Death: My Orthodox & Existentialist Experience – Brad Jersak

My experience of Christian Orthodoxy (an experience lived through prayer) involves a lot of engagement with death. I have not connected all the dots, but I have identified a few of the dots themselves:

  • Key verse: Hebrews 2:14-15 “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
  • Death died in the death of Christ. That is, the death and resurrection of Christ fundamentally changed the very nature of death. It has been transformed from a fearful destination in non-being into a doorway to eternal life. That is ALL that death is now.

 The gates of hades were broken and its goods (humanity) plundered. I find this easier to believe in that I prayerfully chant this victory profound victory every Sunday. I wrote an article that includes many of these ancient hymns here:

Here is one sample from hundreds, noting that for us, every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection that eradicates death:

 When Thou didst descend to death, O Life Immortal, 

Thou didst slay hades with the radiance of Thy Divinity. 

And when Thou didst raise the dead from the lowest depths,
all the hosts of heaven cried out: 

O Giver of Life! Christ our God! Glory to Thee!

These truths have become my experience, I believe, through years of mindfully abiding in them and giving myself over to these songs as truth.

  • I already died at my baptism. I can’t die again. Jesus was not mistaken: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even though he dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26). I mean this quite literally. Oh yes, I will depart, I will fall asleep, and I will arise. But die? No. That’s not a thing. I have already “passed from death into life” … where ‘death’ was a realm in which I once ‘lived’ and which I’ve left behind.
  • Death will be my birth into the telos of my humanity. Ignatius of Antioch wrote to those who would have liked to interfere in his martyrdom. He pled with them to not prevent him from being born, from becoming human, from experiencing the glorification of his humanity for which this life is a womb. The breaking of the waters (think birthing) in baptism prefigure our bursting out of the womb into life in our resurrection.
  • Unapologetically existentialist. Despite the denial of death-as-terminal in the previous points, the Orthodox Church is an existentialist movement (overtly so from the time of Dostoevsky). Death is existentially significant when we perceive our lives with reference to our encounter with Christ as the All-merciful Judge. In that light, we ponder the meaning of our lives here and now.

 Death and judgment in this sense are not merely taken as an empirical event that will happen someday–they are an orientation to the Judgment Seat of the Cross (which is also the Mercy Seat) for how I live today (death to egoism and life before the Cross). We take ‘deadly serious’ our finitude, and this awareness makes authentic existence possible.

There is some angst involved, but the ‘dread’ in ‘dread judgment’ comes via the exacting judgments of the accusing conscience with which we are reconciled through confession before Christ and hearing his unfailing gospel verdict of infinite mercy.

I’ll close with those beautiful closing words from our Paschal Homily, composed by St. John Chrysostom and recited every year at Pascha since the late 4th century:

Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into hades, He made hades captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hades, said he, was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions.

It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body and met God face to face. It took earth and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Picture of Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More