Take my hand, I am dying….

Loose translation of Bishop Grigorije’s ponderings on the phenomena of death (here):

The departure of our loved ones and friends these recent months have once more intensified my thoughts about the phenomenon of death, which has always been understood and experienced in different ways. Recently death has seemingly come knocking on the door of the entire world giving me the impression that views that have relativized death are, in one way or another, fading away. For instance, the views of those who favor the so-called secularist view of the world and who see death as an unfortunate phenomenon, which should be mitigated in all ways and which should be accepted as a momentary obstacle to the further development and progress of society. Then there are the views of those who are very religious and have an understanding of death that varies depending on which religion they belong to and what that religion teaches them. They most often experience death as a transition from this to that life, moving from one, often bad, to a better place.

Amidst all of this, what would the Christian view of death be? Jesus Christ was the first Christian. How did He battle with it and how did He, in the end, defeat death? Namely, Christ, “clothed” Himself in the human flesh (nature), first agreed to be humiliated and mocked, and not only that – he went to death voluntarily, thus He experienced and went through suffering, fear and uncertainty, which goes hand in hand with death. This voluntary suffering of Christ was preceded by a striking event described in the pages of the New Testament, when Christ comes to the grave of his dead friend, Lazarus, and weeps bitterly, just as we would weep over the graves of our deceased. One of Lazarus’ sisters says to Christ, “If you had been here, our brother would not have died.” And then Christ called Lazarus by name, and Lazarus arose. It is the moment in which immortality – embodied in Christ – touched mortality, was embodied in Lazarus. This event was one of the immediate reasons for the high priests to start a final showdown with the one who called Lazarus from the dead and brought him back to life, who would then crucify Him on the cross.

What is that perhaps confuses and amazes us the most in this unforgettable event of Christ’s suffering and resurrection, which turned the course of world history? For me, it has always been that terrible moment when Jesus, dying, cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken Me!?” This sentence is confusing because it was uttered by Christ, who died voluntarily. It should also not be forgotten that before his voluntary suffering He prayed to His father: “If possible, let this cup pass from Me “. This drama reveals much to us, but on this occasion the most important thing is to look at the fact that Christ really and truly dies on the cross and that, just like ordinary mortal, He felt loneliness, fear and uncertainty in the hours before His death. At the hour of His death He identifies himself with us and undergoes the agony inherent in every man at the hour of dying. He who had never experienced loneliness until that moment cried out to the Father from the cross not to leave him alone. So, if loneliness and fear did not pass from Christ in the last hours of His life how can we deal with loneliness and fear in similar moments?

Let us examine what the New Testament reveals to us in connection with this event. After Jesus’ death – which resulted in those closest to Him to flee from the crucified One expect for a few, mostly women – the burial was performed by a distinguished judge, practically alone. I would like this to serve as some consolation to all those who buried their deceased these past months modestly, with just their closest family, because here we see that Jesus Himself was buried in that same way. That event took place on Good Friday. And then comes Holy Saturday and something even more important and comforting, it seems to me, as an announcement of Christ’s final victory over death. On Holy Saturday Christ will go through death, coming to life, because He is in eternal communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Christ defeated death by his death, because “it was not possible for him (death) to hold him” (Acts 2:24).

Thus Christ goes through death and with His experience of it – by coming in contact with it – He confirms to us that death is solitude and the departure from God, and then He descends to Hades, to the earth, among the dead, all the way to Adam and Eve and all those buried in the earth until then, and revives them – resurrects them. By descending to Hades, Christ plunges his love into human loneliness, annuls it and brings it out of the darkness of death into the glory of life. Without His descent into the night of death there could never be hope and our anticipation of the day of the resurrection. A mortal man would remain mortal forever.

Of course, the phenomenon of death could be viewed and pondered from many different angles, but as I watched my loved ones leave, and in recalling the description of Christ’s own hour of death in Scriptures, I realized that when it comes to death itself, I am most preoccupied with this idea of loneliness, which has come to the fore especially during this past year. Perhaps because it seems to me that the loneliness of the dying, the loneliness that befalls them at the hour of death, is as heavy as death itself. Loneliness is the taste or prelude to death. How many patients who died these past months had no one beside them who could touch them and take their hand? “Hold my hands, for I am falling into the abyss,” my father told my mother the night before he passed away, frightened and lonely at the hour of his death. On the other hand, even when we are here, in addition to the dying, their loneliness and our helplessness before death are immeasurable, and we, being mortal beings ourselves, cannot completely comfort or alleviate them. Loneliness at the hour of dying, fear and uncertainty, that is, death itself, can be overcome and banished only by one who is Himself immortal, one who has already conquered death. Christ.

Death therefore is among us and we can ignore it, deny it or think about it from the angle that implies us confronting it as the last and greatest enemy, as the Apostle Paul called it, and that is precisely through our presence for we crush and drive away the loneliness and fear from each other both during life and at the hour of death. Death is the court and the hour of our searching and that observation that someone made is perhaps true that the only thing which will remain is that which survives the search of death.  We will all need to pass through the gates of death but it is comforting to know that Christ, by going through death, made His resurrection become ours as well.

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