The hope of eternal life is not merely a straw to be grasped in our final hours
"No, Dyomka, it is far too late to cure me. Nobody has been cured of a melanoblastoma. There aren't any instances of recovery. In my case, cutting off a leg wouldn't be enough and where could they cut higher up? The question is now, how to postpone it, and how much time do I stand to gain, months or years? " -From The Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzenitsyn.
As long as it is merely a conversation between other dying men, we may find the idea of death fascinating. There is a relief, and perhaps an inner exulting, as we draw air into our lungs and stretch our legs, praising God for the physical vigor we presently enjoy. But what happens to our outlook when the moment comes for us to look into the face of our approaching death?
Imagine that one winter morning when you walk out the door you are suddenly met by four well-dressed men. They take you by the arm, open the door of their
You are ushered into a dimly-lit room, and given a seat at the end of a long impressive table. The four men seat themselves one at either side of you.
"He's coming now," one of them whispers to you. "Who?"
"Why, the Accuser, of course."
A man dressed in judge's robes enters and settles himself comfortably at the end of the table. A book is brought in and opened. All the sins of your life are read aloud: secret sins, sins no one ever knew, sin after sin is carefully described. Your life, which up to now seemed more respectable than the lives of many, suddenly looks hideous and reprobate. Your past, spread out before you, crowded with all the misdeeds you had long forgotten, looks more like the past of depraved and odious murderer.
The Accuser looks up from the book and fixes his gaze on you. They are not kind eyes; they are not holy. They are hard, piercing, exacting, cruel, evil. "You know the penalty," he says. "I sentence you to death. You will be returned to your home. You will pick up precisely where you left off. Only remember this: my executioner has been ordered to take your life at the appointed time."
"When will that be?" you cry in despair. "How much time do I have?"
"Ah," answers the Accuser. "That is not for you to know. It may be this afternoon. It may be next week. It may be fifty years from now. You will not see the executioner, but you will never be out of his sight. He will stand in the shadows and await the appointed moment. Then he will step forward and do his work."
Soon you find yourself standing alone on the sidewalk in front of your door. The time is exactly what it was when you met the strange quartet. A friend comes down the street and bids you good morning. You smile and return his greeting.
Was it a dreadful dream? A hallucination of the worst kind? Everything is the same as before except that now you have an unshakable feeling that you are being followed by someone.
In a few weeks you grow accustomed to this presence lurking behind you. You no longer are afraid to open doors or enter dark rooms or walk deserted streets. You begin to laugh once again and enjoy life almost as you did before except that deep within is the knowledge that you are living under a death sentence. You know that some day, somewhere, the executioner will step out of the shadows and fatally strike.
THE SHADOW OVER ADAM
When Adam and Eve lived in the garden, they ate of the tree of life. They were alive in a way that natural man cannot experience today. There was no shadow hanging over them. In the evening when the sun went down, they could sleep in perfect peace and contentment because tomorrow would be another glorious day. They had nothing to look forward to but new exhilarating joy, new pleasure, new fulfilling love, and new glory in the garden of their heavenly Father, in Whose presence they literally basked.
But the day they ate of the forbidden tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, everything changed. Suddenly they saw that they were naked and had to cover themselves. They were guilty and had to run and hide. They were cut off from God, outside the garden among the rocks and thorns of this insecure world that we know so well. But worst of all, they were living under the sentence of death: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat; for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" Genesis 2: 17.
The serpent who succeeded is the tempter, now become the Accuser. "You've done it. You made your choice. Now you are in my power. Soon you are going to die!"
They could till the soil,. herd the flock, raise their children and build shelters to protect themselves from cold winds. They took pleasure in eating, drinking, living, and overcoming obstacles. But the tyranny of death reigned over them. The bright hope of another glorious tomorrow was marred by the ugly and debilitating knowledge that tomorrow they might not be here.
THE FEAR OF DEATH
We are children of Adam. You and I are their descendants. Before we know what it is to speak or make a decision, we know what it is to be afraid. What are we afraid of? Why is an infant frightened by a loud noise or a sudden jar? Why does a child panic when she comes into the house and calls for mother and there is no answer? The fear behind all fears is of that moment when the executioner will materialize before us and strike the blow; the fear of death.
The aged woman who cries from her sickbed, "Why doesn't God let me die?" may think she wants to die. But her whole being, tired and worn and sick as it is, is still struggling for life, still running from the executioner. The young man who, in a fit of despair, puts a gun to his head is not running away from life. Like a man marooned on a rock in the middle of an endless ocean, death has surrounded him. The unseen executioner has deprived him of all hope and so he gives up to death readily, even eagerly. We are all aware of the grip our own coming death has on us, how our very being shudders at every reminder of its approach. Some think they are being realistic about death because they set up and prepare for their own funeral, or write a will, or make provisions for their survivors. But death is not simply an event, something that happens when the heart stops and the fires of the body turn cold. Death is a condition, a state, a region that we enter when our body falls away and steps into a world with shadow but no substance, a world where music is replaced with the drone of weeping, where time is filled, not with meaningful work, but endless waiting, where the memory plays and replays the past.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, when the rich man enters the place of the dead, he did not sleep. He could see. He could feel. He could think. He could speak. And none of it was pleasant. "Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame" Luke 16: 24.
ETERNAL LIFE NOW
Several years ago a group of men were on a week-end retreat. It was Sunday night and they had just arisen from their knees after being drenched in the power of the Holy Spirit with a force none of them ever experienced before. They were in front of a fire in silence when one man stood up, leaned against the mantle and said "The biggest thing for me is that now I know - I know I'm never going to die." He had taken seriously the retreat-master's talk on the Eucharist.
Although some thought it was a strange thing for him to say, he has been noticed, in his quiet way to live with a grace he did not have before. No doubt he was filled with the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. He takes seriously his Eucharistic life. Filled with the victorious, triumphant Christ, he too is victorious and triumphant. He knows he will never die. He will go on for a few more years, no doubt; and one day they will have a funeral for him and lay his body in the ground. But this man will continue to live in the dimension of eternity that he has already become accustomed to because he is a regular serious and sincere worshipper of the Holy Trinity at the Divine Liturgy, not only on Sundays and holy days, but every other opportunity he has a chance and privilege to attend. He lives in the eternal dimension. He lives in the
It is true Christ came to preach the good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, release the captives, and open the eyes of the blind. But the primary reason for His coming and for His presence among us now is to raise the dead! "Truly, truly I say to you, the hour is coming and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear, shall live" John 5: 25. That is the experience this man had by taking seriously his worship at the Divine Liturgy. The Holy Spirit led him directly from the here and now into eternity! God did not miss the sincerity of his intention.
He no longer lives under the curse of the Accuser, in continuous dread of the executioner. Perfectly aware that physical death awaits us, barring the imminent return of the Messiah, it is possible to live in the eternal heavenly dimension while we remain in bodies of flesh and blood. It is possible to arrive at a point where we are no longer intimidated by the prospect of physical death because our days are swallowed up by the endless life of the Son of God. Our transition from this life to the next became a matter of reality at our Baptism and we prolong and continue it with a rich sacramental life. We thrust our anxieties aside and consider ourselves invulnerable until the work He sent us to do is finished. The freedom of the angels of God is ours as we go into the world to be broken bread and poured out wine ourselves for those who are still waiting to behold His mercy.
The basis for such an eternity-filled life has to be a personal, continually renewed relationship with Him Who is the Resurrection and the Life. And the Lord has shown us how to receive this life in His Body, our blessed Church.
THE WORDS OF JESUS
And eternity-filled life draws its power from the spoken promises of Jesus. "It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life" John-'6: 63.
When Jesus promises to be with His disciples to the end of time, what kind of presence were they to expect if not the presence of a living, speaking, triumphant Christ? The One Who stood in the midst of the lampstands had a voice like the sound of many waters. "...And his voice sounded like the roar of rushing waters..." Revelation 1: 15. Today His words are still spirit and life.
When the believer yearns for and delights in His word, it becomes audible to the heart. "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hands" John 10: 27, 28. The Scripture is the meeting place for sheep who long to hear the Shepherd. "...you have tasted that the Lord is gracious" 1 Peter 2: 3. The Eucharist transforms earthly man into a heavenly citizen which is why
But while the Shepherd is all too willing to speak to the sheep, the sheep tend to underestimate the need to hear His voice. Most of us wander through many a needless wilderness before we finally recognize our desolation apart from His living words. We taste eternity when we become habitually desperate for the word of the Lord. "Be not silent to me; lest if you be silent to me, I become like them that go down into the pit" Psalms 28: 1.
CHOOSING THE SPIRIT
An eternity-filled life emerges as we repeatedly choose the Spirit over the flesh. "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace .... For if you five according to the flesh you will die, but if you live by the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live" Romans 8: 6, 13.
There is a mysticism that often cloaks itself in Christian trappings but manifests its non¬Christian sources when it seeks to direct us away from all struggle and pain; as if one need only float with the elevating currents of "good" into the courts of the divine.
The mysticism of
Someone hurts our feelings and we begin to nurse a grudge. The light comes into our heart and by the power of the Holy Spirit we die to that grudge, we bury those hurt feelings in the blood-soaked earth at the foot of the Cross. Suddenly peace from another world flows into our being; we are testing the atmosphere of eternity because we are being nourished on the sustenance of eternity. "I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven for man to eat and never die. I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world" John 6: 48 - 51.
Perhaps we discover that our eagerness to serve God is fired by vanity. A minor crisis reveals that we are being driven by the same ambition that drives the world. Now we make a deliberate choice to put this thing to death by the power of the Spirit and return to our position under the gentle yoke of the Holy Spirit with Jesus Christ our Saviour. Instantly we experience life. And this life, once again is eternal life, life in the
An eternity-filled life is the product of constant, Spirit-directed prayer and ready struggle. "0 God, You are my God, early will I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh longs for you in a dry and thirsty land, where there is no water, to see Your power and Your glory, so I have seen you in the sanctuary. Because Your loving-kindness is better than life, my lips still praise you" Psalms 63: 1 - 3. Taste and see how good is the Lord" Psalms 34: 8. Because we recognize that our worship at the Divine Liturgy is not simply practice for eternity, but partici¬pation in heavenly worship, we enter the eternal dimension well prepared. When I get to heaven I will know how to worship my God. I will not be a stranger to the angels and the saints. Because I have great experience here and now which will then be fulfilled, expanded and totalized in never-ending glory!