We have, however, read in the Gospel of three dead persons who were raised to life by the Lord, and, let us hope, to some good purpose. For surely the Lord’s deeds are not merely deeds, but signs. And if they are signs, besides their wonderful character, they have some real significance: and to find out this in regard to such deeds is a somewhat harder task than to read or hear of them. We were listening with wonder, as at the sight of some mighty miracle enacted before our eyes, in the reading of the Gospel, how Lazarus was restored to life.
If we turn our thoughts to the still more wonderful works of Christ, every one that believes rises again: if we all consider, and understand that more horrifying kind of death, every one who sins dies. But every man is afraid of the death of the flesh; few, of the death of the soul. In regard to the death of the flesh, which must certainly come some time, all are on their guard against its approach: this is the source of all their labor. Man, destined to die, labors to avert his dying; and yet man, destined to live for ever, labors not to cease from sinning. And when he labors to avoid dying, he labors to no purpose, for its only result will be to put off death for a while, not to escape it; but if he refrain from sinning, his toil will cease, and he shall live forever.
Oh that we could arouse men, and be ourselves aroused along with them, to be as great lovers of the life that abides, as men are of that which passes away! What will a man not do who is placed under the peril of death? When the sword was overhanging their heads, men have given up every means of living they had in reserve. Who is there that has not made an immediate surrender of all, to escape being slain? And, after all, he has perhaps been slain. Who is there that, to save his life, has not been willing at once to lose his means of living, and prefer a life of beggary to a speedy death? Who has had it said to him, Be off to sea if you would escape with your life, and has delayed to do so? Who has had it said to him, Set to work if you would preserve your life, and has continued a sluggard?
It is but little that God requires of us, that we may live for ever: and we neglect to obey Him. God says not to you, Lose all you have, that you may live a little time oppressed with toil; but, Give to the poor of what you have, that you may live always exempt from labor. The lovers of this temporal life, which is theirs, neither when, nor as long as they wish, are our accusers; and we accuse not ourselves in turn, so sluggish are we, so lukewarm about obtaining eternal life, which will be ours if we wish it, and will be imperishable when we have it; but this death which we fear, notwithstanding all our reluctance, will yet be ours in possession.
[St. Augustine of Hippo, Tractate 49 on the Gospel of St. John]
Wherefore he says, “Awake you that sleep and arise from the dead, and Christ shall shine upon you.” (Ephesians 5:14)
By the sleeper and the dead, he means the man that is in sin; for he both exhales noisome odors like the dead, and is inactive like one that is asleep, and like him he sees nothing, but is dreaming, and forming fancies and illusions.
Some indeed read, “And you shall touch Christ”; but others, “And Christ shall shine upon you”; and it is rather this latter. Depart from sin, and you shall be able to behold Christ. For every one that does ill, hates the light, and comes not to the light (John 3:20). He therefore that does it not, comes to the light.
Now he is not saying this with reference to the unbelievers only, for many of the faithful, no less than unbelievers, hold fast by wickedness; no, some far more. Therefore to these also it is necessary to exclaim, “Awake, you that sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall shine upon you.” To these it is fitting to say this also, God is not the God of the dead, but of the living (Matthew 22:32). If then he is not the God of the dead, let us live.
[St. John Chrysostom, Homily 18 on Ephesians]
When mankind was estranged from him by disobedience, God our Saviour made a plan for raising us from our fall and restoring us to friendship with himself. According to this plan Christ came in the flesh, he showed us the gospel way of life, he suffered, died on the cross, was buried and rose from the dead. He did this so that we could be saved by imitation of him, and recover our original status as sons of God by adoption.
To attain holiness, then, we must not only pattern our lives on Christ’s by being gentle, humble and patient, we must also imitate him in his death. Taking Christ for his model, Paul said that he wanted to become like him in his death in the hope that he too would be raised from death to life.
We imitate Christ’s death by being buried with him in baptism. If we ask what this kind of burial means and what benefit we may hope to derive from it, it means first of all making a complete break with our former way of life, and our Lord himself said that this cannot be done unless a man is born again. In other words, we have to begin a new life, and we cannot do so until our previous life has been brought to an end.
When runners reach the turning point on a racecourse, they have to pause briefly before they can go back in the opposite direction. So also when we wish to reverse the direction of our lives there must be a pause, or a death, to mark the end of one life and the beginning of another.
Our descent into hell takes place when we imitate the burial of Christ by our baptism. The bodies of the baptised are in a sense buried in the water as a symbol of their renunciation of the sins of their unregenerate nature. As the Apostle says: The circumcision you have undergone is not an operation performed by human hands, but the complete stripping away of your unregenerate nature.
This is the circumcision that Christ gave us, and it is accomplished by our burial with him in baptism. Baptism cleanses the soul from the pollution of worldly thoughts and inclinations: You will wash me, says the psalmist, and I shall be whiter than snow. We receive this saving baptism only once because there was only one death and one resurrection for the salvation of the world, and baptism is its symbol.
[St. Basil the Great, De Spiritu Sancto]
Question: What is the resurrection of the soul, of which the Apostle speaks, saying, ‘If ye be risen with Christ’?, (Colossians 3:1).
Answer: When the Apostle said, ‘God, Who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined into our hearts’ (2 Corinthians 4:6) the resurrection, he showed this resurrection to be the exodus from the old state (which in the likeness of Sheol incarcerates a man so that the light of the Gospel will not shine mystically upon him. This is a breath of life through hope in the resurrection, and by it the dawning of divine wisdom shines in his heart), so that a man should become new, having nothing of the old man. This the prophet also says, ‘And I shall give them a new heart and a new spirit’ (Ezekiel 36:26). Then the image of Christ is formed in us through the Spirit of wisdom and the revelation of the knowledge of Him.
[Mar Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Homilies, Homily 37]
The parents of a young girl died, and she was left an orphan; she was called Paesia. She decided to make her house a hospice, for the use of the Fathers of Scetis. So for a long time she gave hospitality and served the Fathers. But in the course of time, her resources were exhausted and she began to be in want. Some wicked men came to see her and turned her aside from her aim. She began to live an evil life, to the point of becoming a prostitute. The Fathers, learning this, were deeply grieved, and calling Abba John the Dwarf said to him, ‘We have learnt that this sister is living an evil life. While she could, she gave us charity, so now it is our turn to offer her charity and to go to her assistance. Go to see her then, and according to the wisdom which God has given you, put things right for her.’
So Abba John went to her, and said to the old door-keeper, ‘Tell your mistress I am here.’ But she sent him away saying, ‘From the beginning you have eaten her goods, and see how poor she is now.’ Abba John said to her, ‘Tell her, I have something which will be very helpful to her.’ The door-keeper’s children, mocking him, said to him, ‘What have you to give her, that makes you want to meet her?’ He replied, ‘How do you know what I am going to give her?’ The old woman went up and spoke to her mistress about him. Paesia said to her, ‘These monks are always going about in the region of the Red Sea and finding pearls.’ Then she got ready and said to the door-keeper, ‘Please bring him to me.’ As he was coming up, she prepared for him and lay down on the bed.
Abba John entered and sat down beside her. Looking into her eyes, he said to her, ‘What have you got against Jesus that you behave like this?’ When she heard this she became completely rigid. Then Abba John bent his head and began to weep copiously. She asked him, Abba, why are you crying?’ He raised his head, then lowered it again, weeping, and said to her, ‘I see Satan playing in your face, how should I not weep?’ Hearing this, she said to him, Abba, is it possible to repent?’ He replied ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘Take me wherever you wish.’ ‘Let us go,’ he said and she got up to go with him. Abba John noticed that she did not make any arrangements with regard to her house; he said nothing, but he was surprised.
When they reached the desert, the evening drew on. He, making a little pillow with the sand, and marking it with the sign of the cross, said to her, ‘Sleep here.’ Then, a little further on, he did the same for himself, said his prayers, and lay down. Waking in the middle of the night, he saw a shining path reaching from heaven to her, and he saw the angels of God bearing away her soul. So he got up and went to touch her feet. When he saw that she was dead he threw himself face downwards on the ground, praying to God. He heard this: ‘One single hour of repentance has brought her more than the penitence of many who persevere without showing such fervour in repentance.’
[Abba John the Dwarf, Apophthegmata Patrum]
For repentance must be taken in hand not only anxiously, but also quickly, lest perchance that father of the house in the Gospel who planted a fig-tree in his vineyard should come and seek fruit on it, and finding none, say to the vine-dresser: “Cut it down, why does it cumber the ground?” (Luke 13:7). And unless the vine-dresser should intercede and say: “Lord, let it alone this year also, until I dig about it and dung it, and if it bear fruit— well; but if not let it be cut down” (Luke 13:8-9 3).
Let us then dung this field which we possess, and imitate those hard-working farmers, who are not ashamed to satiate the land with rich dung and to scatter the grimy ashes over the field, that they may gather more abundant crops.
And the Apostle teaches us how to dung it, saying: “I count all things but dung, that I may gain Christ,” (Philippians 3:8) and he, through evil report and good report, attained to pleasing Christ. For he had read that Abraham, when confessing himself to be but dust and ashes, (Genesis 18:27) in his deep humility found favour with God. He had read how Job, sitting among the ashes, (Job 2:8) regained all that he had lost (Job 42:10). He had heard in the utterance of David, how God “raises the poor out of the dust, and lifts the needy out of the dunghill.”
Let us then not be ashamed to confess our sins unto the Lord. Shame indeed there is when each makes known his sins, but that shame, as it were, ploughs his land, removes the ever-recurring brambles, prunes the thorns, and gives life to the fruits which he believed were dead. Follow him who, by diligently ploughing his field, sought for eternal fruit: “Being reviled we bless, being persecuted we endure, being defamed we entreat, we are made as the offscouring of the world” (1 Corinthians 4:12-13).
If you plough after this fashion you will sow spiritual seed. Plough that you may get rid of sin and gain fruit. He ploughed so as to destroy in himself the last tendency to persecution. What more could Christ give to lead us on to the pursuit of perfection, than to convert and then give us for a teacher one who was a persecutor.
[St. Ambrose of Milan, Concerning Repentance, Book II)
Offer to Christ the labours of your youth, and in your old age you will rejoice in the wealth of dispassion. What is gathered in youth nourishes and comforts those who are tired out in old age.
In our youth let us labour ardently and let us run vigilantly, for the hour of death is unknown. We have very evil and dangerous, cunning, unscrupulous foes, who hold fire in their hands and try to burn the temple of God with the flame that is in it. These foes are strong; they never sleep; they are incorporeal and invisible.
Let no one when he is young listen to his enemies, the demons, when they say to him: ‘Do not wear out your flesh lest you make it sick and weak.’ For you will scarcely find anyone, especially in the present generation, who is determined to mortify his flesh, although he might deprive himself of many pleasant dishes. The aim of this demon is to make the very outset of our spiritual life lax and negligent, and then make the end correspond to the beginning.
[John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent]
To lag in the fight at the very outset of the struggle and thereby to furnish proof of our coming defeat is a very hateful and dangerous thing. A firm beginning will certainly be useful for us when we later grow slack. A soul that is strong at first but then relaxes is spurred on by the memory of its former zeal. And in this way new wings are often obtained.
When the soul betrays itself and loses the blessed and longed for fervour, let it carefully investigate the reason for losing this. And let it arm itself with all its longing and zeal against whatever has caused this. For the former fervour can return only through the same door through which it was lost.
[John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent]
Those who aim at ascending with the body to heaven, need violence indeed and constant suffering especially in the early stages of their renunciation, until our pleasure-loving dispositions and unfeeling hearts attain to love of God and chastity by visible sorrow.
A great toil, very great indeed, with much unseen suffering, especially for those who live carelessly, until by simplicity, deep angerlessness and diligence, we make our mind, which is a greedy kitchen dog addicted to barking, a lover of chastity and watchfulness.
But let us who are weak and passionate have the courage to offer our infirmity and natural weakness to Christ with unhesitating faith, and confess it to Him; and we shall be certain to obtain His help, even beyond our merit, if only we unceasingly go right down to the depth of humility.
[John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent]