While Christianity focuses on Christ, it doesn’t begin with Jesus. Christ comes to heal humanity, but the illness which He heals began thousands of years earlier with the entrance of sin and death into human existence. St. Gregory of Nyssa offers an understanding of what was the ill that Jesus Christ came to cure. First Gregory notes that sin is not a thing that is permanent or can even exist without a host. Sin is dependent for its existence on human free will. If humans made no choices, sin could not exist. Humans were created with the possibility of sinless existence, but we have made choices that led us away from God – separation from God is death.
Is it possible that there was a physical death that could exist that didn’t involve separation from God? Is it possible that living things could age and even die but remain united to God? Is this what God intended from the beginning? Certainly in Christ we have that reality achieved – even death doesn’t separate us from God. Jesus the man is never separated from divinity even in His death and descent into Hades, the place of the dead. In Christ, we all remain united to Him even through our own deaths and after our burials. In Christ, death no longer separates us from God! Whether this was something totally new, or a restoration of what existed at the beginning of creation, doesn’t matter for it is the new reality – creation renewed in Christ.
St. Gregory begins describing the first human, the first Adam, who had all of the potential for good, and yet chose to separate himself from all that is good.
So too the first man who arose from the earth–he, indeed, who begot all the evil that is in man–and it in his power to choose all the good and beautiful things of nature that lay around him. And yet he deliberately instituted by himself things that were against nature; in rejecting virtue by his own free choice he fashioned the temptation to evil. For sin does not exist in nature apart from free will; it is not a substance in its own right. All of God’s creatures are good, and nothing He has made may be despised: He made all things very good (Gen. 1:31). But in the way I have described, the whole procession of sin entered into man’s life for his undoing, and from a tiny source poured out upon mankind an infinite sea of evil. The soul’s divine beauty, that had been an imitation of its archetype, was, like a blade, darkened with the rust of sin; it no longer kept beauty of the image it once possessed by nature, and was transformed into the ugliness of evil.
St. Gregory describes a common idea in Orthodox patristic writers: there is an inner goodness in every human being – the image of God is imprinted on each of us and is never lost. Sin cannot take the image of God away from us. Rather that image becomes covered with the rust and dirt of sin. The most precious diamond in the world if caked with layers of dried and hardened clay will look like any rock. Yet, beneath those layers of hardened mud lies encased that most valuable diamond.
Thus man, who was so great and precious, as the Scriptures call him, fell from the value he had by nature. It is like people who slip and fall in the mud and get their faces so smeared that even their relatives cannot recognize them. So man fell into the mud of sin, and lost his likeness to the eternal Godhead. And in its stead he has, by his sin, clothed himself in an image that is of clay and mortal; and this is the image we earnestly counsel him to remove and wash away in the purifying waters of the Christian life. Once this earthly covering is removed, the soul’s beauty will once again shine forth.
In sticking with the imagery of a diamond encased in hardened clay, St. Gregory sees each human person. No longer do we see the glorious image of God in each other. Baptism begins to wash away these layers of filth, the accretion of a life time of sin. Baptism washes our eyes so we can see the reality of God’s hand in creation and the image of God in others. Baptism helps wash away our own layers of sin so that others can see the image of God in us.
By our human efforts we can merely clear away the accumulated filth of sin and thus allow the hidden beauty of the soul to shine forth.
This lesson is taught, I think, in the Gospel, where our Lord speaks to those who have ears for the mysteries that Wisdom teaches us: The kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). I think that the text here points out that the gift of God is not separated from our nature nor is it far from those who choose to look for it. It dwells within everyone of us, ignored and forgotten, choked with the cares and pleasures of life (Luke 8:14), but is rediscovered when we turn our minds to it.
But if we must confirm this doctrine in other ways, the same lesson is, I think, taught by our Lord in the search for the lost drachma (Luke 15:8-9)…and surely the hidden meaning of the coin is the image of our King, which has not yet been completely lost, but is simply hidden under dirt. By the dirt I think we must understand the uncleanness of the flesh; for, when we cleanse and sweep this away by a fervent life, what we are looking for will be made manifest. And then the soul that finds the coin rightly rejoices and calls in her neighbors to share in her joy. The soul’s associates are, of course, the various faculties of the soul, which the text here calls neighbors. For when the great image of the King is discovered and shines forth again, just as it was stamped on our drachma in the beginning by the Creator, stamped on the hearts of everyone, then do all our faculties unite in that divine joy and gladness as they gaze upon the ineffable beauty of what they have found. For she says: Rejoice with me because I have found the groat which I had lost (Luke 15:9). (From Glory to Glory, pp.13-15)
In all such imagery and thinking, we find that sin is not limited to law breaking which God must punish. Sin is experienced by us as being covered by layers of filth – of our being buried beneath layers of sin so that we can no longer see clearly, and reality itself (the image of God in each of us is so covered as to be totally obscured from sight). Salvation is not merely a release from legal retribution, but is a restoration and recreation and regeneration of the human being. Overcoming sin is thus not just a matter of suffering an appropriate punishment, but requires a washing, a cleansing which restores the human to his or her glorious nature. It is a healing of soul and body which we need, which is given to us by Christ, the true physician of our lives.