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Bound together in a community of sorrow | Homily for Ryan Krug
On Tuesday night I received a call from the 911 dispatcher, asking me to respond to a traffic fatality. As I left the monastery I prayed that whomever had been killed was not a young person, and that it was not someone I knew. When I arrived at the accident scene, I immediately recognized my neighbors, and knew the fatal accident had taken the life of their seventeen year old son, Ryan Krug. The following was my address to over one thousand people who attended the memorial service that took place Sunday afternoon, in the Vashon High School gym.
And we need to mourn. One of the most tremendously rewarding and challenging aspects of the priesthood is comforting people in their darkest moments of sorrow. Do not be mistaken, and think that priests, monks and chaplains are exempt from the pain of those whom they try to comfort, or that we have magical words that somehow ease the pain or bring order to the chaos of grief. Platitudes are useless in dark days of mourning. Ryan may very well be “in a better place,” but it is oddly of little comfort to say those words. In a powerful witness of human behavior, Christ “does not say, ‘Well, now he is in heaven, everything is well; he is separated from this difficult and tormented life.’ Christ does not say all those things we do in our pathetic and uncomforting attempts to console. In fact he says nothing—he weeps.”
In like fashion, we need to embrace the grief that we feel at the loss of Ryan in our lives. We need to honor the bereavement process, because just as God gave Ryan to us for seventeen wonderful years, so too God has blessed us with the grief that we feel at Ryan’s leaving. Grief is confirmation that Ryan was a person of value, a beloved son, a cherished brother, a treasured friend. Grief is how we honor a well-lived life. His death is grief-worthy, and all the more so because of his tender age. In grieving, we do his memory justice, and follow in the example of Jesus, who wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Like martyrs of the ancient church, like Lazarus in the New Testament, that Ryan departed from this world before his time was up makes his death particularly galling for those of us left behind to wonder how we are going to the fill the space that he once occupied. The mystery of a future without Ryan is a daunting, right now, as the mystery of death itself.
As a priest and monk of the Russian Orthodox Church, I am comfortable with this mystery, as all Christians should be. Death can be a mystery precisely because the triumph over death is not a mystery. As the Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote, “in essence, Christianity is not concerned with coming to terms with death, but rather with the victory over it.” In the light of everlasting life, in the name of Jesus Christ, the dreadful threat and dark mystery that is death is transformed into a happy and victorious event for the believer, and “Death is swallowed up in victory." (1 Cor. 15:54)
So mourning is an ancient ritual, one in which Jesus participated, and those of his faith before him. For all of us, all people, death is a common element of humanity, the common trait that we share, and the common enemy of our loved ones. And like grief, victory over death binds people together in a larger, more powerful community, the community that is found in the Christian faith. People accuse Christians of being members of a “death cult,” obsessed with a dying savior and focused on the afterlife to the exclusion of the present; but they are wrong. Christianity does not deny life, Christianity affirms life. Christianity affirms life even in death, because for Christians, death does not remove the relationship that exists. In death, as in life, Ryan is our son, Ryan is our brother, Ryan is our friend. In death, as in life, we love and honor Ryan, and death cannot take him from us. Death has taken Ryan, but it has also provided us with the opportunity to live with the hope of one day joining him. And a life with hope is a good life.
So for us, Ryan’s death is the beginning of the true life that also awaits us beyond the grave, if indeed we have begun to live it here. Christ, “the resurrection and the life,” (John 11:25) transformed death. Christ assumed human flesh, Christ was crucified, resurrected, ascended to heaven and waits for us there, and Christ ushers us into new life both now and after our death. Therefore, even as death exposes our frailty and our grief, death does not reveal our finiteness; instead it reveals our infiniteness, our eternity. To this end, the Christian does not ponder the mystery of death in a way that is paralyzing, negative and apathetic, but in a way that is productive, positive and dynamic.