share in this victory. Nor do we have to rely on simple faith to see this working: Christ would not leave us as orphans to struggle alone with death and sin, but sent to us the Holy Spirit and left to us the Holy Sacraments to fortify us, along with the physical presence of the union of all believers [THE CHURCH], of which He Himself is the head. You are part of this – let its healing and deifying presence sustain, heal, and sanctify you.

So as you encounter that empty space: do not let it tempt you into despondency. Let it remind you that there is only one body of Christ, that it is comprised of all believers (walking and reposed), and that the very best memory of love shared with [the departed] (as wonderful as it is) is but the merest foreshadowing of the love you will share with one another and all the saints into eternity.


Comments on how to prepare for your repose, and how to help others with the same. Experience is only a good teacher when it is grounded in the Truth. The prayers of the Church (and study of Scripture) are the best teachers.