“Brethren, I may say to you confidently of the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” (Acts 2:29)
“…have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.” (Matthew 12:26-27)
In the Scriptures, belief in the resurrection of the dead is not common. When a person died, they remained dead throughout time – the tombs of the dead are still with us reminding us those folk are still dead. And yet, Jesus challenges His contemporaries to look again at their scriptures, for they do in fact witness to life after death and to the resurrection of the dead. It is Christ who makes this belief and teaching possible.
“Still, the notion of an ‘afterlife with God,’ following death, is entirely alien to the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, it is also alien to the New Testament, unless a person has died in the redemptive faith of Christ. It is Christ alone who delivers man from death, including the saints of the Old Testament. Nowhere in the Bible is there an afterlife apart from Christ. Whatever afterexistence there may be apart from Christ, it is certainly no real life.” (Patrick Henry Reardon, The Trial of Job, p. 54
“After His resurrection from the dead Jesus appeared to men for a period of forty days after which He “was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mk 16.19; see also Lk 24.50 and Acts 1.9–11).
The ascension of Jesus Christ is the final act of His earthly mission of salvation. The Son of God comes “down from heaven” to do the work which the Father gives Him to do; and having accomplished all things, He returns to the Father bearing for all eternity the wounded and glorified humanity which He has assumed (see e.g. Jn 17).
The doctrinal meaning of the ascension is the glorification of human nature, the reunion of man with God. It is indeed, the very penetration of man into the inexhaustible depths of divinity.
We have seen already that “the heavens” is the symbolical expression in the Bible for the uncreated, immaterial, divine “realm of God” as one saint of the Church has called it. To say that Jesus is “exalted at the right hand of God” as Saint Peter preached in the first Christian sermon (Acts 2.33) means exactly this: that man has been restored to communion with God, to a union which is, according to Orthodox doctrine, far greater and more perfect than that given to man in his original creation (see Eph 1–2).
Man was created with the potential to be a “partaker of the divine nature,” to refer to the Apostle Peter once more (2 Pet 1.4). It is this participation in divinity, called theosis (which literally means deification or divinization) in Orthodox theology, that the ascension of Christ has fulfilled for humanity. The symbolical expression of the “sitting at the right hand” of God means nothing other than this. It does not mean that somewhere in the created universe the physical Jesus is sitting in a material throne.” (Fr. Thomas Hopko, Doctrine and Scripture, Vol. 1, pp. 106-107)
“Christ was a stranger on the earth, because even though the world was made through Him, the world knew Him not. Indeed he was a stranger even among His own brethren, for He came to his own home; and his own people received him notJn. 1.11-12). But, as St. Makarios suggests, it is not simply in this sense that Christ agreed to become a stranger, but in the deeper sense that Christ has rejected all rights.
In one glance, the eyes of Christ can encompass the universe. In a single gesture, He can embrace and contain all things, both in heaven and on earth: His heavenly Father, the Holy Spirit, the angels the stars the planets, everything in an instant. But He did not account equality with God a thing to be grasped at, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, a stranger (Phil. 2.7). It’s as if he said: ‘I refuse every place of rest other than your soul, so that you will know that I, Christ, empty Myselfin order to be filled by you. Though you be a worm and not a man(Ps. 21.6), I will honor you in this way, so that you can become My bride, My bridal chamber, My completion, My perfection. And though you are but a wretched earth-worm, I will make you the most beautiful thing there is: I will make you God. And because I am God, I lack nothing: I am in need of nothing. Whatever I have done, whatever I have become, has all been on account of you. My self-abasement, My exile, My hunger, My thirst, my loneliness, are things that I have voluntarily chosen and which can only be satisfied by you; for you are My food, and My clothing, shelter and place of rest.’
This is how far God has abased Himself! In order to fill us with His plentitude, He has voluntarily emptied Himself. This is what He means when He says: I was a stranger, and I was hungry and thirsty, and so on, namely: that He has rejected everything in order to embrace everything. He abandoned the bosom of the Father(cf. Jn 1.18) to make His home in our hearts. Though He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor 8.9).
‘Let us therefore,”’St. Makarios concludes, ‘welcome Him into our hearts’ –and here he reverses what he has just said– ‘for he is our food and drink and eternal life.’” (The Way of the Spirit, pp. 246-247).
Christ who hungers and thirsts in His life on earth, hungers and thirsts for our salvation by becoming the food and drink of eternal life.
“How can the Christian overcome the fear of death? The faith that is central to the hope of Christians is the recognition of Christ’s conquest of death and that his resurrection is the first fruits, the guarantee of the universal resurrection of all human beings at the end of time. ‘In order to be able to face death one must be anchored in the certainty, an experiential and not only theoretical certainty, of eternal life. . . there is in this possession of eternal life a certainty that reduces to naught the fear of death–not the pain of separation, not the regret that death exists, but the fear.’”
Two Pentecostarion hymns from the 4th Week of Pascha caught my attention during Monday Matins. The first is a pretty standard Orthodox Paschal hymn. It focuses on Christ being truly first in all things. Christ is the one who existed first, before all humans and in whose image all humans are created. Christ is the firstborn of the dead – first fully risen from the dead who did not die again, the first fruits of all those who have died. Jesus is the God-man, the incarnate God who created the world and who by His incarnation restores human nature.
CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD, THE FIRST FRUITS OF THEM THAT SLEEP, THE FIRSTBORN OF ALL CREATION, AND THE MAKER OF ALL CREATED THINGS. IN HIS FLESH HE RESTORED THE NATURE OF MANKIND GROWN CORRUPT. DEATH, YOUR REIGN IS OVER, FOR THE MASTER OF ALL HAS MADE YOUR POWER OF NO AVAIL!
DEATH, YOUR REIGN IS OVER! This is the proclamation of Christianity, the Good News of Jesus Christ. The power of death has been destroyed, shown to be of limited duration and not capable to holding all humans. The reign of Christ begins and He shall reign forever and ever. It is in Christ’s flesh, not just in His divinity, that He redeems, restores, recreates humanity. The incarnation is essential to salvation.
The second hymn focuses on the Gospel of the Paralytic, John 5:1-15, which is the Gospel Lesson for the 4th Sunday after Pascha. The hymns playfully examines who really was paralyzed – the man ill for 38 years, or the scribes who felt God’s healing on the Sabbath day violates the rules for keeping Sabbath. There are many forms of paralyses in life – not only physical, but spiritual, mental, and moral as well. One can keep the letter of the law but still be paralyzed in one’s faith, love and thought – so rigidly frozen that one is incapable of acting in faith or in love.
YOU LOOSED THE PARALYTIC’S BONDS ON THE SABBATH DAY, BUT THE SCRIBES WERE PARALYZED, BOUND IN ENVY’S CHAINS. THEY COMPLAINED: IT IS NOT LAWFUL TO HEAL ON THE SABBATH! OUR FATHERS KEPT THE SABBATH REST; WILL YOU NOW DESTROY THIS COMMAND? THEY WOULD NOT RECOGNIZE YOU AS MASTER OF THE LAW, AND THE SAVIOR OF OUR SOULS!
Jesus kept the blessed Sabbath on the 7th day of creation, and also while lying in the tomb following His crucifixion. His resurrection from the dead shows He is the holy One, the Savior of all humankind and Lord of the Sabbath.
The Sunday Gospel lessons in the weeks following Pascha seem to have baptismal themes to them, which is probably why they are found in the lectionary at this point in the year. Pascha was a traditional time to baptize catechumens, and in the weeks after their baptisms, the newly initiated Christians were given lessons in understanding the Mystery of dying and living with Christ. So yesterday’s Gospel (John 5:1-15) reading of the Paralytic being healed at the pool of Bethesda fits well into Gospel lessons used to teach about baptism. This Gospel lesson however might be contrasting the waters of Bethesda with the waters of Baptism. It is Christ who makes the difference. The waters of Bethesda may have been able to hear one fortunate person every so often, but the waters of baptism are able to heal every sinner and restore their full humanity.
In the baptismal liturgy, we pray over the water, and find what it is that the waters which Christ offer us (such that we will never thirst) are:
“But show this water, O Master of all, to be
the water of redemption,
the water of sanctification,
the purification of flesh and spirit,
the loosing of bonds,
the remission of sins,
the illumination of the soul,
the washing of regeneration,
the renewal of the Spirit,
the gift of adoption to sonship,
the garment of incorruption,
the fountain of life.
While some people think baptism is for washing away the guilt of original sin, the prayer over the water tells us the cosmic significance of baptism. It is not just about an individual, nor is it just about the remission of sins. Baptism is about redemption, sanctification, purification, illumination, regeneration, transformation, revelation, and renewal as well as being made an heir of God’s promises and kingdom. Baptism is the beginning of the new life in Christ – we start to live at baptism.
For You have said, O Lord: “Wash and be clean; put away evil things from your souls.” You have bestowed upon us from on high a new birth through water and the Spirit. Therefore, O Lord, manifest Yourself in this water, and grant that
he (she) who is baptized therein may be transformed;
that he (she) may put away from himself (herself) the old man, which is corrupt through the lusts of the flesh,
and that he (she) may, in like manner, be a partaker of Your Resurrection; and having preserved the gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increased the measure of grace committed to him (her),
he (she) may receive the prize of his (her) high calling, and be numbered with the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, in You, our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.
In the prayers of baptism, we ask God to manifest Himself in the waters of baptism – the baptized have the God who is love reveal Himself to them. We experience our life as a birth from God! We are born again in baptism, born of God to become God’s children. We experience Christ’s resurrection and receive the Holy Spirit in baptism. We experience the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
Our task in life is to live this baptism – we go out into the world to live our life and to preserve our baptismal garments. And, as the prayers say we are to increase the grace given to us. We are not to hide and protect the received grace from contact with the world, but rather are to increase that grace by our life in the world. We use the gift of the Holy Spirit and the grace of baptism or we lose it. We use it in our daily life to increase it. This is the Christian life of loving God and neighbor.
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.
In a previous post, When Death Wept, I mentioned that early Christian writers were far more interested in how Death reacted to Christ then they were in what it is like to be dead or to traverse through the place of the dead. Their interest in Hades was because it is a place Christ has conquered and filled – it is a place where we will meet Jesus Christ our Lord, not be separated from Him.
These same writers were also very interested in what Paradise, the garden God prepared for His first human creatures, must have been like. This was of greater interest to these early writers than taking a sojourn through circles of hell or through purgatory or toll houses. They focused often on where God is, which turns out to be everywhere including Hades, rather than in concocting places where God is not. St. Ephrem of Syria (d. 373AD) poetically describes Paradise in his volumes of poems.
Perhaps that blessed tree,
the Tree of Life,
is, by its rays,
the sun of Paradise;
its leaves glisten
and on them are impressed
the spiritual graces
of that Garden.
In the breezes the other trees
bow down in worship
before that sovereign
and leader of the trees.
In the very midst He planted
the Tree of Knowledge
endowing it with awe,
hedging it in with dread,
so that it might straightaway serve
as a boundary to the inner region of Paradise.
St. Ephrem describes Paradise to be God’s temple, like the Temple in Jerusalem. Or rather, as we know, the Temple in Jerusalem was built based upon the Temple which was revealed to Moses (Exodus 25:9, 26:30; Numbers 8:4; Acts 7:44). Paradise had different regions according to St. Ephrem which had boundaries marking that some regions were even more holy than other regions. Those who could enter each region were limited, which is the pattern which the Jerusalem Temple followed with its outer courts and the inner Holy of Holies.
Two things did Adam hear
in that single decree:
that they should not eat of it
and that, by shrinking from it,
they should perceive that it was not lawful
to penetrate further, beyond that Tree.
While Genesis portrays the Tree being in the middle of the Garden, St. Ephrem sees the Tree as a boundary which Adam was not permitted to trespass beyond. The serpent was not even allowed in the Garden, but craftily learned about the inner structure of the Garden by inquiring about it from Eve. To talk to the serpent, Eve and Adam had to intentionally leave the inner sanctuary. The serpent didn’t really have Eve and Adam’s ear – they had to go out of their way to listen to the serpent, according to St. Ephrem.
The serpent could not
for neither animal
was permitted to approach
the outer region of Paradise,
and Adam had to go out
to meet them,
so the serpent cunningly learned
through questioning Eve,
the character of Paradise
what it was and how it was arranged.
According to St. Ephrem, the serpent’s goal all along was to learn about the design of the Garden – of God’s Temple. His discussion in Genesis 3 with Eve is really his crafty way to learn the layout of the Temple. The serpent wanted to know what was in the midst of the Garden. Once the serpent had that knowledge he hatched his plan to get Adam and Eve to turn away from God.
The serpent couldn’t harm Adam or Eve, but he was able to figure out a fatal flaw in them! Once he surmised that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was the key, the serpent suggested to Eve that there would be no harm in eating the fruit, that the fruit like everything in the garden was good to be had. Wisdom says there is a time for everything. It was not yet Eve and Adam’s time to partake of the fruit, but they bit on the serpent’s temptation, and the rest is history, so to speak.
At some point in early Christian history, Christian theologians began imaging Christ’s descent into Hades, the place of the dead. Unlike concerns of later Christians, they didn’t have Christ describe what Hades is like or what it’s like to be dead or how to make the proper sojourn through the place of the dead as was the theme of pagan religion. They took a completely different point of view: they imagined how Death reacted to facing Christ in Hades. Death realizes that he is suddenly confronted by God, face to face in a place which Death thought he was all powerful and far removed from the reach of God. These early Christian theologians personified or anthropomorphized Death, and then rejoiced in Death’s shriveling and cowering before real power – the eternal God. Death felt all powerful – able to claim every human person God created and to enslave them in Hades. In the face of the crucified Christ, Death realizes he has no real power even over the dead.
In the midst of Death’s own kingdom, Death realized he still had a Lord, and that he himself really wasn’t a lord at all, but was powerless in the face of God. Christ came to destroy death not to describe what the place of the dead is like. He didn’t come to tell us how to navigate our way through Hades or Toll Houses either. Christ destroyed death and then by His resurrection showed us the path to the Kingdom of God. Christ smashed the gates of Hades and opened the gate of Paradise to His human creatures. By entering Hades, Christ transformed even Hades into Heaven! So the Syriac-Persian Christian Aphrahat (d. 345AD) writes:
“When Jesus, the slayer of Death, came and put on a body (Ibesh pagra) from the seed of Adam, and was crucified in the body and tasted death; and as soon as Death perceived that he descended to him, he quivered in his place and became agitated at the sight of Jesus. He shut up the doors and did not want to receive him. However, he shattered the doors and entered to him [Death] and began to rob him of his possessions. As the dead saw light shining in darkness, they raised up their heads from the bondage of death and looked forth and saw the brightness of Christ, the King.
Then the powers of darkness sat lamenting, for Death was destroyed and stripped of his authority. And Death has tasted deadly poison (sam mauta) and his hands slackened and he realized that the dead will revive and escape his tyranny. As he [Christ] conquered Death by spoiling him of his possessions, Death cried out and wept bitterly and said: “Go out of my place and do not come back. Who is that who dared to enter my home alive?” And then Death cried out as he saw darkness starting to disperse and some among the righteous ones who were lying down there, rose up to ascend with him [Christ]. And he said [to Death] that he will return at the end of time, and will release all captives from his authority, and will draw them to himself, so that they could see light. Thus, as Christ had completed his ministry (teshmeshta) among the dead, Death let him escape out of his region, for he could not endure his presence there. For it was not sweet for him to swallow Christ up as [it was with] the rest of the dead. And Death did not prevail over the Holy One and he was not subjected to corruption.” (quoted by Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, pp. 69-70)