On Ascension, I received the news that a friend of mine was very sick and didn’t anticipate living for much longer. This, of course, made me sad, but as with most things, it also caused me to reflect on old topics in new ways. So I began looking at the topic of death with an eye toward Ascension and the upcoming feast of Pentecost.
One of my favorite services in the Orthodox Church, apologies for sounding morbid, is the panikhida. We celebrate this service on the third, ninth, and fortieth days after the death of an Orthodox Christian. St. Macarius the Great tells us this is done because, “…from the third day to the ninth day after death, the departed soul is shown the mansions of Paradise; from the ninth to the fortieth day the soul is shown the torments of hell; and on the fortieth day, the soul stands before the throne of God to undergo the Particular Judgement and is assigned the place where it will await the Second Coming.” In doing these prayers, we enter a hopeful mindset that brings peace to those left behind as well as to those travelling to Judgement. This is, of course, an extremely basic primer in Orthodox ritual and practice for death and dying. What does this have to do with Ascension and Pentecost, though? The answer, that I see, is that it provides a mirror image of the death and dying cycle.
Follow along with me here. The life/death cycle breaks down to life, death, Paradise, Hell, Judgement. The temporal cycle breaks down to Paschaltide, Ascension, Sunday of the Fathers of the Nicean Council, Saturday of the Dead/Pentecost, and a random Tuesday in the middle of the week. These two paradigms provide us the classical chiasmus.
Starting at the start, so to speak, you have life and Pashcaltide, the least and most important aspects of the two paradigms. Now I am going to hedge a bit here and clarify that I am not saying life is unimportant. The choices we make, and actions we take, during our lives will have a significant impact upon the rest of the life/death cycle. Personally, though, if I were to make a list of significant events and it consisted of life, death, tour of Paradise, tour of Hell, and Judgement…well…I can’t give you a definitive ranking of my top four, but life would definitely be in the number five spot. To contrast this, the Paschaltide is the ongoing celebration of the restoration of humanity to its creator. The Resurrection, and the effects therefrom, represent the central reality of Christianity, a God that has compassion upon his people and chooses to send down his Only-begotten Son to take on our flesh, die, and then rise again so that our whole nature might be restored to the communion we had with God before the Fall.
Moving right along, then, we have death and Ascension. In both of these events we are faced with a sudden stop. When we die, the reality to which we have become accustomed is irrevocably altered. You are stuck in place while life moves on. This parallels with the Ascension where Christ goes up to heaven and the Apostles are stuck in a new reality, a reality where the Messiah they sought had fulfilled His promise to return and yet was no longer physically with them, and they needed to move on with the ministry entrusted to them and appoint a new apostle. They are forced to move on with life while awaiting the promised Comforter. We are faced with the fulfillment of our restoration. In the fall we become lesser, corruption and death enters us. In the Ascension, we see the nature of man restored to what it should be. To quote St. John Chrysostom, “Now the angels have received that for which they long waited, the archangels see that for which they long thirsted. They have seen our nature shining on the King’s throne, glistening with glory and eternal beauty… Therefore they descend in order to see the unusual and marvelous vision: Man appearing in heaven.”
Next, we have day three. According to tradition, we have the time where the funeral is performed and the soul leaves this world and begins its tour of Paradise. Paradise is where we are in total communion with God. We sing the Liturgy with the Saints and all the Angels and stand in the presence of the Great High Priest. In the temporal paradigm, we find ourselves in the period of God’s physical absence, the period between Ascension and Pentecost, and the commemoration of the Fathers who defended God’s plan for salvation. In Nicea, the fathers defended the Orthodox dogma of the incarnation of Christ against the delusions of Arius. As the soul experiences true communion with God during this time, we commemorate the Fathers that struck out against one whose heresy denies such a thing as even possible.
With the panikihida on day nine, we send up our prayers for the soul that will spend the next ~30 days being shown the torments of Hell. It is very simple to envision Hell as a kind of torture chamber, a la Greek mythology, but that, to me, does not get at the true horror of Hell. Sin is the choice one makes to turn away from God. Hell is the result of the choice to walk away from God and not avail oneself to the constantly open road to repentance. Therefore, Hell is a place where God honors the soul’s choice and is absent from them. Flash now to the temporal paradigm, where we have the commemoration of the dead and Pentecost, and we move from a time of God’s physical absence to the period where He sends us the Comforter. Again, we see the contrast of the two paradigms.
Finally, at day 40 the soul will come to Judgement and at this point the soul will have its resting place until the Second Coming of Christ. Because of this, the 40th day is sometimes considered the most important of all the panikhidas to be served. On this day, we beseech the mercy of Christ before this Judgement, but we also should reflect upon our own part in the life of the departed soul. We should, as a community, reflect on our mission to raise up Saints, and whether or not we are helping or hindering that mission. The fortieth day after Ascension is then rather anti-climactic in comparison. It is a Tuesday. There is no particular celebration for that day. There is nothing that really makes it stand out like the other events we’ve looked at. It appears that we are at a point where life has just moved on. Yet, if we look at the Epistle for the day, Romans 14:9-18, we find out that the Church has tied this day to that Judgement. It reads,
9 For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. 11 For it is written: “As I live, says the LORD, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God.” 12 So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. 13 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. 14 I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. 15 Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; 17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men.
This continues the chiasmus bringing an element of this so important Judgement into a time of relative obscurity and the Church provides an echo of eternity within our reality.