Today is the last Soul Saturday of the year. Today, I’m going with my youth class out to the cemetery to repair and dress the graves of some, from my parish, who have no families or anyone else to trim the grass, clean the stones, set a flower in the granite vase.
I suppose that the usual response from my more sophisticated acquaintances, who do not like the dead, would be the habitual shrug and yawn, and the skeptical notion, “Could not this have been given to the poor?”
So on this day we remember the Lord’s words: “God is not a god of the dead, but of the living.”
This is a keystone of our religion, placed there by the Author and Finisher of our faith Himself. You can’t have Christianity without the Resurrection, just as you can’t have faith without the Eucharist. Take the Eucharist and the Resurrection away from Christianity, and you have something like a Western Europe of the mind.
This verse is a strong corrective to a false thought that sprouts like chickweed in moments (and areas) of weak faith and superstition. The falsity holds that if we forget the departed, or fail to attend to the proper services for them, then they will lose substance and fade away. It is as though their continued existence depended on our faithfulness. Or, to put it another way, our neglect might make them “fade,” and as we forget, we kill forever.
Thank heaven that this is not the meaning of our well-known hymn, “Eternal memory.” The words remind us that God’s mindfulness of the departed is eternal. And since that very mindfulness is the life-giving basis of the one who has departed from our own contact, and even our failed consciousness, nevertheless, the departed lives on because – and only because – of the “memory” of God.
It is true that the departed benefit from our prayers, and that is one of the two main reasons why we embrace the service for the dead. We pray frequently for the repose of the departed. We have liturgies especially dedicated to these prayers. We have smaller services that highlight these prayers.
You cannot be Orthodox without paying attention to the dead, and often.
And it is only known that somehow (and we don’t know just how), the dead are blessed. Every time someone prays “Lord have mercy,” mountains are moved, and the Spirit rains down mercy upon the just and the unjust. The unction of healing and the streams of blessing descend, in a cleansing tide, the agnostic culture of the Samaritan woman. That is why we pray “Lord have mercy” three times, twelve times, forty times in a row and seventy times seven. Not for repetition’s sake, and not even because the Lord needs us to call His attention (as if we could ever “invoke” Him). When we pray “Lord have mercy” a million times, a million sinners receive grace.
Even in hades, in paradise, even in the intermediate state of the soul. The soul of the departed man or woman is opened ever wider to the Uncreated Light of Tabor, the Energy that proceeds incessantly, infinitely, ubiquitously, from the Essence, the Holy and Consubstantial Tri-Hypostatic Sun.
That is the first reason why we pray for the dead and dress their graves: it helps them. It also serves to remind our society that this is part of Christianity. Many people are allergic to our attentions to these matters, and they have been heard to suggest that we are morbid. I have even heard of some misguided Orthodox parishes giving up on “perpetual” (i.e., anniversary) liturgies altogether, and to divert the funds into more “practical” uses like capital improvements, missions and charity.
Nonsense. Christianity must deal with the dead, and that brings me to the second reason why we pray for them. It is also the main reason why we sing “Eternal memory.” We are not reminding God to remember the departed, lest the departed fade away. We are, rather, reminding ourselves to remember our departed loved ones and all the dead, lest we fade away … lest our faith desiccate into protestant cardboard … lest we – in forgetting the dead -- end up forgetting how to live.
In this month’s issue of First Things, Joseph Bottum writes how you can look far and wide in San Francisco and not find a single human cemetery. You can find pet cemeteries, even parrot cemeteries, but human cemeteries are prohibited by law. It has become, I’m sure, far more convenient to do the burning thing. It’s cleaner, antiseptic, and it’s much easier and quicker to get to that comfortable “just forget all about it” stage of acceptance.
It’s also a good way to stick your head in a pillow, which is what I think the San Francisco state of mind is all about in general.
With bright poignancy, Bottum recalls that San Franciscans have no grace-full signs of death like cemeteries – for remember (as the consummate essayist did not mention, but I do) that cemeteries are for those who slumber. What visible sign they do have is a big one, to be sure, and that is the Golden Gate Bridge, whose portal is not traversed toward the Son.
In denying death, and its attendant grief, and the metaphysical springs of meaning that rise up from its meditation (memento mori), the avante garde steadily, pillowed and cosseted, drink their Ghirardelli on Fisherman’s Wharf, thinking of Big Sur. Oblivious, of course, to the expenditures of fetal tissue and old bodies slated for this year’s line of soylent green.
We who remember the dead are not so besmirched by dread. We kiss the beloved in open casket before the priest blesses the body (not the “remains”), to the strains of Eternal Memory, Vicnaja Pamjat. We do not burn or discard that which reminds us of our mutability. We are more courageous, as Christians, than the existentialists who feared their own death: we grieve more the death of others than our own, and recognize the advance and immature grief at our own repose as the latent paganism it really is.
In denying death, one is left with statistics and the latest PowerPoint models of molecular extrapolations. There is no soul, so there is no death, only cessation, disappearance, inconvenient, but entirely expected and should have been prepared for were it not for your emotional humanistic handicaps of faith and love. It is as if you were substituted midgame, and the crowd sees only another number on a like jersey, or you didn't show up to work, and another desk jockey slipped in your chair, and changed your preferences, your screen saver. You should have been able to take all this, but you're so handicapped with that "forever" wish.
We who are so emotionally handicapped face death, embrace faith and the soul. For through the sleep of death comes the face to face, the single ubiquitous Beatific Vision of the One Who Is, Love, the God of the living, and not the dead, for there is, finally, no one who is.
Dead, that is. Now, whether they are in bliss, or in despair depends entirely on whether death was listened to, and the humilities of belief were engaged.
Today, my youth class knelt amongst the memorial stones, cutting crabgrass thatch away from the names and the days. They looked very much like any gathering of a dozen adolescents. One was even wearing a replica shirt from his hero, Napoleon Dynamite. But this bike-shorted, T-shirted acolyte was touching the very ground of community, even in a pre-Christian sense of civilization.
The dead were moving amongst my young, my congregation, names of aunts and uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents, founders and benefactors, first-generation immigrants from the old country who didn't know any more english than it took to run a coke oven, or stack bricks in a blast furnace. These poor hunkies of long ago brought Church with them to these shores, and didn't modify it to suit tastes in a different land.
Christopher, my vibrant Napoleon acolyte, was surrounded by the dead who continue to help make his community live, and he thought it was meet and right.
And in a patently Christian sense, this community reaches to heaven, as the single Sacrifice subsumed all sacrificial propitiations for the sake of the living. Around us, and especially in the secular schedule of my juvenescent friends, the West is lurching backwards toward the ancient (and barbarous) scapegoat economies – economies guided (and compelled) by the jealousies of the Furies. Before our very eyes, the Eumenides are reverting to their old habits, and are changing their corporate logo back to “Erinyes”: the Potniae, the Maniae, the Praxidikae. Without the Christian meanings of death, the world is enthralled again to the awful madness of revenge.
But here still, in the light of the Son, there is Peace from the one Death that transmuted dread to hope, regression into Life. Our dead, the repository of our memory and political meaning, will be changed.
This all came clear, as I watched the living among the dead. In the twinkling of an eye.