Here is the story of the three demons:
Three demons were being trained and then examined by the chief demon on how they might be able to better populate hell: “What will you say to the humans when you go into the world?”
The first demon said: “I can tell them that there is no God.”
The chief demon said, “No, that’s not very effective. People have heard that many times before. The difficulty is too many of them know Him personally.”
He turned to the second demon, and the second demon said, “I will tell them there is no hell.”
Again the chief demon said: “No, that doesn’t work that well either; too many of them are living in hell already.”
The last apprentice demon said, “I know! We can tell them there is no need to hurry!”
The chief demon said: “Excellent, that’s it! Now go out into the world and get to work!”
Responding to the lie of the third demon, St. Paul offers us this warning:
…now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand… (Romans 13:11-12)
It’s a virtually universal characteristic of human beings to not only hope that we have many years ahead of us, but to assume that we do. This assumption comes from a memory of eternity that lies deep within us. The Sunday immediately before the beginning of Great Lent, we remember humanity’s expulsion from paradise. Although we had to leave Eden, we never really forgot about it.
Deep within our hearts there is a memory of home. It’s the same memory of home that the Prodgial Son had when he was in the pigpen; destitute and hungry, he recalled how even his father’s servants had roofs over their heads and food on their tables. (Luke 15:11-32) Having this memory of paradise we are uncomfortable with our mortality. We know that this is not the original way of things, that it’s a consequence of our rebellion against God. We carry this awareness in our hearts, but we don’t handle it well at all. Overcome by its implications, we simply choose to ignore it, hoping that it will go away (just like we do with that funny noise our car makes, or that smell coming from the fridge).
I was reading a science and technology blog post about eco-friendly burial practices. The writer mentioned how somber and gloomy funerals are today, and I knew immediately that this person doesn’t actually attend many funerals. On the whole, in American culture we do everything can to avoid the reality of death. Look at death notices in a newspaper or online and try to find the word “funeral.” We “celebrate the life” of our departed loved ones and friends, rather than facing up to the reality of their death.
On the other hand, the holy fathers and mothers of the Orthodox Church speak about the “Remembrance of Death” as a virtue. This is not a morbid, nihilistic vision of a futile life that ends without meaning. It is the simple and sober awareness that, one day, our sojourn in this world will come to an end. Then, there will be rest (see Hebrews 4). And after that, there will be “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” (the Nicene Creed)
The New Testament boldly proclaims that, in Christ, everything changes. Jesus even transforms how we relate to death. The epistle reading for an Orthodox funeral is from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians; it begins with the words:
I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. (1 Thess. 4:13-14)
We are sorrowful in the face of death, but we are not without hope. In the words of Fr. Anthony Coniaris:
Instead of looking at death from man’s point of view and thinking that this is the end, let us look at it from God’s point of view and see that it is not the end but the beginning of a brand new life. Instead of thinking of the loss, think of the gain; for death to the Christian is the gateway to life eternal. Instead of looking down and feeling hopelessly despondent, let us look up to him who says, ‘Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest… For I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me shall never die but shall have life everlasting.’
We look upon death with hope; at the same time, though, we never lose sight of our fallen nature. And we hold these two awareness together in balance. One of the more curious sayings from the Church Fathers comes from St. Silouan the Athonite:
Keep your mind in hell, and do not despair.
What St. Silouan means by this is that we always have to be aware of the possibility that our spiritual life can go off the rails — not as a result of anything that God would do, but because of our own negligence and laziness. But we should not allow ourselves to be defeated by that knowledge, because God is ever merciful. Knowing that we could fall at any time should press us into action now, not putting off until tomorrow what we need to do today. We turn to God and say “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Without hesitation we reach out to him in faith and love, and his grace is sufficient to do the rest.
Tito Colliander was a twentieth century Orthodox Christian writer from Finland. His best known work is “The Way of the Ascetics,” which is the book that we will be looking at this year in our Summer Reading Group. Colliander opens his book by pointing out that the Christian journey begins with a sense of urgency. We need to move forward with the understanding that now is the only time that we have, now is the critical moment to act. His words dovetail nicely with St. Paul’s warning today, and they are a good place for us to begin our Lenten journey this year
Arise, then; but do so at once, without delay. Do not defer your purpose till ‘tonight” or ‘tomorrow’ or ‘later, when I have finished what I have to do just now.’ The interval may be fatal.
No, this moment, the instant you make your resolution, you will show by your action that you have taken leave of your old self and have now begun a new life, with a new destination and a new way of living. Arise, therefore, without fear and say: ‘Lord, let me begin now. Help me!’ For what you need above all is God’s help. Hold fast to your purpose and do not look back.