Cyril of Alexandria said, “It is appropriate and necessary that at the time … we make the confession of faith at holy baptism, we say that we expect the resurrection of the flesh. And so we believe. Death overcame our forefather Adam on account of his transgression, and like a fierce wild animal it pounced on him and carried him off amid lamentation and loud wailing. Men wept and grieved because death ruled over all the earth. But all this came to an end with Christ. Striking down death, He rose up on the third day and became the way by which human nature would rid itself of corruption. He became the first born of the dead, and the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
“We who come afterward will certainly follow the first fruits. He turned suffering into joy, and we cast off our sackcloth. We put on the joy given by God so that we can rejoice and say, ‘Where is your victory, O death?’ Therefore every tear is taken away. For believing that Christ will surely raise the dead ... we are not overwhelmed by inconsolable grief like those who have no hope.”
Has every tear been wiped away? When a loved one dies, we Christians do not weep as those who have no hope. But we do weep. Only a cold, callous man would not acknowledge that a bad thing had happened when a loved one is removed from our midst. So we weep, and we have the example of our Lord when He wept at the grave of Lazarus. It is no sin to mourn the dead.
As others observe our weeping, can they tell that we are not weeping the same way as those who have no hope? Probably not. To outward appearance, our sorrow may appear identical to the sorrow of a godless person. Even in our heart there may not be a great difference in the emotions that well up from a wounded heart, whether they are believer or not.
There IS a difference, even though in the moment it may not seem so. Christ our Lord wept, but He knew Lazarus would rise. We weep, but we know that our loved ones who died in the Lord will rise. So we weep as those who have been parted temporarily. Although it may be a long time before we see them again, we WILL see them again. So there is grief, tempered by the hope of the Resurrection.
Those without that specific hope may comfort themselves in the face of death with various thoughts. Perhaps they remember the good times they shared with the departed loved one. This, of course, may comfort, but more likely intensify the pain since the pleasant memories remind you of what a great loss you have suffered.
Perhaps people may say that death is simply a natural part of life and we should man up and not live with fairy tale hopes like the Resurrection. Obviously, if you begin by assuming that the Resurrection is false, then you have nothing but your own resilient strength to fall back on. And what a bleak world that is!
Or perhaps people may take refuge in reincarnation, or an eternal existence of the soul without a resurrection, or some other spiritual but not Christian belief.
The Word of God reveals something different. The Lord created mankind in the beginning not only as a soul, but with both body and soul, and declared both good. Adam was created immortal, yet because of sin, he brought death upon himself and all his descendants who share his sinfulness. Yet the Lord would not see His good creation destroyed. He resolved to provide salvation in such a way that both body and soul could be restored and preserved for eternity.
This way, of course, is through His Son, Jesus Christ. The proof that the plan has been completed is that He, the immortal second Adam, stepped out of His own grave on Easter. Therefore the plan is complete. Death has lost its stranglehold on mankind.
Isaiah describes the completion of the Lord’s plan to reestablish immortality to men: “He [the Lord Yahweh] will destroy on this mountain the surface of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.”
Now, he has factually and objectively beaten death, supported some five hundred witnesses. So the comfort in the face of death is publicly proclaimed and offered to all. Yet there are many who disbelieve. It is not merely that they refuse to accept that the events of Christ’s Resurrection happened. The real heart of the matter is that they trust their own judgment and their own strength. Certainly their trust is not in a God who freely gives life. For us who trust in Christ’s work for us, His Resurrection is an immeasurable comfort.
Yet death still happens, at least the little death when bodies cease to function and the spirit leaves the body. This is tragic and painful, so clearly not all tears have been finally removed. The grave must still cause us some pain for a while.
Much can be learned, however, from the beginning of Isaiah’s words. “On this mountain,” he says. One might assume that Isaiah is speaking geographically about the mountain in Jerusalem where Christ our Lord was sacrificed. But no, Isaiah is not speaking that way. He is speaking figuratively about the Mountain which is the holy Church. At various times, Isaiah spoke about the future Church as a Mountain to which the nations would flow, where supernatural peace ruled.
Here is the mountain where death is conquered. Where the Gospel rebukes death, that is the Mountain of the Lord; where the saints of God sing songs of joy in the face of the grave; where Baptismal waters unite us to Christ’s death and resurrection; where the Food of Immortality is given to sinners. This is the place of life, where the risen Lord continues to pour out His banquet feast. That also Isaiah has described for us this morning: “A feast of choice pieces, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of well-refined wines on the lees.” Where else can this best of all feasts be except where the Lord who loves us gives us the best gifts we can have in this life?
Yet there is also an incompleteness to His gifts. Although this is the beginning of a feast that never ends, we also must still live in a world shadowed by death. We must still face sorrows and pain and life on a gradual decline towards returning to the dust. So we have the promise, even the reality, of the immortality Christ has won for us, yet we also still live under the burden of the old creation.
Yet the greater reality is the eternal one.
Basil the Great said, “Eternal rest lies before those who have struggled through the present life ... a rest not given in payment for a debt owed for their works but provided as a grace of the generous God for those who have hoped in Him. Then, before He describes the good things there, telling in detail the escape from the troubles of the world, He gives thanks for [the good things] to the Liberator of souls, who has delivered from the varied and inexorable slavery of the passions. But what are these good things?
“’For He has delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from falling.’ God describes the future rest by a comparison with things here. Here, He says, the sorrows of death have surrounded me, but there He has delivered my soul from death. Here the eyes pour forth tears because of trouble, but there, no longer is there a tear to darken the eyes of those who are rejoicing in the contemplation of the beauty of the glory of God. ‘For God has wiped away every tear from every face.’”
Our double reality must continue until we rest in the ground, or until the Lord returns, whichever comes first. Either way, we must live with the tension created by this life of mortal immortality. By the Spirit’s grace, we are able to see beyond the troubles and weeping of this life to the true reality that lies beyond it. The true reality of immortality already exists for us, yet it is hard to see behind the ugliness of this old world of sin and death.
We patiently endure, remembering that our immortal Lord also endured. He who did not have to submit to death nevertheless laid down His life. We also can persevere for a little while. For this life, even if you live to be the oldest man on earth, is only a brief moment compared with the endless glory Christ has won for us.
So look with faith to the Cross and Empty Tomb. Continue to receive His Food and listen to His Word of Life. They will help you to keep your eyes upon your loving Redeemer, the Conquering Victim who has accomplished all things for you. He sympathizes with your weakness since He also came in the form of a weak servant. He knows the difficulty of walking through this veil of tears.
Therefore He desires to continue wiping away your tears. The way He dos this is through His Gospel, which is the only true comfort in the face of death.
And one day He will bring to culmination all things and remove once and for all every cause of weeping in His presence forever. The Lord keep us until that great Day. Amen.
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