Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
As English-speakers, we are heirs to a 500-year tradition of worship and preaching in English. But because the English language evolves so rapidly, that means we inherit some Christianese words that might not communicate clearly today. What exactly is the “bosom of Abraham” and why is it a good place?
If you’ve always pictured the Mystical Supper of the Lord like the famous daVinci painting, with thirteen people seated upright in chairs at a long table (all one side) then you may not know how Middle Eastern folks anciently dined. The table is low and often round, so that you can recline on your side and rest your weight on your left elbow, and use your right hand (your clean, social, and honorable hand) to pick up food, dip it in sauce, and eat it or pass it to someone next to you.
If the table is small or the group is large, then the person at your right hand may actually end up leaning against you. So in John 13:23, at the Mystical Supper, we read “One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, was reclining at his side.” That’s Saint John the Evangelist, seated at Jesus’ right hand.
That’s the position we see Lazarus in, feasting in Paradise with the prophets and patriarchs, and in the place of honor, reclining against the chest of Abraham.
For many years, based on the words of today’s parable, I had the idea that there is a “great chasm fixed” (Luke 16:26) between the living and the dead. We’re alive, they’re dead, there’s no contact or connection, and they are out of our lives until we join them one day.
But that’s not what the Lord has just said. In this parable, in the place where the righteous await the resurrection and the Last Judgment, Lazarus tells the rich man who is in torment among the unjust, “Between us and you a great chasm has been set in place.” A Grand Canyon between the righteous and the unrighteous departed. He says, “Those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”
Do you hear the difference? The Lord says that after their departure from the body, Lazarus and the righteous have been carried by angels to a place where they are comforted and join the saints and forefathers. The unrighteous, who made themselves friends of their appetites and enemies of holiness, find themselves in torment, far from the light and rejoicing Lazarus enjoys.
The gap, the great and uncrossable distance, is between the righteous and the unjust among the departed, and not between the living and the dead.
Some of us have come to the Church from traditions that asserted that the departed are dead and no longer exist except in the memory of God. The earliest Christians did not have a word for this belief, since it hadn’t been invented yet, but later teachers drew the idea out of the apostolic term for death – which is Falling Asleep.
For example, the prophet Daniel says, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). Of course it’s our bodies that are buried “in the dust of the earth.” But what about us? Moses says, “The Lord God formed man out of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Are the living souls of the departed aware of what’s going on here and now?
We don’t have to guess at what “sleep” meant to the apostles. In our resurrection hymns, and in the Fathers, we read that in the flesh Christ “fell asleep” and “slept in the grave” on Friday night, rested all day Saturday to fulfill the sabbath, and into the first hours of Sunday. Meanwhile of course, even at the time his body slept in death, Christ the eternal God was living and active, bursting the bonds of hades, freeing the captives from all ages, and leading them out into paradise. “Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall enter in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war” (Psalm 23:7,8lxx).
St Peter writes Christ was “put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient” (1 Peter 3:18-20) and in Psalms, “Thou didst ascend on high, leading a host of captives in thy train and receiving gifts among men” (Psalm 67:19lxx; Ephesians 4:8). All these people are alive and well after their death, awaiting the resurrection of the body.
And so in Revelation we see the living souls of Christian martyrs in the presence of God:
When [Christ] opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?” (Revelation 6:9-10)
Modern Protestants, who have no Eucharist, might miss Saint John’s description of the living souls of the martyrs “under the altar.” For first-century Christians that expression made perfect sense. In times of persecution, Christians met outside the city gates in cemeteries and in catacombs, and at times they celebrated the Eucharist on the very gravestones of the martyrs. That’s why to this day there are martyrs’ bones in the holy table: In the antimins here on our altar table are relics – bones of the martyrs – just as in every Orthodox parish in the world. In Revelation, Saint John sees the living souls of the martyrs, as they cry out in prayer to the Lord, from under the altar in the heavens.
To the Sadducee priests, who did not believe in any resurrection (Matthew 22:23; Acts 23:9), the Lord quoted, “I am,” now, not I once was, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:32).
And this understanding is really the foundation of why the earliest Christians are recorded as continuing to pray for the ones they love after their falling asleep just as before; because “to be absent from the body [is] to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
Christ said that he would build his Church, and we understand that the Church is the body of Christ. Has Christ got two Churches, two bodies, one on earth and one in heaven? Is Christ divided? No – we believe “in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”
Six feet of earth has not got the power to divide Christ and separate us from the saints and apostles and all our beloved ones who are alive in Christ.
We have in American popular religion a very anemic, skeletal form of Christianity where there’s sort of a partition between God and the world, between God and humanity, where Christ ascended into heaven and now he’s gone away. And people die and now they’re gone, or they’re separated from us by this partition. There’s not really a way through it. What’s on the other side of it is kind of hazy.
So I do what I need to do to be saved and I try to follow the rules for the rest of my life here in the world and try to have confidence that when I die and go to the other side of that partition, I’ll end up in the good place.
That’s not the vital Faith that’s alive and that is made a fire, that you find in the Scriptures and that you find the apostles preaching. Saint Paul not only says over and over again that all of those partitions and dividing walls have been broken down. But when he writes a letter to a church, to Corinth where they’re experiencing some pretty horrific problems with sexual immorality, with heresy, with false teaching and a false gospel and all these things: He starts out by talking to them about the fact that they are sons of God, that they are seated in the heavenly places, that they’re like the angels, that they’re meant to reign with the Lord, that they’re in communion with God and with his saints, that they’re part of God’s plan and his work in the whole creation. That’s where he begins.
Then he works from there to get down to the details of: Here’s how you should treat your wife and your kids. Here are ways that you can and can’t act in the world.
You know, what we see with the Theotokos is exactly that. We see a human who has fully come into what God created her to be, who has reached the kind of maturity and completion as a person formed into the image of God that the Scriptures are constantly talking about as the goal of our Christian life. She’s done that. She’s crossed that non-existent partition and she is still connected to us, and we can see her there in the heavenly places, at the right hand of Christ, awaiting us at the end of the journey.
Is it strange that we started out talking about the parable of Lazarus, and we’ve wound up at the Theotokos? Not at all.
Because, when the rich man arrives in Hades, in torment, in outer darkness, what is the first thing he does? Well, the first thing is to ask for some relief. But the very next thing: He prays for his loved ones still on earth.
This is not a saint, not presented in any way as an example; this is just the obvious response of anyone who realizes his loved ones are on a dangerous path. “Send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”
If this sinful man, receiving the reward for his life of sins, lack of love, and unhealed passions, naturally intercedes for his loved ones on earth – then how much more do you think the saints, the righteous, the royal priesthood, stand before the King day and night interceding for the ones they love?
And who does Lazarus pray to? He prays to a saint! “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus!”
Have you ever had the experience of waking up at night, just certain that someone you love is in trouble? Or a person you haven’t thought of in years suddenly comes to mind, you remember them and you ask the Lord to bless them.
The Mother of God and the saints are not omni-present; they haven’t got eyes and ears in every corner of the globe. But you know who does? “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in the behalf of the one whose heart belongs to him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). And if the Lord can lay it on us sinners from time to time to pray for one another, then his holy ones, his favorites who know his will and have boldness before his throne, you’d better believe those brothers and sisters are ready and willing to agree with you and me in prayer concerning every care, when the God who is everywhere present lets them know who needs prayer.
I was just talking with someone who felt like veneration and honor given to the Mother of God is a distraction from Christ. But when we honor her and name her titles, we are not setting up an object of worship: We are teaching ourselves about our salvation in Christ.
It can sound pretty over the top to an Evangelical when they hear us say, “It is truly right to bless thee, O Theotokos, ever blessed and most blameless and Mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim…” But we need to go back and read in scripture about the human race’s destiny in God’s purposes:
What is man that thou dost take thought of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor to rule over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet (Psalm 8:3-6).
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2:9).
Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? (1 Corinthians 6:2-3).
And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him (Daniel 7:27).
When we recount the gifts of grace and love that the Lord has poured out on his Mother, we are setting our expectations for our own struggle for the virtues and our purpose of purification, illumination, and union with God in Christ.
* * *
And that brings us back to the rich man and Lazarus.
The rich man in the parable was just as much called to participation in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) as any saint is. But he failed to achieve his destiny. He didn’t allow grace to break him open and pour out mercy.
In fact many of us, called to be a royal priesthood and to be transfigured with the Lord, have wined and dined our appetites and ambitions and ego, while our soul sits neglected and starving and unhealed outside the gates of our attention.
Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; then how shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation? (Hebrews 2:1-3).
We’re just a few weeks away from the Nativity Fast. If you’re new to fasting, then food is going to be on your mind. But what you eat isn’t the point of fasting; eating less is meant to intensify your prayers and good works. Bluntly, a full belly hinders your prayers; a very little hunger, a little humbling of your will, warms up your heart for repentance, for works of almsgiving, for forgiving those who trespass against you.
The rich man feasts every day and Lazarus starves. But we need to be vigilant that we don’t fast from rich foods … and still leave Lazarus out in the cold.
I’m not speaking metaphorically here; we are surrounded by opportunities to go beyond our comfort zones and bless Lazarus. Coats for Kids, adopting a family for Christmas dinner and gifts, cleaning out our closets to give away excess jackets and shoes to the women’s shelter or Christian Aid Center. You could help keep a warming center open on a winter night by just showing up and being there. “And whosoever shall give one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:42).
And when we’re able to: Once a week tuck a five or ten or twenty in your pocket and look for Lazarus on your way to school or as you leave Wal-mart. He’s probably holding a sign, or carrying all he owns on a wagon downtown.
Because the reason the Lord showers blessings on us is to make us blessings. Only if our hands are open to give can we receive grace from God. Nobody is keeping score, and you don’t get extra credit. But “a person who plants sparingly will harvest sparingly, and whoever plants bountifully will harvest bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6-7).
I’ll leave you with this thought from Saint Paul that seems like a conclusion to the Lord’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man:
We are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord… We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthans 5:6-10).
To our Lord who pours out the riches of his grace on us and draws us to be refreshed in Abraham’s bosom, to him be glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit unto the ages of ages. Amen.