On this Sunday in the Orthodox Church we remember the Holy Forefathers, the faithful ancestors of Christ, many of whom are named in a long list in the services yesterday and today, men and women like David, Jael, Daniel, Rachel, Moses and Ruth….
And the hymns sing of how they all, long since passed from this earthly existence, are even now “in the Land of the Living.” Thomas Hopko in The Winter Pascha mentions a church near Constantinople where a huge mosaic of Christ is named: “The Land of the Living.” I found a photo of it (above).
I learned in the short account of the life of Athanasius at the beginning of his On the Incarnation that the last and worst persecution of Christians ended in Egypt in 311 A.D., when Athanasius was about fourteen. From the age of five he had lived with the constant threat of death, and with the ever-present reality of persecution of his friends and family. The behavior of the ungodly is irrational and inhuman, and tends to cause great pain and suffering, often unto death, not only of the innocent but also of the most Christ-like. As an adult the scenes and events of his childhood seem to be fresh in his mind when he writes:
“A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by the present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Saviour, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Saviour has raised his body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead.”
I started composing this post about death and the saint’s childhood before the horrific murders at a Connecticut school last week. I found the description Athanasius gives, of people bravely and even joyfully facing death daily, foreign to my 21st-century suburban self. But the topic turns out to be pertinent, and the recent stories of gutsy teachers in our own country inspiring — especially when taken with the letter from our Archbishop Tikhon after that event:
“Concerning those who have fallen asleep, Saint Paul exhorts us not to “grieve even as others who have no hope” [1 Thessalonians 4:13]. And yet, herein he does not forbid us from grieving. Now is the time for us to weep, but we must weep with the firm hope that comes from our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. “Shed tears, but remain calm; weep modestly, and with fear of God,” writes Saint John Chrysostom. And following this example, each of us must strive to transform our sorrow into prayer.
Just this week I was asked to tell one of my favorite Bible verses, one that readily comes to mind without effort. It is always this one, that speaks of our complete dependence on the Lord as our LIFE, whether living or dying. Our leaves will not wither, because Christ Himself is The Land of the Living.