Dear Theophilus , (Letter 89. )
Let me summarize some of the main points that were brought up in the last letter.
God is not vengeful and does not punish people. There is no condemnation of man for having transgressed some moralistic norm. What is placed before man is a choice between choosing life and choosing death. Man elects to go with death and he suffers the inevitable consequences of this choice. It is the same as a man who abuses his body through a diet that eventually causes him to have a heart attack from which he dies. He dies because of the consequences of his choice and that is what Genesis points out and that is what is brought up time and again in the book of Deuteronomy where it is underscored that man can choose between life and death.
Now that the problem has been defined what can be done to rectify it? How is God going to save man, and not only man, but the whole of creation? The Bible is a description of how this salvation history comes about but the crowning point of this redemption of creation is the Incarnation and Death and Resurrection of Christ. It is not simply a matter of canceling out sin – it is something deeper than that – it is the making man whole again.
In the Incarnation we have a union of the uncreated and the created and it is through this union that new possibilities open up for man. Let us go back and try to understand what was occurring during the fall. Man, through the person of Adam, claims self-sufficiency for himself. He is no longer in need of God – he has everything he needs in himself and in the world around him. This self-sufficiency results in alienation from God and the inevitable death that this brings about. We do not need to go into any kind of juridical explanations because they are secondary and originate in man’s psychology in a need to somehow lessen his feelings of guilt for betraying God.
Every partaking of food for the sustenance of biological life is a gift of God and through this, if we are open to it, we come to realize that life is a relational affair. Man’s relationship with God is not ethical or religious in its essence – it is literally life affirming. In food that is dead there is no life and we eventually succumb to death.
With the Death and Resurrection of Christ what opens up for us is the possibility to partake of nourishment which is not death-bringing but life-affirming – the body and blood of Christ. Man draws his life, as Adam should have done but did not, from nourishment as a relationship and communion with God. Adam decided to realize his life, not as communion with God, but to feed himself on the world and forgetting about this gift from God (and how many of us forget to thank God every time we partake of food which is a gift from God).
Because of the Incarnation, the Church has struggled to save the body of man from the absurd revulsion of death and to declare to an unbelieving world that the flesh of the earth and of man can be united with the uncreated and thereby attain immortal life. But, how is this enacted and how is it possible?
There is a commonality between God and man. It is not through the essence of God because that is totally unapproachable by everything that is created, including man. Man is created in the image and likeness of God. We know that God is personal in that He loves, and man also has a personal existence. It is through his personhood (hypostasis) that man through his freedom can love. It is this freedom that opens the possibility for man to go beyond natural limitations.
The Church councils talk of Christ having two natures, the human and the divine and these both exist fully and truly without blending or one swallowing up the other. In other words, the Person of Christ is what enables the two natures to exist simultaneously within Christ. Let me illustrate this with an example. Consider John who is a person and consider human nature. We do not, and cannot, have human nature present on its own. Human nature must be ‘incarnated’ (enhypostasized) by a person. Thus John, who is a person causes the human nature to exist and therefore the person is more fundamental and basic than nature. So, in Christ the natures are, of course important but what is also crucial is the importance of personhood in theosis.
The first Adam refused to realize the personal existence of his nature as a communion. He became focused on survival as his primary goal and thus Adam lost his freedom and became subject to domination by instinct and the drive for biological survival. In Adam personal existence subordinates itself to natural existence and since created nature is mortal, Adam embraces death not as a punishment but as a natural consequence of his choice.
In the Eucharist, the Church lives the miracle of undying life. If the created can exist in the mode of the uncreated – and this is what happens in the Incarnation – then no other miracle is impossible. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raise. These are not proofs that coerce belief but they are signs of a new creation coming into being.
As St. Paul writes, we are all clothed in Christ, we are united with him and because of this we have eternal life. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. In this one person of Christ, all of humanity is saved and made whole. All this is very difficult to express in words of fallen creation but we can at least make an attempt to make some sense of what transpired two thousand years ago and what its significance is for us.
It is pointed out in scriptures that Christ went to his death willingly and did not resist. His death was not the unavoidable termination of created nature. Christ gave himself up to death forsaking every effort to maintain his biological life. He abandons himself completely into the care of the Father. Christ accepts even death willingly and so he quells man’s rebellion against God and places it within the freedom of love and obedience to the Father’s will. He does this not through compulsion but freely and thereby he allows all of us to emulate him. Everyone can transform the necessity of his own death into a freedom of self-renunciation from every demand of individual self-existence. Now, everyone can transform the necessity of death into a movement opposite to Adam’s rebellion and rely on, and trust in, our personal relationship with the Father. In the person of Christ, every human being is granted the same relationship of life with God which the Son has with the Father. This is the essence of our salvation. This is what Paul means when he speaks of our adoption.
You ask why physical death has not been ended? Why do people continue to die? But it is exactly through going through death that each and everyone of us is given the opportunity to freely participate in the salvation and redemption of each of us through the death that we offer to God. Nothing is imposed on us; we are given the opportunity to accept God’s gift or even to reject it, freely. What has changed, and changed to its very core is the essence of biological death.
Death before the coming of Christ was a ‘dead’ end with no hope possible but with Christ’s Incarnation, Death and Resurrection this becomes something very different. In spite of the limitations of our language we can say that the personal freedom of Christ, accepting death willingly, leads his human nature to the total renunciation of every demand for self-existence. Christ in his human flesh puts to death Adam’s revolt and the revolt of all of us as we strain to put survival as our prime value. Death in Christ is now seen as the triumph of the love of God, an entry into a new life. What is mortal is swallowed up by life through death. Every willing renunciation by man of his existential autonomy functions for the love of God as a repetition and imitation of the self-renunciation by Christ on the cross. In his person our common human nature has the same relationship with God as the Son has with the Father. Therefore, when human flesh lays aside unwillngly in biological death, or willingly in baptism, spiritual discipline, or martyrdom, the resistance of its self sufficiency, our created personhood is united with the current of life which comes from the Father. Our physical death then becomes an opportunity for us to sacrifice ourselves to God the Father through His Son and our death then becomes a sacrament for entry into eternal and immortal life. And we can do all this not through our own efforts but through the sacrificial Death and Resurrection of Christ.