Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
– Dylan Thomas
The last enemy to be destroyed is death – 1 Cor. 15:26
Death has been on my mind a lot lately. Why is this? It’s not just because my hairline is receding and my belly advancing. It’s not just because of the many new gray hairs that make their debut on my head each day. It’s not just because every time I do a hard workout at the gym, the next day my arms and legs feel like they are about to fall off. It’s not even just because many of the Church Fathers tell us to keep our inevitable appointment with death always on our mind (although this is the best reason yet listed). Why then, you ask (indeed, my wife and oldest daughter think it’s just weird), has death been in my thoughts so much lately?
It all started back in February, when I was preparing for my adult Sunday School lesson. We had been studying the Gospel of St. John, and the time had come to look at the raising of Lazarus. Influenced both by the excellent commentary on St. John’s Gospel by Fr. Lawrence Farley and also by a lecture on tape by Fr. Thomas Hopko that I had heard several years earlier, I came to the conclusion that Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb more from anger at death itself than from compassion for Mary and Martha (although the latter was certainly a part of the reason He wept). Click here to read my recent article on this subject.
In exploring the question of why Jesus wept even though He knew that He was about to raise Lazarus, and in proposing an answer, I decided to explore the broader question of the Orthodox view of death (but not life after death, which is another question altogether—Here I mean how we should look at death). I taught my class that contrary to what many people today believe, the Orthodox view of death is that it is above all else an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). We should not look upon it positively, but should rather, as the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” I suggested that in general we should fight it rather than embrace it.
When one of the members of the class asked me what I meant by “fight it,” I gave an answer that I later realized was very inadequate. Because of this, I resolved then and there to write about the subject in my blog. Since then, many other things have happened to make me think even more about death:
Memorial Day (my father was a WW2 vet who passed away four years ago). Click here to read my tribute to him.
The anniversary of my father’s death (June 2).
Father’s day, which made me think even more about my father, his tragic death, and the legacy that I want to leave behind for my children.
My reading of the excellent book Lynette’s Hope, about the life and witness of Lynette Hoppe, an Orthodox missionary to Albania who died of cancer two years ago.
Last but not least, I finally got around to reading the book The Inner Kingdom, by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Guess what the second chapter is about? You guessed it…the Orthodox view of death!
Unfortunately, between my job at the school district (in which the busiest time of year is April-June), my ministry at St. Joseph’s and other parishes, trying to spend time with my wife and kids, and helping around the house, I just haven’t been able to find the time and the energy to write. Now, some five months after I first began thinking about this issue, I have finally found a little time to sit down and actually write something about this important topic.
After this introductory post, I plan to write four posts in which I summarize the Orthodox view of death as expressed in the writings of three contemporary Orthodox writers and teachers: Nathan Hoppe (seminary professor, missionary, and wife of Lynette Hoppe of blessed memory), Fr. Thomas Hopko, and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. In addition, I will offer some reflections based on the Orthodox funeral service itself. I pray that this short series will be profitable for you.