Death Where is Thy Sting

by Xenia Williams

Protopriest Fr. Michael Taratuchkin of St. John Kronstadt Memorial Church in  Utica, N.Y

A poor woman comes to a memorial service, and she reverently places on a table brought down for it an offering of Kollyva, in this case, a dish of sweetened boiled rice which will be served to the congregation after the memorial prayers for the dead are said.

The priest and choir stand before the Kollyva, the cross, and the candles lit for the reposed and sing of the hope of resurrection. The kollyva itself has great symbolic value, in that several bible verses have been theologically associated with it within the culture of the Church of Christ. A well known bible verse is from KJV John 12:24 and it is a quote from our Lord:

 “ …verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

As a simple layman trying to be faithful to the traditional understanding of this verse and to convey this understanding simply, I will say that kollyva signifies the death of the sinner to life in this world and faith in the resurrection of the life to come. Just as one must be born again, one also must die to oneself in order to be fully transformed into an image of Christ. So yes, even the memorial services act as a sermon about the Resurrection of Christ.

Kollyva with rice as grain made by the pious church member

As mentioned earlier, members in attendance hold candles and the candles themselves are symbolic of the soul being surrounded by the Uncreated Light in Heaven. The laity sing “Lord Have Mercy” during the section of the prayers when the priest recites the names of those who have died. This is the common memorial service, instituted to commemorate those dead who through persecution, or misfortune are unable to have the memorial prayers said for them. In this way, the Church corporeally prays for all who have died throughout all the ages.

This particular offering by this poor parishioner reminds of recent history, when in the Soviet Union a famine, known as the Holodomor, destroyed the wheat. The faithful, praying to God in the underground catacomb church, did not have the traditional wheat berries, kollyva. The word kollyva actually means “wheat berries” in Greek. During the times of the famine, instead of wheat berries, rice was used. According to, rice is still used today in some parishes’ memorial services to not only commemorate the dead but also to signify God’s Merciful abundance even during times of persecution and misfortune.

Traditional Kollyva made by the venerable monks of the Vatopedi Monastery on the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos

As a service to the Church, the woman brings this kollyva made of rice. Learning about why she used rice instead of wheat berries, I am deeply touched by the faith of the Church, i.e, the faith of the simple pious folk, in the face of its trials. And this reminds me of the promise of God to never abandon the Church in her time of prosperity or affliction. For Christ Himself has said: Matthew 16:18:

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

And this rock is the faith that Christ is the Son of God. And as long as we keep this Faith and endure the fatigue of the day, as the worldly culture deteriorates around us, we will prevail and be able to sing with gladsome joy from 1 Corinthians 15:55—”Death Where Is Thy Sting? O Grave, where is Thy Victory?”

Xenia Williams is an Eastern Orthodox Christian and a member of St. John Kronstadt Church in Utica, NY. She studied art education at Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute-Pratt – Utica, New York and is currently working on pursuing a degree in Art Education while minoring in Art Therapy. Xenia has worked as a Substitute Teacher in the Utica School District. 

“As an artist, I am a late bloomer, but I have been working on a graphic novel trilogy called Lilith’s Other Sister about culture and identity, that I started when I was a student at Evergreen State College. (Yes, that Evergreen).  I have thought about identity, culture, the source of knowledge, healing and faith since I was twelve and my art tends to reflect those concerns.”

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