The Anaphora Prayer from St. Basil’s Divine Liturgy offers us a glimpse into how the Church Fathers understood salvation, how they interpreted the narrative of Scripture, and what they believed we are continually to give thanks to God for. It touches upon many of the issues raised in this blog series on the relationship of God to life and death. What follows below is the portion of the anaphora prayer mentioned in the previous blog in this series. Following each segment of the prayer are a few thoughts that the prayer calls to my mind.
With these blessed powers, O loving Master, we sinners also cry aloud and say: You are holy, most holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Your holiness. You are holy in all Your works, for with righteousness and true judgment You have ordered all things for us. When You created man by taking dust from the earth, honoring him with Your own image, O God, You set him in a paradise of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of eternal blessings in the observance of Your commandments.
St. Basil’s anaphora prayer assumes that God promised eternal life to Adam and Eve “and the enjoyment of eternal blessings in the observance of Your commandments.” Eternal life and blessings were not a guarantee but a promise – something that was before Adam and Eve and possible for them to attain. Death and hell were not part of this plan or promise. God is the giver of life and it was God’s intention to share the eternal life of the Holy Trinity with the creatures they had made. It was God’s intention from the beginning that we humans would choose life as well, but it was a choice we had to make (Deuteronomy 30:19).
But when man disobeyed You, the true God Who had created him, and was misled by the deception of the serpent, he became subject to death through his own transgressions.
In St. Basil’s anaphora, humans become subject to death by their own choice and sin. Death is not imposed by God on humanity but is the path humanity choose to follow by disobeying God. Death is not only the consequence of sin/disobedience (which God had warned Adam against), it becomes part of our life by our own volition. Disobeying God does not free us from His dominion and make us independent beings, rather it subjects us to separation from God, which is death. We become subject to sin and death.
In Your righteous judgment, O God, You expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ Himself.
Even when God takes action against the humans for their sinful rebellion by expelling them from Paradise and returning them to the earth (” for out of the earth were you taken, you were taken from dust and unto dust you shall return” – Genesis 3:19), St. Basil’s prayer still recognizes God’s unbroken and unconditional love for the humans. Even when the humans have sinned, God provides for the humans “the salvation of regeneration” in Christ. Death from when it first occurred among the humans was not a permanent state.
For You, O good One, did not desert forever Your creature whom You had made. Nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but through the tender compassion of Your mercy, You visited him in various ways: You sent prophets. You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation were well-pleasing to You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants, the prophets, who foretold to us the salvation which was to come. You gave us the law as a help. You appointed angels as guardians.
God continuously worked for our salvation, through many diverse ways, and told us about the salvation which was to come. God did not abandon His human creatures to the death they had chosen for themselves but rather worked to bring them to salvation – to give them life.
And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us by Your Son Himself, through Whom You also made the ages. He, being the Radiance of Your glory and the Image of Your person, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal to You, the God and Father. He was God before the ages, yet He appeared on earth and lived among men. Becoming incarnate from a holy virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being conformed to the body of our lowliness, that He might conform us to the image of His glory.
God who created not only humans but space and time as well, acts in history to bring about the salvation of humanity. God’s Divine Son, empties Himself in order to become human, and not just a human but a servant. Christ Jesus becoming human conforms humanity to God’s image. He is perfect God and perfect human. He gives life to humanity overcoming the power of death.
For since through a man sin entered the world, and through sin death, so it pleased Your only-begotten Son Who was in the bosom of You, the God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, born under the law, to condemn sin in His own flesh, so that those who were dead in Adam might be made alive in Himself – Your Christ.
Christ condemns sin in order to bring all humanity out from under the power of death. Christ comes not to condemn sinners, but to condemn sin. He condemns sin and destroys death and the one who has power over death, that is the devil (Hebrews 2:14-15). Death entered the world through sin, Christ condemns sin in His own flesh in order to destroy the power of death. In the book of Hebrews as in the writings of St. Paul, death is the enemy of God which Christ triumphs over in His resurrection.
He lived in this world and gave us commandments of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He brought us to knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He obtained us for Himself, to be a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us in water, and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin.
While some Christian traditions focus a great deal on theories of atonement involving paying a ransom and the substitionary death of Christ, St. Basil’s anaphora mentions Christ giving Himself as a ransom to death as one metaphor among several dealing with Christ’s overcoming the power of sin and death. It is not so much how it is accomplished but that God in Christ liberates us from the power of death. Christ does whatever is necessary to overcome death as a servant – any claim death might make on humans is canceled by Christ.
Descending through the Cross into Hades that He might fill all things with Himself, He destroyed the torments of death. And rising on the third day, He made a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of Life to be overcome by corruption.
God’s relationship to death is that of enmity. Christ comes into the world to destroy death. And, through His death and resurrection Christ “made a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead.” Christ overcomes death for everyone and delivers all from death and the place of the dead. “Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
So He became the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the First-born of the dead, that He, Himself, might truly be the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat down at the right hand of Your majesty on high, and He will come to render to each man according to his works.
Christ is the first-born of the dead – our hope is that He is the first of many. Christ came into the world to deliver us all from death, and from enslavement to death. He frees us from that path we had chosen to follow and gives us opportunity now to follow Him to the Kingdom of life. Death, at least in this prayer, is the enemy of God and of all people, both of saints and sinners. Christ destroys death, and now we liberated from the fear of death, know death is no longer an eternal punishment for sin for us. But, a judgment still awaits us, and we each will receive our reward from Christ who liberated us from death.
The entire blog series is now available as a PDF find the link at The Relationship of God to Life and Death (PDF).