DYING, AND BEHOLD WE LIVE by Giacomo Sanfilippo

Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s editor offers the following brief reflection in response to CNN’s report of December 30, 2019, Man Shoots and Kills 2 inside a Texas Church before Parishioners Fatally Shoot Him. He might have preached it as a sermon this Sunday if he were still permitted to serve as a priest.
Illumine our hearts, O Master who lovest mankind,
with the pure light of Thy divine knowledge.
Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Thy Gospel teachings.
Implant also in us the fear of Thy blessed commandments,
that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living,
both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing to Thee.
For Thou art the Illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God,
and to Thee do we ascribe glory,
together with Thy Father who is from everlasting and Thine All-Holy, and Good, and Life-Creating Spirit,
now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Prayer before the Reading of the Holy Gospel
Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

In the Orthodox Church, we bind the four Gospels together into a separate book. We cover it with precious metals, jewels, icons painted on porcelain. We carry it high in solemn procession, surrounded by acolytes bearing candles and representations of the cherubim and the seraphim, who serve as the throne of God and singers of the unceasing Holy! Holy! Holy! We bless with it, bow before it, kiss it, as if it were Christ Himself, the eternal Word of God. We stand motionless during the chanting of its words of eternal life, and respond to its good message with Glory to Thee, O Lord! Glory to Thee! Indeed, during Matins, we pray that we may be accounted worthy even of hearing it. We enthrone it, as if Christ Himself, on the holy Altar Table, both during and outside of divine services.

But do we live the Gospel? Do we die the Gospel, day by day?

For the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” which the Gospel sets before us, and which alone leads to our becoming by divine grace all that the eternal Son and Word is by divine nature—of which the Holy Fathers speak, to which the Holy Martyrs of every age bear witness, which Uncreated Grace instils in our very bodies as an incomprehensible gift in the waters where we put ourselves mystically to death with Christ and bury ourselves with Him—does this upward call “to walk in newness of life” not comprise a kind of living death or dying life, in defiance of all human reason, and against all natural, survivalist instinct to put ourselves first, look after ourselves, take care of ourselves, feed and clothe ourselves, shelter ourselves, please ourselves, defend ourselves at whatever cost from any kind of harm?   

It shall not be so among you, God has taught us when He became by nature all that we are in order to show us the way to become by grace and human ascetical effort all that He is, even as the Son of man came…to give His life as a ransom for many.

About this ransom for many we sing, Sunday by Sunday after the chanting of the Resurrection Gospel at Matins, Through the cross, joy has come into all the world! Yet the cross of Christ remains—dare we say it?—a barren and fruitless tree if we fail to shoulder it with Him, to climb upon it with Him, to nail ourselves to it with Him…to complete in our own flesh—in the outrageous words of the Holy Apostle Paul—what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions!

For what is the bread that we eat, the cup that we drink, if not truly the broken body, truly the shed blood of our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, that His body may become our body, and our bodies His, our bodies crucified daily with His and in His, in order to be raised with His and in His and to participate eternally in the uncreated life and love of the All-Holy Trinity? For what is the “place” of Heaven if not God Himself, and how do we get there if not the way of the cross in our own lives, day by day?  

Holy Tradition imparts to us many ways to die with Christ, and to complete in our own selves what is lacking in His afflictions.

We have fasting, not only as a form of bodily discipline during the seasons and on the days appointed by the Church—and certainly not as a merely cultural practice and opportunity to trade recipes and photos of tasty lenten dishes—but as a serious, ascetical disruption to satisfying the psychosomatic ego’s wants and needs, and as both expression and nurturer of an interior ethos of life in Christ which considers the birds of the air and the lilies of the field free of any thought for their own welfare. 

We have almsgiving, not now and then, not nickels and dimes if we happen to have them in our pocket, but as an indispensible, nonnegotiable way of Christian life…as a serious, ascetical disruption to satisfying the psychosomatic ego’s wants and needs, and as both expression and nurturer of an interior ethos of life in Christ which considers the birds of the air and the lilies of the field free of any thought for their own welfare.

(Couples raising children get no free pass here. From the Orthodox marriage service: “Fill their house, O Lord, with wheat, wine, oil, and every other good thing, so that they may give in turn to those in need.”)

We have, from the prayer before the Gospel quoted above, trampling down all carnal desires that we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living. 

We have praying for and even loving our enemies.

And finally, we have holy non-resistance to evil men. The Gospel commands this. Christ practiced it, even unto death. All of the Apostles practiced it, even unto death. St. Stephen the Protomartyr practiced it, even unto death, and glowed like an angel. St. Sophia practiced it, even unto death—with her three young daughters, SS. Faith, Hope, and Charity. SS. Boris and Gleb practiced it, even unto death. Almost every day the liturgical calendar remembers and honours the holy children, women, and men in every era who practiced it, even unto death. Orthodox, Coptic, Catholic, and other Christians practice it even today in many parts of the world—even unto death.

In the traditional Orthodox icon of the Nativity, the Newborn Child comes to us already wrapped for burial and laid in a tomb. He comes not to give us a comfortable, gentrified, academic, moralistic, ethical, “reasonable” Christianity, but to die for us and with us, that we might die for Him and with Him.

No greater love than this can we have for Him, for one another, for our enemies. 

Brothers and sisters, out of love for Christ and His Gospel, let us resolve once for all to lay down our weapons, and to “commend ourselves, and one another, and all our life” with absolute trust into His hands.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a deposed priest of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto.

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