Christ’s Death on the Cross

The Savior came to destroy death by His own death. ‘The ultimate reason for Christ’s death must be seen in the mortality of man.’  Redemption is the ‘liberation of man from the ‘”bondage of corruption”.’ However, this means that ‘the Cross is more than merely suffering Good.’  ‘The death on the cross was effective, not [simply] as the death of an Innocent one, but as the death of the Incarnate Lord. ‘We needed an Incarnate God; God put to death, that we might live’ – to use a bold phrase of St. Gregory of Nazianzus.” Here we see Florovsky’s a-symmetrical Chalcedonianism at work: as he writes, ‘It may be properly said that God dies on the Cross, but in his own humanity.’

The death of Christ is of necessity for salvation precisely because through it, eternal life enters the realm of death. Thus, Holy Saturday itself is ‘the very day of our salvation.’ As the icons suggest, Christ enters hades as Victor despoiling death.”(Matthew Baker, On the Tree of the Cross, 114-115).

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The Exaltation of the Cross (2017)

The [Feast of the] Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross … (September 14).   The association of the words ‘feast’ and ‘Cross’ is a paradox: the Cross, to the Jews a stumbling block, to the Greeks a folly, yet ‘to those who are called, the power and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor 1:23-24).  We commemorate the Passion and the Crucifixion not as ugly episodes inspired by a sordid politicking, but as the voluntary sacrifice of the Son of God who became man to save us.  therefore the liturgy of the Cross is not a lamentation over a dead hero, the wailing of devotees working themselves up to a paroxysm of frenzy, but the memorial of an event of cosmic significance, reaching beyond the limits of history.

The Cross stands while the world rolls . . . proclaims the motto of the Carthusian hermits.  We see in the cross a reason for hope, and the Resurrection makes this hope to become the unshakable assurance of our Christian faith.”  (Georges Barrois, SCRIPTURE READINGS IN ORTHODOX WORSHIP, p 142)

Holy Friday (2017)

“Even though he was crucified in weakness, he lives through the power of God!” (2 Corinthians 13:4, EOB)

 

On many occasions in the Old Testament God appears to have human attributes, human emotions, human limits.  God takes the dust of the earth to fashion human beings and breathes into the dust of the earth to create life. God walks in the Garden of Eden. God is saddened by human evil and grieves over having created humans. And while we who have sophistication today realize God doesn’t have hands and feet and lungs nor eyes and ears, we also realize that all of these primitive anthropomorphic descriptions of the invisible, incomprehensible, and ineffable God, prepared us humans for the incarnation, when God in fact took on flesh and became human. Not just any human, but perfect human. He became what we are created to be.  And, as a human, our God takes upon Himself our mortal nature, dying on a cross for us.  Holy Friday is the day on which we contemplate God’s love for us.  God endures everything we have to endure in His creation, including suffering and death.  Divine Love knows no limits, descending not only to earth but into Hades itself to restore life to all.  With His death on the cross, God shows His love for us is complete, total and absolute.

It is finished!

Finally finished and finally completed.

Finished and completed: “Behold the man” (John 19:5), the true human being, the image of God, the one who loved us till the end, even if I do not know him and do not comprehend him.

Among the gods there is not like thee O Lord; neither are there any works like thy works (Ps. 86:8).

God’s ways are past our understanding, shattering every constraint that limits our feeble imagination.

Christ shows us his divinity, not in a superhuman–inhuman–manner, but as truly human, human in the end common to us all.

Put to death on the cross, he yet voluntarily laid down his life in love for us, showing us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as human, for us.

And so, for us mortals, he opens up the possibility to share in his life, to live the life of God himself.

If he had shown us what it is to be truly human in any other way, what part could I have had in it?

But by his death, his life lived for others, a path of sacrifice and service, in his love and compassion for us, he has shown us a more noble way still, beyond our self-aggrandizing aspirations and merely human projections. And this life has led, as it must to the grave; yet it is not bound by the tomb.”   (Fr John Behr, The Cross Stands while the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year, pp. 66-67)

God became human in order to die for us on the cross, to descend to the place of the dead in order to destroy death.  What we truly commemorate and celebrate on Holy Friday is not only the death of the Son of God, but the death of death itself.  God overthrows the tyranny which Death claimed over humanity.  

The Crucifixion of Death

In one of the Lenten hymns from the 4th week of Great Lent, there is an interesting exchange in which the nailing of Christ to the cross and piercing His side with the spear is actually bringing about the death of Death.  In the hymn, Hell/Death is personified and is at first puzzled by what it is experiencing  during Christ’s crucifixion.  The confusion turns to panic as Death realizes its own effort to kill the Christ has resulted in its own destruction.

Pilate set up three crosses in the place of the Skull, two for the
thieves, and one for the Giver of Life. Seeing Him, Hell cried to
those below: My ministers and powers! Who is this that has fixed a
nail in my heart?

Crucified heel bone pierced by a nail. (1st Century)

A wooden spear has pierced me suddenly, and I am
torn apart! I suffer inwardly; anguish has seized my belly and my
senses. My spirit trembles and I am forced to cast out Adam and his
posterity! A tree brought them to my realm, but now the Tree of the
Cross cries out to them: Enter again into Paradise!

The hymn is perhaps an Orthodox version of the “substitutionary” theory of atonement.  In the Orthodox hymn, however, the emphasis is not on the innocent Christ dying on the cross in the place of sinful humanity.  Rather, Christ’s torment, suffering and death is actually crucifying Death.  Christ’s own death turns out to be the annihilation of death.

Holy Friday 2016

On Great and Holy Friday, we encounter Christ our Lord,  as our servant, bearing our abuses, carrying out all the work needed for our salvation.  He humbles Himself to serve us and save us.  On Holy Friday we stand in awe of the God of humility and suffering, whose love knows no bounds.  Poet Scott Cairns expresses our understanding so well:

“Bearing our curse, becoming sin,

You loose us from both the burden

of the law and from our lawlessness.

 

You bruise the serpent’s head,

and snatch us from its grip. You open

the way to resurrection, shattering

the gates of hell, You slay the one

who held death’s power, give comfort

to those who honor You. You give the holy cross

by which our enemy is slain, by which

our life returns to us abundantly.”

(Scott Cairns,  Love’s Immensity, pp 31-32)

We should feel unsettled by the Cross – it is the price God pays to have us be with Him.  It represents a depth of love which is hard to imagine.  It reveals God to us in the most mysterious way.  The cross of Christ reminds us of this truth, expressed by St. Theophan the Recluse :

“There is but one road to the kingdom of God – a cross, voluntary or involuntary.” (in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, p 231)

Previous: Holy Thursday 2016

Next:  Holy Saturday 2016

Ancestral Sin and God’s Plan

I should like to present a lengthy citation from the part of the Commentary on Genesis which forms the basis for discord over the continuity of Theodore’s [of Mopsuestia] earlier and later work. Theodore writes:

“I have heard some inquire, if God had foreknowledge of Adam’s disobedience, why did he give him through his commandment occasion to disobey [him]?

For this reason, I answer, that God knew very well, that mortality was of use to human beings. If they remained immortal, they would sin incessantly. In addition, because it is useful for them, that in the annihilation of the body in death the [body] of sin is also annihilated. He did not give the best to humanity immediately, in order that he [his dignity] might not be violated. He first of all gave the commandment, which he knew would not be observed. He wanted to show thereby, that human beings, promised immortality for their obedience, had so little trust in their creator and benefactor, that they hoped, through their disobedience, to obtain not only immortality, but even to attain to the stature of divinity. If their body had possessed immortality, how much easier they would have believed it possible themselves to become gods through their disobedience! [God] first of all showed through issuing of his commandment, and through the disobedience of Adam, that mortality is useful. Therefore, he endowed this mortality [upon humanity]. That he has equipped humanity for mortal existence is shown by their male and female forms, which we can recognize as making possible the production of children from the very beginning. Therefore, the structuring [of the human being] was fitted to suit mortal life.”  – Theodore of Mopsuestia.

CreationAdamEve

As can be seen, the fragment denies that humanity was created immortal, instead positing immortality as a reward for obedience, and insisting that human mortality was considered by God a useful instrument. If humanity had been immortal, then it would not have had any incentive not to sin, because, as sin consists of a desire to be like God, our possession of immortality would have made it far easier to countenance sinning, as our being like God would have been seen as an even more realistically achievable end.” (Richard Paul Cumming, St. Vladmir’s Theological Quarterly: Vol. 56, Number 2, 2012, pp 186-187)

That humanity becoming immortal is contingent on human obedience to God, makes the life and death of Jesus Christ ever more meaningful to us.  We come to understand why we need Christ and are indebted to Him for our salvation – we did not, and could not have achieved salvation on our own.  The Law could not bring about the obedience needed for our salvation.  In fact the Law, though given as a gift for salvation, showed how disobedient we were as a people.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  (Philippians 2:5-11)

In Christ being obedient to the Father in dying for us on the cross, Christ opens the doors to Paradise and to immortality for all of humanity.  In Christ’s obedience, we all are given eternal life.   This is not so much punishment for sin, but true filial obedience out of love.  Christ does what humanity has failed to do.  Adam and Eve were disobedient unto death, Jesus Christ is obedient unto death.  The first Adam’s disobedience brought death to us all, while the new Adam’s obedience means life for us.

“Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”  (Romans 5:18-19)

The Suffering of Christ Conquers Death

There is a universal nature to the salvation Christ brings to humankind.  Christ came into the world to save sinners, to seek and save the lost, to heal the spiritually sick.  But not everyone responds in kind to Christ’s love.  And sadly there are those who instead of accepting God’s love, choose instead to crucify Christ.  These folk are among those for whom Christ died, but they reject the forgiveness and salvation He offers to them.   St. Hilary of Poitiers  (d. 367AD) says:

“Christ’s victory over death has a universal character: ‘The Son of God is nailed to the cross; but on the cross God conquers human death. Christ, the Son of God, dies; but all flesh (omnis caro) is made alive in Christ. The Son of God is in hell; but man is carried back to heaven.’ ” ( Christ the Conqueror of Hell by Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, p 82)

So we all should join St. Isaac the Syrian (7th Century) in his prayer:

 “O Christ who are covered with light as though with garment, who for my sake stood naked in front of Pilate, clothe me with that might which you caused to overshadow the saints, whereby they conquered this world of struggle. May your Divinity, Lord, take pleasure in me, and lead me above the world to be with you. O Christ, upon you the many-eyed Cherubim are unable to look because of the glory of your countenance, yet you of your love you received spit upon your face: remove the shame from my face and grant an open face before you at the time of prayer.”The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian by Hilarion Alfeyev, p 59)

The Self-Giving God

“If the work of God in creation is the work of love, then truth demands an imagery which will do no justice to the limitless self-giving which is among the marks of authentic love: and the imagery which the head demands may have a new power of appeal to the moral sensitivity of the heart. As a parenthesis, we may illustrate the kind of imagery which might express the self-giving of God in creation. A doctor tells of an operation which, as a young student, he observed in a London hospital. ‘It was the first time that this particular brain operation had been carried out in this country. It was performed by one of our leading surgeons upon a young man of great promise for whom, after an accident, there seemed to be no other remedy. It was an operation of the greatest delicacy, in which a small error would have had fatal consequences. In the outcome the operation was a triumph: but it involved seven hours of intense and uninterrupted concentration on the part of the surgeon. When it was over, a nurse had to take him by the hand, and lead him from the operating theatre like a blind man or little child.’ This, one might say, is what self-giving is like: such is the likeness of God, wholly given, spent and drained in that sublime self-giving which is the ground and source and origin of the universe.” (W.H. Vanstone in The Time of the Spirit: Readings Through the Christian Year, p 5)

The Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross

We Orthodox celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross of Christ on September 14 each year.   The epistle reading for the Feast is from 1 Corinthians 1:18-24

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

As the Roman Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer describes the crucifixion of Christ, it fulfills all the Old Testament rituals as well as promises and prophecies.  What the Jews had been given through their Temple worship was a chance to understand the sacrificial nature of the God of love.  The Christian understanding of the entire Old Testament is that it prefigures the events of the New Testament and prepares the the people of God for the reality which God revealed in Christ.  Through the Cross, Christ enters into the true temple in Heaven bringing humanity into the very presence of God once again.

“To devout Jews, like the author and the intended audience of this Epistle, Christianity must appear definitive because it realizes what had only been prefigured in the old covenant. We go from the figure to reality, because we go at the same time from the earthly to heavenly and from the exterior to the interior. The old covenant, by its expiatory rites, could confer only a purity of convention, which would have no substance at all if its rites had not themselves prefigured the Christian reality. The new covenant, on the contrary, according to the promise of Jeremias (31:31-34), is the law transferred from external practices to the intimate depth of the heart. But this is possible only because the ritual sacrifices have been transcended and replaced by that sacrifice with no analogue, wholly new and definitive, the sacrifice which is the death of Christ as the perfect accomplishment of God’s will. Thereby the way is opened up for us to the divine Presence, to the immediate Presence of God welcoming us with Christ into his rest, his eternal sabbath.” (The Spirituality of The New Testament & The Fathers, p 148)

“Through the Cross joy has come into all the world”   So we Orthodox sing celebrating Christ’s victory over death.  So we honor the Cross the instrument which brought salvation to the world and to each and everyone of us.

“For the Orthodox Church, the salvation that God offered through Jesus Christ is, first and foremost, victory over death. The Easter proclamation summarizes this core soteriological teaching: ‘Christ is risen from the dead! And death by his death is trampled. And to those in the tombs he is granting life.’ Since the incarnate Son of God effected humanity’s reconciliation and redemption, salvation from death certainly encompasses spiritual death, the condition of alienation from God. However, Christ also trampled upon physical death. ‘The death of our Lord,’ Florovsky writes, ‘was the victory over death and mortality, not just the remission of sins, not merely a justification of man, nor again a satisfaction of an abstract justice.’ Over and over, the Orthodox Church proclaims Christ’s conquering of death and granting of life. Over and over, the Orthodox Church proclaims Christ’s conquering of death and granting life. Over and over, the martyrs, ascetics, and other saints of the Church are described as enjoying a foretaste of God’s kingdom. Over and over, the promise of resurrection is held up as the core of the gospel.”  (Perry T. Hamalis, Thinking Through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars, pp 203-204)