The icon above is of St. Sisoes – an abbot, desert father, and disciple of St. Anthony the Great, the icon is sometimes accompanied by this inscription, setting the scene:
"Sisoes, great among the ascetics, stood before the tomb of Alexander, Emperor of the Greeks, who at one time had shone with glory; and horrified by the inexorable passing of time and the vanity of this transient world, "Lo!" he cried aloud, "beholding thee, O Grave, I fear the Judgment of God and I weep, for the common destiny of all mankind come to mind!... O Death, who can escape thee?"
I have experienced my first Orthodox funeral, and I must admit that I am still reeling from it all. I have been to plenty of funerals, but none have in a sense made the body of the departed a sermon in and of itself. Fr. Thomas lies vested in the plainest pine casket I have ever seen, fully open and placed blatantly in the center of the Church. He holds in his hands, upon his chest, the Gospel Book (which had JUST been purchased for the mission they were starting) and intertwined in his right hand is a blessing cross. Per tradition for priests, his face is covered entirely with the Aer, which is a decorated cloth used to cover the Holy Gifts during Liturgy. No attempts are made to sanitize death, he has neither been embalmed or made-up, and the centrality of his presence and the utter lack of décor on the casket speak volumes: death stands naked and vicious before us.
The hymns, both at the Pannikhida (on Friday evening) and the Funeral service proper on Sunday evening, say so much that I cannot begin to recollect it all. Much ado is made of the strangeness of the scene that we are witnessing: the Image of God is here lying dead before us – how can it be? Sometimes the lyrics become the voice of the departed himself, comforting, exhorting, and even warning us.
Pascha is never far from the heart of the service…indeed one can see how Holy Friday services are very much like an Orthodox funeral. If they do not share the very same words in some places, they almost certainly carry the same connotations – specifically I am reminded of the burial hymns of Christ in which we lament: how can we bury our God? And here, in Father Thomas, we are mystified at burying God’s image. As we buried Christ, we bury Fr. Thomas and as we behold Christ’s glorious resurrection we look also for Father Thomas’ – and as the rite refuses to let us forget: our own as well.
Truly all things are vanity.
Life is but a shadow and a dream.
For as scripture has said,
In vain does everyone born on earth trouble himself.
Even if we should gain the world,
Yet we shall all dwell in the grave,
Where kings and beggars are laid side by side.
Therefore, give rest to the departed, O Christ our God.
Since you are the Lover of mankind.
On Sunday morning, Father Paul from Homer Alaska spoke to us about Father Thomas and about death and about life. He directed us to the icon of St. Sisoes and encouraged us to be ever mindful of death – and to recognize how futile so much of what we pursue in life really is. From the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”, he also offered us this little reminder which I have heard from Father Thomas on at least two occasions:
It was said of Abba Sisoes that when he was at the point of death, while the Fathers were sitting beside him, his face shone like the sun. He said to them, "Look, Abba Anthony is coming." A little later he said, "Look, the choir of prophets is coming." Again his countenance shone with brightness and he said, "Look, the choir of apostles is coming." His countenance increased in brightness and lo, he spoke with someone. Then the old men asked him, "With whom are you speaking, Father?" He said, "Look, the angels are coming to fetch me, and I am begging them to let me do a little penance." The old man said to him, "You have no need to do penance, Father." But the old man said to them, "Truly, I do not think I have even made a beginning yet."
The grave is the grand question and exclamation marks of life. It seeks both an answer and our dutiful attention. It is the “incarnation” (if you will) of all that is amiss in the world and it is ultimately that which Christ came to free us from. The Orthodox funeral is probably the most profound rite I have ever witnessed and it shall at once haunt and comfort me for some time to come – no doubt its intent.
...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 1:08 PM [+]