“The death of the Savior revealed that death held no power over him. The Lord was mortal in respect of His complete human nature; for even in the original nature there was a potentia mortis (capacity of death). The Lord died, but death could not keep Him. He was the eternal life, and through His death He destroyed death. His descent into hell, the kingdom of death, is the powerful revelation of life. By descending into hell, He gives life to death itself. And by the resurrection, the powerlessness of death is revealed. The reality of death is not repealed, but its powerlessness is revealed.” (Georges Florovsky, On the Tree of the Cross, p. 150)
“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.
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?
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.
“The LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. . . . Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;’but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (Genesis 2:8-10, 15-17)
When I read Genesis 2, I do find Source Theory to be helpful in understanding the various currents of thoughts that make up the chapter. Basically this theory in Biblical Scholarship says that some of the books of the Bible or chapters within a book show signs of having been written by different authors and then were placed together by an editor at some point in history. It still is inspired Scripture and we receive the text as it is even if we can analyze it into its various parts.
So Genesis 2:8-10 begins the narration of the Garden which God planted in Eden (as we see in the opening text of this blog). This narration flows perfectly from vs. 10, continuing in vs 15-17 as can be seen above. Between vs. 10 and 15 verses 11-14 seem to completely disrupt the narrative with no direct connection to verses 8-10 or 15-17. If you remove verses 11-14, you see verse 15 flows seamlessly from verse 10. This fact is accounted for by Source theory: vs 11-14 are in fact from a different hand/narrative but have been placed into the text and so now form our Scriptures. Here are the verses 11-14:
“Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which skirts the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good. Bdellium and the onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one which goes around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Hiddekel; it is the one which goes toward the east of Assyria. The fourth river is the Euphrates.” (Genesis 2:11-14)
Perhaps the point of verses 11-14 is to give some geographical connection between Eden and earth occupied by those ancients who composed and edited the text. In any case they don’t add to the narrative and in some ways defy a spiritual interpretation. The Orthodox Church however makes very interesting use of those verses in a Holy Friday Matins hymn.
“From Your live-bearing side, O Christ, a fountain flows forth as from Eden, giving drink to Your Church as to a living Paradise. From there it divided to become the four rivers of the Gospels, watering the world, gladdening creation, and teaching the nations to worship Your Kingdom in Faith.”
In the above Holy Friday hymn, Genesis 2:11-14 and the river flowing from Paradise is connected to the wound made in Christ’s side when he hung dead upon the cross. According to John 19:34, blood and water flowed from the side of Christ when He was pierced with the spear. That Gospel verse is interpreted in the hymn in the light of Genesis 2:11-14.
In Genesis 2, the narrative of Adam in Paradise (vs. 8-10, 15-17) is interrupted by unexpected mention of this flowing river which originates in Eden and becomes the source of 4 other rivers (vs 11-14). Such river bifurcation is fairly rare in nature but where it exists sometimes waters and forms an entire delta region, a fertile crescent as it were. The life-giving nature of these deltas – giving birth to a rich abundance of wildlife is used in the imagery of the hymn above. But now in the hymn, Christ’s pierced side, like the Garden of Paradise, becomes the source of the life-giving river which in turn is the riverhead of the four rivers which are the Gospels watering the world. The fourfold Gospels flow from the side of Christ bringing Good News to all nations. The imagery is rich indeed and makes a very creative use of what might otherwise be seen as an odd anomaly interrupting the flow of Scripture. The flow of the river from the Garden of Eden which is the riverhead of 4 other rivers helps us appreciate the depth of the Gospel verse mentioning the flow of blood from the side of the crucified Christ.
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)
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The Tree of Life was given as a gift to us by God to be our means to attain eternal life. What is so incredible is that the Tree of Life is the Cross of Christ. The Tree of Life means the death of Christ! But it also means eternal life to us all. The Cross is not a punishment for sin, but a healing tree (Revelation 22:2).
“The last hymn about the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 52—53 is important because it is so controversial. Why is it that the death of Jesus on the Cross saves us? How is it that, through this act, everything is made right and we are allowed, by faith in Christ crucified, to become ourselves the righteousness of God? We will never, perhaps, be able to explain it fully. This text is often interpreted to mean that God Almighty is angry at the human race and that He has to punish them because of their sin, that the Law has been broken and the only way things can be restored and reconciled and redeemed is when a sufficient punishment is made.
Therefore, many people think God is punishing His Son Jesus on the Cross, in our place. I believe this is completely incorrect. There is another way of understanding this that has nothing to do with punishment. The very word punishment is never even found in the writings of the New Testament. I do not find it in the Holy Week services; I do not find it in the writing of the early Church Fathers. It is just not there.” (Thomas Hopko, The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 2440-2448)
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“‘Know you not,’ writes St. Paul to the Corinthians, ‘that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have of God, and you are not your own? For you are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s’ (1 Cor. 6:19-20). These words are real summary of St. Paul’s constant appeal to Christians: we must live according to what has ‘happened’ to us in Christ; yet we can live thus only because it has happened to us, because salvation, redemption, reconciliation, and ‘buying with a price’ have already been given to us and we are ‘not our own’. We can and must work at our salvation because we have been saved, yet it is only because we are saved that we can work at our salvation. We must always and at all times become and be that which – in Christ – we already are: ‘you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s’ (1 Cor. 3:22)” (Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, p 119)
Some claim to confess their sins to God daily in their hearts and say they know they receive His forgiveness.
Is it cheap grace? Does anyone really need to receive forgiveness through the Church?
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
The forgiveness of sins comes through the death of Christ, the Son of God, on the cross. Christ showed in His lifetime that he had the power to heal the sick which in turn proved His claim to have power to forgive sins. And, Christ bestowed through the Holy Spirit the power to forgive sins on His disciples and the Church. If everyone could simply pronounce forgiveness upon themselves in their hearts, why did Christ bestow such power on the Church?
We may imagine God easily forgives sins from the safety and quietness of heaven. Poof! and the sins are gone.
The New Testament however presents it that the forgiveness of sins happens through the death of Christ on the cross. No cheap grace. A priceless death occurs to forgive our sins.
All of our sins, not just the sins of really evil people, is paid for by the death of Christ.
We might imagine our sins are not that bad – not as bad as others (as the Pharisee said of the Publican and we think of say the evil men of ISIS). Many of us think the sins of others are really bad – whether sexual or involving other morality – but we tend to think our sins aren’t that bad. Yet the price paid for our sins is also the death of God on the cross.
We experience the forgiveness of our sins by being united to Christ in baptism and in the Eucharist and through the Body of Christ in confession. Confession is another gift given to us by Christ to maintain our unity with all other believers through asking the Church, His Body, for the forgiveness of our sins.
On Holy Friday, God’s plan for the salvation of the world is revealed. The mystery hidden from all eternity comes to light. And we see how God’s ways are not our ways. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans shows how unlike the Roman Empire is God’s plan and Kingdom in dealing with enemies. The Roman Empire was the model of overwhelming government and military power to whom everyone had to submit. The Empire was merciless to its enemies. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans shows how God’s Kingdom is not of this world – for God deal with His enemies by dying on the cross for them.
“[St. Paul’s Letter to the] Romans holds up the promise of reconciliation with those it has cast as unrighteous. In distinction to the Roman ideology of violence where the impious are conquered and vanquished by the divinely established Romans, Paul invokes the image of the Son who gives his life for the ungodly (5.6–9). There is no war to win peace, but a death for all. Jesus, though ‘righteous’, dies for ‘sinners’ (5.8). Salvation from the wrath of God is not through obedience to laws and decrees, nor a pacifying war or threat of violence, but through the reconciling death of Jesus (5.8–9). … in Romans Paul places before his listeners’ eyes the image of self-sacrifice. Jesus gave himself unto death for others ‘while we were enemies’ (Rom. 5.10). . . .
Paul’s model of reconciliation inserts itself into such notions of the noble death. Christ dies for enemies, and gives himself though without fault to die for sinners, that they might be free from the bondage of sin and death. The strong giving himself for the weak, the righteous for the sinner, invokes again the reversal of normal expectations of the vanquished seeking reconciliation with the triumphant. Paul’s paradoxical motif of reconciliation reverses this honorific code and as such belongs to the other paradoxical notions of a defeat as triumph explored above. The peace that Jesus offers is not then the violent peace of Rome, but a peace based on grace and divine self-giving. Here, again, iconography is important. The force of the reversal Paul invokes gains its force from a clear view Paul can assume his listeners know from the signs of imperial presence all around them: pictures of the violent pacification of Rome’s enemies as a sign of the blessing of the gods.” (Harry Maier, Picturing Paul in Empire: Imperial Image, Text and Persuasion in Colossians, Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles, Kindle Location 1979-1988 and1999-2006)
Even today people believe in military power as the only way to establish peace on earth. The Islamic State for example believes peace on earth is only possible when Islam has militarily conquered the rest of the world and established one world government – an Islamic state. And some Americans as well seem to think our nation’s greatness lies only in its military strength. Christianity on the other hand can point to the reality of its own history and how it conquered the seemingly all-powerful Roman Empire with the invincible weapon of the Cross. There is a warfare which is not against flesh and blood “but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). This is the victory which Christ secures on the cross. Christ testifies against those whose way is evil, which is why they hate Him (John 7:7) despite His love for them. Christ willingly dies for the sins of those who make God their enemy (Romans 5:10), and He dies to save even these enemies from both sin and death.
Repentance, prayer and fasting were the weapons of the early Church against the military might of the Roman Empire. Will we use them again in the world to defeat present day evil? The victory we so need in the world is Christ’s, who has the power to overcome worldly powers as well as the powers of darkness.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 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 2:4-11)
The Lamb whom Isaiah proclaimed goes willingly to the slaughter.
He gives His back to scourging, His cheeks to buffeting.
He does not turn His face from the shame of spitting.
He is condemned to a shameful death.
He who is sinless willingly submits to all, to grant to all the resurrection from the dead.
(Matins hymn of Holy Thursday)