I have to confess that I have been in a bit of a spiritual malaise recently. One of the things that I’ve started doing in response is reading a homily or two of the fathers before I go to bed. For Christmas last year I received a volume of the sermons of St. Maximus of Turin. If you’re not sure exactly who he is, don’t feel so that – you’re not alone. He was a bishop of the Italian city of Turin who died in the opening years of the fifth century. The sermons of St. Maximus were quite popular during the Carolingian period, and Paul the Deacon’s homiliary includes quite a number of his pieces. However, interest in him kind of dropped off after that whole high medieval thing.
In any case, I was reading over one of his homilies last night and was very interested to find the following section. I think it ties in quite nicely with some of our recent discussions about the saints, the blessed dead, and the regular dead. This sermon was for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. He has been talking about Peter’s vision of the sheet full of animals and connects it to the conversion of the nations. We pick him up at that point:
For when we see the throngs of the nations hasten to the Christian faith, we rejoice together with the apostles. For those whose anniversary we celebrate today are not dead but reborn. It is clear that they are alive because they have become partakers in Christ, who is life. Although their bodies have been slain in suffering nonetheless the process of life has not been interrupted. For they still give thanks to God and offer praises to the Savior, and in fact they adhere more closely to Christ inasmuch as their members are no longer bound together as the apostle Paul says: to be dissolved and to be with Christ is better by far. Thus that should not be called death which, when it occurs, separates us from our persecutors and joins us to Christ. It is clear that that should not be called death which associates the one who has died with Christ and brings gain to the dying, as the blessed apostle says: for me to live is Christ and to die is gain. But that is real death which binds by the death of sinners even the living person who although he appears to be alive seems nonetheless already given over to death. In this respect the apostle says of that voluptuous widow: while living she has already died. [Sermon 2.3]
The key here for me, is his emphasis that the whole nature of death has changed for us who are bound to Christ. As Christians we now look at death differently. His language of binding and joining and dissolving works better in Latin than in English because of the way the Latin words share parts of one another. To be living, to be alive, is determined by the nature of our relationship with the living Christ. The closer we cleave to Christ the more alive we are no matter what our biological state might be. He also builds out the contrary position: the further we are from Christ – even if we are still biologically alive– the more in death we are.
This reminds me a lot of some writings by Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest.
“our issues are not moral in nature (obeying things because they are right, etc.) but ontological in nature. The great choice of humanity is between union with God and His Life, or a movement towards non-being and emptiness. Our salvation is not a juridical matter – it is utterly ontological.”
“so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.”
Wonderful! Reminds me of the Preface for the Dead in ’79: “. . . for to thy people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended . . .”
This is lovely. I am in a low-key ongoing argument with a very protestant friend about “praying to dead people.” I say to her, “What dead people? These are Christians we are talking about! There are no dead Christians. Or rather, we are already dead and already living new life.” She (they) just doesn’t (don’t) get it.