VOA news recently reported on the coronavirus: “The most contentious debate over Orthodox Easter occurred in Georgia [former USSR] where church leaders and the government agreed to allow parishioners to attend dusk-to-dawn Easter vigil services. The agreement meant worshippers were allowed to attend overnight services in large cathedrals despite a curfew, but they were required to maintain a distance of 2 meters. Those who attend small churches had to remain outside. Dozens went to the main cathedral in Tbilisi, where Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II said that the virus had caused fear among many people.”
Despite a global fear of death over a virus, these Georgian worshippers stayed up all night worshipping the Holy and Life-Giving Resurrection of Our Lord. Perhaps part of their insistence was due to Church leaders remembering their former communist country and that if clerics kowtow to the state by giving them an inch, their Churches get closed for 50 years. How many old Russian Orthodox priests look back from their nursing homes to see that they had nothing to trust (or fear) in the Kremlin of the 1950s under Khrushchev? Perhaps a few of them were tortured by the state for putting Christ before the Commissar a few decades ago. These tortured clerics would ironically be the ones who rest easier at night in their twilight years.
If another Christian has ever made you mad enough to even instantaneously think of murdering him or her, you would probably immediately reject that thought and then feel a quick sense of embarrassment. Some of you would feel a sense of shame before God for letting your anger get out of control. (Let it be noted that angry thoughts, like impure thoughts, carry no sin unless there’s mental or physical consent to the passing temptation.) But if someone did not resist that temptation to disproportionate anger against his neighbor (and subsequently gave serious thought thought to murdering him or her) a new sense of shock might aslo set in: Death would only liberate my enemy if he were a true Christian!
Think about how frustrating this must have been for the Roman tribunes who tortured Christians. Death would be too good for them, literally. The early Christians (100% Catholics) internalized the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ to the point that death was so fully conquered as to be—in one sense—even unreal. Human death is no longer even real after Christ’s Resurrection. Yes, a person would enter cardiac arrest in the body, but the living soul would then be all the more alive once freed from this body of death (Quis me liberabit de corpore mortis huius?—Rom 7:24.) Of course, our bodily “death” is purposed only to regain a new body at the end of time.
The Roman Empire authorities before 313 AD frequently asked Christians not to assemble. This request was peaceful and accommodating…at first. From the earliest days of the Holy Mass in the catacombs in Rome, the bishops (the immediate successors to the Apostles) understood that they could obey or disobey the Roman Empire in commands on how to worship. Eventually, either way, the Churches would be closed down. But then we must ask: If the bishops obeying or disobeying the state had the same outcome upon the actual catacomb Church, why would bishops ever resist the state? Why not just oblige to make peace?
We modern Catholics sadly speak of heaven as a distant reality that we hope actually exists, and if it does, I’ll certainly get there because God owes me a living. The early Christians knew, however, that for those who die in Christ, “life is changed, not ended” as the ancient liturgy states. The early Catholics had the opposite attitude as most modern Catholics: They understood how unworthy they were to be called Catholic (due of their former lives) but they were equally convinced that Christ had so completely, absolutely, entirely, fully and wholly annihilated death that there was nothing to fear on this earth that ever again might come against my body: Not a sword, not a virus. Indeed, for the soul who would carry her cross (a cross that constitutes a fraction the size of the cross that Christ bore for her and in her) there was nothing a Roman executioner could take from her.
It seems that the first millennium of Catholicism put the emphasis on Christ conquering death and the second millennium of Catholicism put the emphasis on Christ conquering sin. Of course, both are true. But perhaps many of the early Christians had already (by the blood of Jesus alone) conquered sin by choosing never to commit a mortal sin again. And thus, all that was left after sin was conquered was death to be conquered. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that for the early Catholics: Death was no longer a real possibility.
The Eastern funeral liturgy holds this as it will not even use the word “death.” I once attended the Byzantine Catholic burial of a spiritual director priest I had in seminary. At the graveside, the priest hammered nails into the coffin of his brother priest, saying that when his “sleep” is ended at the end of time, these nails will not be able to hold his awakened and resurrected body! The Byzantine burial liturgy repeatedly states that the true Christian has only fallen “asleep.” The ancient liturgy will not recognize death as a realistic claim over anyone who fully put on Christ in his or her life. It takes literally what Christ said of Lazarus: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”—Jn 11:11. Christ was asserting (before having to clarify for dull listeners a few verses later that Lazarus had indeed died) that death is not real in Him. Indeed, for those who die in Him, so-called “death” is only sleep. This is not an exaggeration or a failure of 1st century Palestinians to understand what happens to a body after death, for the practical St. Martha nearly tried to prevent this second greatest miracle of Our Lord by her knowledge of medical science: “Lord, by this time he stinketh!”—Jn 11:39
But never have Catholics lived under such fear of death as today. Sadly, we are not afraid of real forms of death (spiritual death or abortion.) As we reach near global apostasy, we see Catholics displaying a disturbing fear of losing the body while displaying no fear of losing their souls. Perhaps we need to peel back this veil of diabolical disorientation and see that we may perhaps live under an actual, personal diabolical spirit in 2020: the spirit of death. Could this be satan himself? But I propose that even if such is the case, we have even less to fear than our Catholic forefathers. St. Louis De Montfort said the greatest saints would come in the last days. He couldn’t have known about the horrors of abortion, but I can not help but think of the promise of the Holy Ghost through St. Paul: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”—1 Cor 15:26. So we Catholics must ask ourselves today: What are we so afraid of, especially if Christ has already destroyed the works of the devil by His own cross and resurrection?
Why would we fear death (from the government or from an admittedly real—but rare and usually innocuous—virus) if the greatest graces and saints would be reserved for the last days? The death and resurrection of Jesus was a complete (not a partial!) defeat of satan’s death for anyone who would simply follow Christ on this earth: “For this purpose, the Son of God appeared, that He might destroy the works of the devil”—1 Jn 3:8 because “through death, [Christ] might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil: And might deliver them, who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to servitude.”—Heb 2:14b-15.
Throw off those chains of servitude and get living in fearlessness today!