In this past month we’ve had two sad deaths in our parish and the grieving has had me ponder what time must be like for those who are in the nearer presence of Christ.
First, though, a note. I used the title “Time and the Dead” for this post because it was kind of catchy, almost like a name for a rock band, but the Orthodox understanding of death is that the body dies, something we consider to be a temporary condition because we believe that the body will also, at some future time, be resurrected, and the soul continues on, for the faithful, in the presence of God. So we use the term “dead” not so much as the idea of being completely extinguished as an entity but rather as a temporary separation of the body and the soul awaiting the resurrection and the transformation of all of who we are to our final state.
What led me to ponder the sense of time for those who have passed on were quotes and thoughts that came from the events of this month and around Facebook at this time of year about those who have passed on spending Christmas in heaven. I understand the sentiment, when my father and brother died I thought of that as well, how they would be spending events like Christmas and Pascha in the presence of Christ. There’s a certain peace that comes with knowing that the joy that we can experience in these feasts is a foretaste of the joy of being in God’s nearer presence.
Still, those sentiments, as good as they are, come from the reality that we are creatures of time. Yes, eternity is in our hearts, but we live in time and so we see things that way. Yet, I wonder if those who are in the presence of Christ also see things that way? I’m inclined to believe they don’t, but what I am writing is speculation out loud and the reader should take it as that. The truth is that we’re never given precisely detailed descriptions of what life beyond this life entails and so our thoughts and hearts can travel to that existence but it would be hard to claim extensive knowledge. If only Lazarus had written a book!
From the stories of the Transfiguration of Christ we know that those who are departed to be with God have some sense of what is happening here. Moses and Elijah were speaking with Jesus, in one reading of that story, about what Jesus was to accomplish so there seems to be some kind of consciousness “over there” , as it were, of life “back here”. Over the centuries, as well, we, as Orthodox Christians have experienced the reality of the intercessions, not mediations, of the Saints, answers in our own lives of our requests for those who have gone to be with Christ to pray for us. The writer of Hebrews also uses the image of a stadium where people are in the stands are watching, as a cloud of witnesses, those of us who are currently living the Christian life. So, somehow, in a holy and blessed way, those who have departed this life have a kind of consciousness about what is happening here and, in certain cases, individual lives of the faithful.
In pondering that, though, I speculate that those who are with Christ, even as they can, as God allows, be witness to us as we live out lives in time are probably not aware of time as we are. God has no time in the sense that we measure it as one moment processing on to another. I don’t think there are clocks in heaven. Perhaps in hell although I can’t say that for sure, but probably not in heaven. To God, if I understand this correctly, all of what we call time is present. There is no past as we understand it with God, or for that matter the future. Now that doesn’t mean that God isn’t aware that we live in time or that God is incapable of entering human time, but rather that God isn’t bound by time and God’s vision of existence and reality isn’t necessarily framed by what we call time. I remember in my seminary days of one professor describing God as “timeful” that is everything in existence is always present to God.
So my presumption, and presumption it is, is that those who have departed to be with God in a state of blessedness also share in that timefulness. Their consciousness, I believe, is not limited by time as we understand it. So, for example, when the time comes for us to repose from this life those who know and love us who proceeded us won’t be saying “It’s been thirty years, glad you finally made it” because there the idea of anything like “years” is something that simply doesn’t exist. I think, by the way, that this is one reason those who have departed this life can be very effective intercessors for us, because they can pray for us with an understanding of existence not limited by our moment to moment sense of time and events. They can see a larger picture, a vision of things not trapped by our understandings of time and the meaning of things within that context, but rather with a “God’s eye view” of the entire panorama of existence where all events are present from the creation of everything that exists to its fulfilment in God at the end of time as we understand it.
Such heady things to be pondering in the wee, small, hours of a Sunday in December. And if these are only glimpses, what must the fullness of what God would have for us in His presence be like?