Enduring the death of a loved one can oftentimes leave us in a state of great loss. These beautiful words shared in the text below are meant to offer just an ever small bit of comfort for those suffering such hardship. As Christ wept for His dear friend Lazarus, so too do we weep for those who have fallen asleep, but let us not weep like those who have no hope. I invite you to read these beautiful and prayerful words by Metropolitan Augoustinos, as they express so eloquently and profoundly the Orthodox Christian understanding of those fallen asleep.
A LETTER OF CONSOLATION TO THE BEREAVED
By Augoustinos N Kantiotes, Bishop of Florina, Greece
“The Jews of the Old Testament wept for Jacob and for Moses for forty days. Today, however, during the funeral of the faithful, the Church raises hymns and prayers and psalms. We glorify and thank God, because ‘He crowned the departing,’ because ‘He relieved the pains,’ because ‘He expelled the fear,’ and has the deceased believer near Him. This is why the hymns and psalms reveal that in the event of death there is pleasure and joy following the glorious Resurrection of the Savior Jesus Christ. For the psalms and hymns are symbols of joy. According to the Apostolic word: ‘Is any cheerful? Let him sing praises’ (James 5:13). This is why we sing psalms over the dead—psalms which move us to have courage and not to despair over the death of our brother.”
-St. John Chrysostom
Today, a member of your family has departed from this transitory and imperfect world. Your loved one was with you for many years. You had unforgettable days together, days of joy and days of sorrow. You would have wanted to be together longer, but even if you had been together for a thousand years, it would not have been long enough. Time passes quickly and death comes, it cannot be avoided. Who lives and will not face death? So death came and your beloved one has been taken from your loving embrace. There is a new grave in your family’s burial ground and you now mourn at the graveside. Your beloved one no longer exists.
What did I say? No longer exists? NO! That is not true! Your beloved one whose funeral was conducted, and who was buried today with the prayers of the Church, does indeed exist! You ask, how?
An ancient Greek philosopher – indeed the greatest philosopher of all, Socrates, spoke with his followers shortly before his death. He told them not to grieve over his forthcoming death and not to be overly concerned with where and how they would bury him, because that which will be buried is not Socrates, but only his body. “Socrates,” he told them, “Is a spirit which will never die. At the time of death the immortal soul will depart, just as the imprisoned bird flies away when the door to the cage opens. The Socrates over whom you would weep will, at that time, be experiencing great joy. He will have left this world of injustice and will have gone to another world where righteousness prevails. The justice which has been denied him here on earth, he will find in the heavens…”
These were the words spoken by the philosopher moments before he died. Socrates, even though he lived four hundred years before Christ, believed in the immortality of the soul. He faced death with courage and offered comfort to his followers.
And we who live after Christ, if we do not believe that the soul is immortal and that there is another life beyond the grave, we are totally self-condemned by our faithlessness. For it wasn’t a philosopher, who being human can be in error, but God Himself who became man – our Lord Jesus Christ the God-Man, the Fountain of Truth, the essence of Truth itself – who assured us concerning these things. He preached in the most explicit manner that we have an immortal soul. “For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? For what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-37). And not only did Christ preach immortality of the soul, he verified this fundamental truth with miracles, by raising the dead. He resurrected the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow from Nain, and Lazarus. The resurrection of Lazarus is described in detail in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. As soon as you return home from the funeral of your dearly departed, open your Gospel and study this chapter. Read it, not only once but several times. There are no more comforting words than those in the Gospel. What happened to Lazarus will happen to everyone. The Lord who raised Lazarus will resurrect all the dead. The Lord’s command, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ – this almighty command which caused his soul to return to the dead body and Lazarus to emerge from his tomb – this same command will be heard by all who have died. In every tomb the voice will be heard, ‘O dead, come out of your tombs!’ Their souls will return and everyone will appear again, not with the bodies they have today, bodies subject to sickness, death and decay, but with bodies that are incorrupt. We are not capable of imagining what we will be like when we raise from the dead.
But the greatest proof that we will be resurrected and that we who believe and live in accordance with the will of God will not simply be resurrected, but will live a life of unimaginable beauty and gladness – the greatest proof of the resurrection of the dead and the life to come is the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes! Let the faithless materialistic ones say what they will. It is true, it is an historic event, the greatest even in the history of the world, that Christ conquered death. He rose from the dead! And as the greatest of the Apostles proclaimed, “Christ is risen from the dead and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (I Corinthians 15:20). And just as Christ arose, so shall all the dead arise. This is our faith, the very foundation of our faith.
When people believe, death is not a calamity that plunges them into an extended sadness, melancholy or despair. Believers weep, certainly, at the death of a loved one, but it is not the same as the wailing of pagans, idolaters and disbelievers. The death of a Christian who had lived and witnessed Christ used to be celebrated like a birthday. For it was recognized that we are born twice – once when we emerge from the darkness of our mother’s womb to face the sweet light of the sun, and again when we leave the darkness of the present life, which is like a mother’s womb, to face the blessed light of eternity. The person who emerges from the mother’s womb is not harmed, for a new life is gained, far better than that within the womb. Similarly, the person who by death leaves this world is not harmed, for a new life is gained, infinitely superior to the present one. According to Christian belief, death is gain, not a loss or calamity (Philippians 1:21). That is what the Christians of the first centuries believed, when the death of a believer was celebrated as a birthday. They sang hymns of the Resurrection and said to the ‘traveler,’ “Blessed is the way on which you go today, for a place of rest has been prepared for you.” But where is the faith today? Alas, today, faithlessness reigns. Today the people – most people, do not believe in the Lord who was crucified and raised for us, who ascended into heaven, and who will come again to judge the living and the dead. They do not believe in the immortality of the soul. They live without faith, and they die without faith. And so death terrorizes them. They weep and they wail over relatives who have died as though they no longer exist. Then, when someone speaks to them about the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead and the life to come, they laugh and mock his seriousness. In order to believe, they say they want proofs, they want miracles.
They want miracles and proofs! Well, miracles and proofs concerning the resurrection exist not only in Holy Scripture, but also in another book written by our All-wise and Almighty God. This book was written so that it can be read by, and so that it can provide lessons to, even the most unschooled. And this book is nature. In this book we find beautiful images of the Resurrection.
Consider the sun. Someone seeing the sun set for the first time, seeing it disappear over the horizon, seeing the darkness of night spread across the earth, would lament and cry: ‘The sun has died!’ Assurances that the sun will rise again would not be believed. But even though the sun appears to be extinguished every evening, it isn’t so. It is rising in another part of the world and it is continuing to spread its sweet light. The rising and the setting of the sun are a single icon of life and death. As the poet says, ‘What we see as the setting of the sun has the sweetness of dawn ahead; and instead of night without sunrise, the day dawns which will have no sunset.’
Consider another image from the book of nature. When it is wintertime the trees are bare, the mountains are covered with snow, and the birds have gone far away. Nature seems to be dead. But spring comes, the snows melt, trees blossom, seeds planted in the mud come to life, they sprout, fields turn green, gardens become fragrant and the nightingales sing. Spring! God’s joy! Resurrection! God, who provides the energy that enables a dead nature to emerge in new life at springtime, God, the All-wise and powerful, will use His unlimited power to resurrect all dead bodies to a new life, as He has assured us. “The dead shall rise, and those in the tombs shall rise, and those on earth shall be joyous,” said the Prophet Isaiah (26:19). Yes, the dead will rise, ‘For with God nothing is impossible’ (Luke 1:37). Why then do you not believe? Do you need another example? Are you a father or a mother? When you see your beloved child fall asleep, in bed or in your arms, you don’t start crying, you don’t say your child is dead. You know that in a few hours the child will awaken, and then be more lively and happier than before falling asleep. Similarly, the person over whom you are mourning is not dead, only sleeping. Yes, sleeping. Because according to the teaching of Scripture, death is sleep, a prolonged sleep which will eventually end, and then the bodies of the dead will reawaken as they are reunited with their immortal souls. Saint Paul refers to the dead as ‘Those who have fallen asleep,’ and tells us that Christians must not grieve at the death of their beloved ones as unbelievers and idolaters. Listen to his words: “I do not want you to be ignorant brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (I Thessalonians 4:13-14). Saint Cosmas Aitolos, consoling those grieving over the deaths of their loved ones, said, “Do we not clearly see the resurrection? When we fall asleep, are we not like the dead? What is sleep, but a small death; and what is death, but a great sleep. And as the grain of wheat which falls to the ground will not grow if there is no rain to decay it and make it pulpy, so we who die and are buried would not receive the water of eternal life and resurrection if Christ had not first been buried in his tomb. Don’t you clearly see how God raises the plants from the soil each year?”
In accordance with what has been written above, in accordance with the words of the true philosophy, in accordance with the examples and images of nature and above all, in accordance with the testimony of Holy Scripture and the unchallengeable Logos of God in which we must have absolute confidence, your love one has not disappeared, is not lost, has not become zero. Don’t say that! It is blasphemy. And don’t mourn disconsolately. That is a sin. We ask you, do you mourn and cry without comfort when a relative leaves for Australia or America? Of course not. You know that there your relative will have a happier life and you hope to meet again. Similarly, your love one, whom death has today taken from your side, lives, although in another world. Never doubt that this other world exists! As surely as Australia and America exist, you can be certain, you can be ever more certain, that there is other life, eternal life.
If a voice could be raised from that other world where your beloved now is, what would you hear? “My dear ones, don’t weep for me. I live. I am here in another world which is beyond your imagination. It is as terrible place only for those who did not believe during their life on earth, who did not live according to the will of God. For those who believed in Christ and lived in accordance with His Gospel it is a world far more beautiful than you can envision. Its beauty is beyond description. And so please hear me. Do not listen to the unbelievers; close your ears to their words. There is Paradise. There is eternal life. Believe in Jesus Christ, study His Gospel, carry out His holy commandments, repent and weep only for your sins, for in Hades there is no repentance.”
Death does not break the connection between those living on earth with those who have passed on to the other world. Preserve these bonds. Commemorate those who have gone to the world of eternity. Maintain the sacred memorial services in which they are remembered. And do not celebrate them idolatrously, but as Christians, as we have advised you. Above all, remember that the greatest offering that you can make for the souls of those who have fallen asleep is your almsgiving, your charity to the poor and the suffering.
Dear friends, as your bishop, I share your sorrow on the death of your beloved one. I would have preferred to visit you in your home, to personally express my condolences, and try to comfort you with the immortal teaching of the Gospel, but since this is not manageable, I am sending you this letter through your parish priest. I ask that you neither ignore it, nor destroy it. Please read it attentively and keep it as a remembrance, bound with the memory of your beloved, who this day has departed for Heaven. ‘A blessed reunion,’ shouts the soul of your beloved from beyond, where it has gone from the present vain life. ‘Let us all have a blessed reunion, my brothers and sisters, in eternity.’
Through the intercessions of our most holy Theotokos and all the Saints who have pleased God throughout the centuries, may the end of our lives be Christian, without suffering, unashamed, and may we have a good account to present of ourselves at the awesome judgment seat of our Lord Jesus, when he comes to judge the living and the dead.
+ BISHOP AUGOUSTINOS
Metropolitan of Florina, Greece