The icon shows St. Sisoes over the dead bones in Alexander the Great’s open tomb and with the following inscription:
“SISOES, THE GREAT ASCETIC, BEFORE THE TOMB OF ALEXANDER, KING OF THE GREEKS, WHO WAS ONCE COVERED IN GLORY. ASTONISHED, HE MOURNS FOR THE VICISSITUDES OF TIME AND THE TRANSIENCE OF GLORY, AND TEARFULLY DECLAIMS THUS:
‘THE MERE SIGHT OF YOU, TOMB, DISMAYS ME AND CAUSES MY HEART TO SHED TEARS AS I CONTEMPLATE THE DEBT WE, ALL MEN, OWE. HOW CAN I POSSIBLY STAND IT? OH, DEATH! WHO CAN EVADE YOU?’”
source : http://www.pantanassamonastery.org/abba-sisoes-at-the-tomb-of-alexander-the-great.html
Several days ago, two friends of mine each passed away at almost the same time. Both passings were expected, not that this fact made them any easier to bear. The coincidence made me reflect once again on life and how my feelings about the end of it have and haven’t changed over the years.
When I was growing up, I never attended a funeral. My parents didn’t think that it was helpful to expose children and young people to dead bodies and to the utter sadness that these services meant for many people. There were older relatives whose funerals I would dearly have loved to attend, just to be able to say goodbye and to be in the presence of the still intact body one last time. I never thought of funerals as awful or scary or truly sad any more than I thought about cemeteries that way. It seemed to me that – regardless of what you thought about the possibility of eternal life – a dead body was not that person any more. I remember that my grandfather didn’t even want me to visit when he was sick in the months leading up to his passing. I was a mother by that time and he lived several states away, so I didn’t try to change his mind despite longing desperately to see him one last time. For several years after he left this life, I used to talk to a photo I had of him. It was how I got closure.
My dad passed away when I was in my early 40s. It happened when I had just reignited my search for what I knew deep in my heart I would recognize as the true faith, something that had eluded me until that point. He and my mom were living in Europe at the time of his passing, and his body was cremated in accordance with his wishes. We buried a little box with his ashes in the family cemetery in New England. I was glad that I had visited with him less than a year before, but there had been no talk of him being sick at the time. So I didn’t really get to say goodbye.
One of my younger brothers passed away about 15 years ago. It was totally unexpected. The positive side of it was that Johnny and I lived only a few hours away and we were able to stay in our camper in the hospital parking lot for the many days it took for the doctors to decide that he really was brain dead and to take him off life support. We saw his body every day and clung to the hope that he would miraculously recover. We were able to be there for his wife and son and the rest of the family during that time. I knew that he was a fervent Christian who had not had any question or fear about leaving this life, and that gave me much comfort.
I have always understood that birth and death are natural parts of being a human. I used to be afraid, not of being dead but of how awful the last few seconds, moments, hours, days, months, etc. might be – depending on the cause. But once I started to read the Bible with adult eyes, I started to grasp the fact that there is a larger picture and that there could certainly be fear of pain but no need to fear death itself.
An even bigger revelation came about 7 years ago when I went to an (Eastern) Orthodox Christian funeral for the first time. It was joyous, like a calm, loving bon voyage party. Family and friends were not dressed all in black and, while very sad, did not seem to be stuck in the loss. Rather, the focus was on the life to come. Life to life. The services at the funeral home, in the church, and at the cemetery were all pointing to the true and eternal life. This was a time of grief for the temporary loss of fellowship with the departed paired with great joy that the eternal spirit that had once lived in the body was now clothed in a different body and beginning a new life with the other faithful departed, very much alive and watching over us. These concepts were not new to me in theory, but the Orthodox services had words and a tone that conveyed the ultimate joy of this transition.
This past week, as I said goodbye to the body of our dear friend Harry, I was grateful beyond words. I knew that he had no more tears or pain, that he had been reunited with this wife and son, and that he would be living in the presence of his Lord and Savior for all eternity. It also brought home to me once again the hope that I too would have that joy one day – to be reunited with all the believers whose physical presence I have missed for so many years. I didn’t have to say, “Farewell”. Rather, I could say with all of my heart, “Until we meet again.”
The funeral hymns of St. John of Damascus, as sung for Harry:
What pleasure is there in our life that is not mixed with sorrow? What glory is there on earth that lasts? All things are weaker than shadows, more deceitful than a dream. In one moment, death takes everything away. In the light of Your face, O Christ, and in the sweetness of Your beauty, grant rest to him Whom you have chosen, for You love mankind.
As the flower withers, as the shadow passes, so every man dies. And again at the sounding of the trumpet, the dead in the graves will rise to meet You, O Christ God. Then, O Master, place the soul of Your servant who is before us in the dwelling of Your saints.
All is human vanity that does not live on after death; riches do not survive, nor does glory exist. When death comes, all these are meaningless; so let us exclaim to Christ the Immortal: “Rest the one who has departed from us in the dwelling of all who rejoice.”
Where is our passion for earthly things? Where are the changing images which we set before our minds? Where are gold and silver? Where are the boisterous servants and their cry? All is dust, all is ashes, all is a shadow: therefore, come, let us exclaim to the Immortal King: “Lord, make Your departed servant worthy of Your everlasting goodness, resting him in the blessedness that never grows old.”
I remember the prophet calling out: “I am earth and ashes.” And I looked again upon the graves, and I saw naked bones, and I said: “Who then is king or soldier, rich or poor, righteous or sinner?” But, Lord, grant rest to your servant.
At Your command, my life came into being, for it was Your will to combine from seen and unseen natures to give me life. From the earth You fashioned my body. You have given me a soul through Your divine and life-creating breath. O Christ, rest Your servant in the land of the living and the courts of the righteous.
Rest, O our Savior and Life-giver, our departed brother whom You have freed from this uncertain life. O Lord, glory to You.
I weep and lament when I think about death, and I see lying in the graves our beauty fashioned in the image of God, disfigured and without glory, having no shape or form. I wonder, what is this mystery that has befallen us? Why have we been handed over to corruption? Why have we been wedded unto death? Truly, as it is written, [these things come to pass] by the command of God, Who gives rest to the departed.
May this very same God grant you peace when you contemplate eternity for yourself.
~ Wellness Made Simple