SATURDAYS OF THE SOULS
by Dn. John Konugres
A King had a particular love for flowers. One day he called his royal gardener into the palace and gave him a beautiful lily plant, and said to him, "Take this out into the gardens, plant it, water it, and care for it as though it were your very own. I want you to love it as I love it." The gardener was very pleased to accept this responsibility from the king. He watched over the lily plant and cared for it as if it were his very own.
The weeks and months passed until one day the gardener noticed that the plant was ready to bloom again. Early the next morning he went out into the garden with great anticipation, expecting to see the plant in its full beauty. But to his great disappointment it was gone. A feeling of tragedy came over him. He had been robbed. He stood there crushed, one of his aides came to his side. He told the gardener that early in the morning the King himself had come out into the garden and had discovered his favorite lily plant in full bloom. It was the king who dug it up with his own hands, potted it and took it back into the palace.
The disappointment that had been in the heart of the gardener disappeared. He realized that
he had not been robbed at all. The plant had not really been his own. It had been entrusted him to care for, to water, to cultivate and to cherish; yet all the while it belonged to the king.
The first Saturday of the Souls, we gather to commemorate all those who have departed. Each one of us has experienced the death of a loved one. A grandparent, parent, son or daughter, friend or co-worker. We all have the experience of the death of someone we love-it hurts, it is painful.
In the epistle reading for Saturday Saint Paul is speaking about death to the believers in Thessalonika. The believers in Thessalonica were expecting the imminent return of Christ and they were waiting to be united with Him upon his return, but they were concerned because they didn't know what would happen to those among them that had died. St. Paul does not want them to be ignorant about those who have died he wants them to be informed/ He wants them to know what is happening to those who have departed .
And informing the believers in Thessalonika about death, he refers to the death of believers in Christ as having fallen asleep. What is unique about the words used in this epistle reading is that neither St. Paul nor any other New Testament writer refers to Christ himself as having fallen asleep when he died. Saint John Chrysostom says that, "the departed believers are called those who are asleep," but it is said of Christ that "he died" he also says that, "Christ died and the reality of Christ's death points to the divine miracle accomplished in His being raised from the dead." The death of Christ and his resurrection is directly related to the resurrection of His believers.
Jesus, the one who died and rose from the dead, is now the mediating link between those who have fallen sleep and their resurrection. St. Paul reminds us that "so also God will bring (back) with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus," and that "Christ, being raised from the dead is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep."
Since only one has died and risen from the dead we must unite ourselves with Him in order to be awakened. Having been united with Christ through our baptism and chrismation, it is our vigilance in seeking Him, through the partaking of the Eucharist and listening attentively to the Word of God that we join ourselves to Him.
St. Paul also want us to be informed about grieving. He says "Do not grieve as those who have no hope." Sorrow and grief are a part of human life. Grieving is a process that is an on-going understanding of the loss of a loved one. Often, this passage of scripture is misunderstood that a Christian should not grieve. There is a misunderstanding that if we hope in the resurrection of Christ then we have no business feeling sad when someone we love dies.
This passage could also be misunderstood that it is only selfishness or the absence of hope that makes us grieve, or that as Orthodox Christians our only focus should be on the resurrection; and if we experience grief or allow ourselves to feel the sadness, hurt and other emotions of grief it is to be taken as a sign that our faith is deficient.
But there is nothing in the epistle reading that offers an unambiguous clue to Paul's intent. It would appear that the contrast is not between grieving and not grieving but between grieving with the hope of the resurrection before us and grieving as the pagans did. There is repeated evidence in the book of Acts that the Early Christians grieved the death of its members and similar evidence in the Gospels that Jesus wept over the loss of his friend Lazarus.
But the way in which a Christian grieves should not be the way others grieve. The approach of the faithful to God in grieving includes deep and bitter lamentation. To hurt and feel pain over one's losses and even to reproach God with them is a stance that is testified in the psalms and the prophets.
People who have no hope, however, must manage their grief differently. A person who has no hope may deny loss, attempt to freeze time and remain turned inward, inaccessible to those who love and care for him or her. The person who has no hope may argue that losing your composure during grieving is losing one's basic stance toward life and since by definition grief is irrational, not grieving becomes a sign for the person who has no hope as sign of hopelessness.
But as Christians we are more free to grieve precisely because our faith is grounded in the promise of a presence of God. It is God's presence embodied in Christ and living in the Church that provides our sense of stability and shelter. It is in our relationship with the living God that we are able to bring understanding to our grief, anger, and our sense of loss. The sacred presence of Christ who is the ground of hope, sustains us through our painful and sometimes terrifying loss. The hope that nothing will separate us from the love of God is the hope that endures; it is the hope that we carry along with our grief. Because of that hope we are free to grieve more, rather than less.
In the story Christ is the King, the lily plant represents our loved ones who we care for and nurture but in the end it is Christ as King who takes the lily plant into his palace-the Kingdom of Heaven. And while this does not alleviate the grief associated with death, for the believers in Christ-This is our hope- that those who have departed will be united with Christ.