Through the joy and sorrow of Christian death

when you lose someone you love
Simon Howden, FreeDigitalPhotos

A friend of mine lost her mother over the weekend.

When I hear of the passing of someone close my mind wanders to a handful of passages I find comforting and reassuring. Though any effort is bound to be feeble and unworthy in the face of such a loss, I’ve gathered some of those passages here for whatever balm they offer.

When someone dies in the Orthodox tradition, the body rests in the nave of the church before the funeral. During the wake, parishioners volunteer to read Psalms over the body. The Psalter takes up the loose strands of human experience, longing, and hope. On behalf of the deceased, we offer their lives to God through its verses.

Though the entire Psalter speaks eloquently and incomparably to the occasion, the reader must surely be struck when he lands on Psalm 116 (115 in the Septuagint): “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” There in that moment of stillness — the flicker of candles serving as the room’s only movement — how can the heart avoid stirring? Sadness, joy — both at once — move naturally through the secret passageways of the soul. A brother or sister is gone but gone with God, and said Tertullian when commenting on this verse, “The Lord will redeem the souls of his servants.”

Joy and sorrow

One touching image of this redemption comes from the vision a man named Nephon, an ancient bishop of the church. Imagining angels descending to earth and retrieving the souls of the departed, he noticed a woman welcomed in heaven. Angels “embrac[ed] and kiss[ed] her tenderly,” he said. As they pressed around her they sang, “Glory to God Who delivered this soul from the dreadful dragon!” and brought her “to the feet of the Lord Jesus” where she worshipped the Father and was “filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit.”

I imagine my friend’s mom as that woman and joy as the only reasonable response.

Sergei Fudel was a Russian Orthodox writer in the middle years of the twentieth-century. Spending much of his adult life in Soviet prison camps, he was a man acquainted with grief. Once he came to visit a nun with whom he was close. As he entered the house, two nuns fetched an empty coffin from the attic. The woman’s death was imminent. Fudel walked into her room, and she breathed her last.

After reading the prayers over her body, he said, “We stood silently, not experiencing sorrow, for when a holy heart stops beating it is a sacrament, not a sorrow.”

It’s a thought true and beautiful — and yet Fudel recounted wading through a snow drift to her grave many years later. “I reached the cross like a drowning man reaches a point of safety,” he said. “I cried over it, as if it were a mother’s blessing.” It is normal to weep at the reception of such a sacrament. Our tears testify to its profound effect.

Weighing the loss

At death we suffer an inescapable dislocation, the sudden inability to live our life in reference to the departed as we did when the person was still alive. Our personhood took some of its unique shape through our relationship. Because we are social and familial creatures, inevitably something of us — something of our very self — dies when someone else passes. How can we avoid lamenting such a loss? It’s deeply confusing, profoundly unbalancing.

We find renewed balance in the steadying grace of the Savior, in whose eyes our deaths are precious. The apostle tells us that we grieve, but not like the world because we do note grieve absent hope. Our tears come with the awareness that in the resurrection we will be reunited with our loved ones.

It is a stinging salve on an open wound, but it brings with it the touch of the one who will one day wipe away every tear.

Side note: “Memory eternal”

In the Orthodox church when someone dies, it is common to sing and say in various contexts “memory eternal” or “may his memory be eternal.” This is a confession of what the apostle was getting at when he addressed our reunion with the departed.

Christ said that God is the God of the living, not the dead. When he said this, he invoked Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, three men who would appear long deceased. But they are not — not in Christ. The provocative truth is that there is no death in the church (that’s why we say “rest in peace”). The departed are more alive than are we. Saying “memory eternal” is an attempt at realizing this, apprehending it by faith.

Memory in this case does not mean mere mental recollection. It means to make present. If there is no death in the church, the departed are alive and mystically present with us. There is no division in Christ’s body (past, present, or future); we are all present in Christ. To say “memory eternal” is to confess our hope in that mystical union.

For those interested, the most recent issue of Touchstone features an article by Folke T. Olofsson that broadens our understanding of memory and remembrance. It’s well worth the read.

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  • Margie

    Thanks for these beautiful and true thoughts, Joel. And for our loved ones may their memory be eternal!

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’m so glad you mentioned “memory eternal.” I’m adding a side note above to highlight that aspect.

  • Joel, This is beautiful. The tradition of reciting psalms over the body in the church resembles the Jewish custom of sitting by the body from the moment of death until burial continually reciting psalms. That way the body is “accompanied” to the grave. Jewish legend also says God accepted Moses’ reluctant death with a kiss. It was God himself wh0 summoned Moses’ soul, not the angels, because none of the angels were willing to confront Moses, who did not want to die. This extraordinary story is found in The Book of Legends, by Nachman Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitzky.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Many thanks for sharing that story. I’ve always been fascinated by the account of Michael rebuking Satan when the latter tried to claim Moses’ body. I’m very intrigued by the similar use of the psalter, obviously hearkening back to a shared practice.