About the Fear of Death and the Hope of Salvation

Brothers and sisters!

During this holy period of the Afterfeast of the Dormition, our mind’s eye is focused on the Queen of Heaven’s triumph over death, and we frequently find ourselves recalling the Apostle’s words:  O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?  The sting of death is sin; but thanks be to God, Which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.1  Spiritually beholding the Lord’s Mother rise from earth to heaven, every pious Christian marvels, for death proved almost powerless against the Most Holy Mother of God.  It touched her body, but could not corrupt it.  Death proved to be nothing more than the means conveying her from this fleeting existence to undying splendor.  In death, the divine countenance of the Child of God flashed with wondrous light, and her whole body became a source of ineffable fragrance:  proof of her holiness and a token of the glory awaiting her yonder.  Just three days after the Theotokos’ soul departed the body, it reentered it.  The holy Virgin was then straightway assigned the first place at the right hand of the throne of Christ on high, and there she remains forever, continuously interceding with her Son for our welfare and salvation.

What a wondrous sight the Dormition of the Theotokos presents to our inner eyes!  Beholding it in the depths of our soul and contemplating it with a pure heart, we are filled with hope for our own salvation and resur­rection.  The Dormition of the Theotokos shows that resurrection indeed awaits all of us, and that every person will be rewarded in accordance with his deeds.  Then, for the righteous, Prophet Isaiah’s saying will be fulfilled:  Death hath been swallowed up by the victory,2 and Saint Paul’s as well:  O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?3

For thousands of years, death has been digging its sting into man.  It kills and corrupts the body, deforming, rotting, and finally destroying the flesh.  In the process, death produces the most terrible stench known on earth.  Except for Enoch and Elijah, no man has ever escaped death, and even these two will fall victim to it before the end of time.  But universal though death may be, its tyranny over man is incomplete.  If the noetic vision of the risen Christ and the glorified Theotokos do not suffice to convince you of this, then let your physical eyes provide the assurance.  Throughout the Orthodox world, the unembalmed, incorrupt, often fragrant bodies of the saints testify to the fact that death cannot simply have its way with man.  These silent witnesses include Saints John the Russian, Spyridon the Won­derworker, Gerasimus of Cephalonia, and Dionysius of Zakinthos in Greece; Saints Savvas the Sanctified and John the Romanian in the Holy Land; and the many saints of the Kiev-Caves Lavra in the Russian land.  All these and the many other incorrupt, fragrant wonderworkers prove beyond doubt the great truths of life after death, the Common Resurrec­tion, the Dread Judgment, and everlasting heaven and Gehenna.  We do not even need to cross the sea to assure ourselves of this with our own eyes.  In San Francisco lies our father among the saints John Maximovich, whole and incorrupt.  Nearer still, at Jordanville in our own state of New York, we have our guide and abba Saint Philaret, whose incorrupt relics we all hope and pray will one day be removed permanently from their vault and be set out for the faithful to venerate and glorify in a fitting manner.

All these wondrous saints show that while the fear of death is natural to man, it falls away in the face of faith, humility, repentance, prayer, spiritual vision, obedience, patience, self-denial, abstinence, modesty, purity of soul and body, active love for God and neighbor, and fervent devotion to Jesus Christ.  These are the hallmarks of the true Christian, the hallmarks of a blessed life.  The saints embodied them perfectly.  To the best of our ability, we must strive to attain these virtues, if we are to escape the fear of death and have well-founded hope for a place in heaven with the righteous.

When I arrive home late at night, before entering my house deep in the forest, I often stop for a moment to enjoy the cool air and to look up at the stars in their courses.  Marveling at the infinite power of God, His immense majesty, His ineffable wisdom and goodness, His unfathomable beauty and radiance, His extreme closeness to our innermost being, and His boundless love for our race, I think upon the words of Scripture:  What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?  Or the son of man, that Thou visitest him?  Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels; with glory and honour hast Thou crowned him.4   I say to myself, “Who are you, O man, that One of the Trinity should so diminish Himself as to be confined in a virgin’s womb; to do hard physical labor; to tread hot, dusty roads; to struggle in prayer; to be mocked and tortured; to die horribly; and to be laid in a small tomb, all for your sake?  What value could Christ-God possibly see in you, little, dirty worm?  Your soul is entirely corrupted by sin, even if death has a brief wait before it can claim your body for physical corruption.  Nevertheless, the Son of God condescended to your infirmity and showed boundless mercy to you.  He has enlightened your mind and cleansed your sins, and gives you the fair hope that if only you are repentant and struggle to amend yourself, He will translate you from corruption to incorruption, from earth to heaven, from time to eternity, an eternity so blessed and holy no word can express its wonder.  Why, My Christ, didst Thou take upon Thyself such labour and suffering for my salvation?  Was it really necessary for Thee to go to such extremes for this?  And what can I ever do to begin to repay Thee for the countless blessings Thou hast granted and ever grantest me?”

You too should reflect on these things, dear Christians, and you should frequently bring to mind the fact that you were created in the image and likeness of God, with a heart that can bear the boundless God within.  Remember that the All-Holy Trinity has gifted you with immortality, and that like the Most Holy Virgin Mary, you are capable of becoming a temple of the Godhead, a dwelling-place of Christ acceptable and well-pleasing.  Because of the craftiness of the ancient murderer, the devil — but also because of the action of your own free will — you fell into sin and therefore experience all the woes that are the bitter fruit of disobedience.  But the Lord turned into good the evil you did.  Your sin stirred up all His infinite wisdom, love, justice, compassion, and might.  God the Father sent His Only-begotten Son to heal your infirmity:  He sent to you the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.5  And having come to us, His Son, Jesus Christ, established on earth His Holy Church as a hospital for the healing of your passions.  In His holy temple Christ cleanses and sanctifies you by prayer and the divine Mysteries; He teaches how you should live so that you may inherit His Kingdom.  So, live as Christ teaches, brothers and sisters, and avail yourself fully of all the means of purification and sanctifi­cation that He has provided.  With the Most Holy Virgin as your inter­cessor on high and as the guarantor of your salvation, may all of you use this brief life wisely and thus meet death without fear, with well-founded hope for a blessed eternity.  Amen.


1. I Cor. 15:55-57

2. Is. 25:8

3. Cor. 15:55

4. Ps. 8:4-5; Heb. 2:6-7

5. John 1:29