“The Word became flesh:” in this is the ultimate joy of the Christian faith. In this is the fullness of Revelation. The Same Incarnate Lord is both perfect God and perfect man. The full significance and the ultimate purpose of human existence is revealed and realized in and through the Incarnation. He came down from Heaven to redeem the earth, to unite man with God for ever. “And became man.” The new age has been initiated. We count now the “anni Domini!” As St. Irenaeus wrote: “the Son of God became the Son of Man, that man also might become the son of God.”1 Not only is the original fullness of human nature restored or re-established in the Incarnation. Not only does human nature return to its once lost communion with God. The Incarnation is also the new Revelation, the new and further step. The first Adam was a living soul. But the last Adam is the Lord from Heaven (1 Cor. 15:47). And in the Incarnation of the Word human nature was not merely anointed with a superabundant overflowing of Grace, but was assumed into an intimate and hypostatical unity with the Divinity itself. In that lifting up of human nature into an everlasting communion with the Divine Life, the Fathers of the early Church unanimously saw the very essence of salvation, the basis of the whole redeeming work of Christ. “That is saved which is united with God,” says St. Gregory of Nazianzus. And what was not united could not be saved at all. This was his chief reason for insisting, against Apollinarius,2 on the fullness of human nature, assumed by the Only Begotten in the Incarnation. This was the fundamental motive in the whole of early theology, in St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, the Cappa-docian Fathers, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Maximus the Confessor. The whole history of Christological dogma was determined by this fundamental conception: the Incarnation of the Word as Redemption. In the Incarnation human history is completed. God’s eternal will is accomplished, “the mystery from eternity hidden and to angels unknown.” The days of expectation are over. The Promised and the Expected has come. And from henceforth, to use the phrase of St. Paul, the life of man “is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
The Incarnation of the Word was an absolute manifestation of God. And above all it was a revelation of Life. Christ is the Word of Life, ο λόγος της ζωής… “and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us” (1 John 1:1-2).3 The Incarnation is the quickening of man, as it were, the resurrection of human nature. But the climax of the Gospel is the Cross, the death of the Incarnate. Life has been revealed in full through death. This is the paradoxical mystery of the Christian faith: life through death, life from the grave and out of the grave, the mystery of the life-bearing grave. And we are born to real and eternal life only through our baptismal death and burial in Christ; we are regenerated with Christ in the baptismal font. Such is the invariable law of true life. “That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die” (I Cor. 15:36).
“Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh” (I Timothy 3:16). But God was not manifest in order to recreate the world at once by the exercise of His omnipotent might, or to illuminate and transfigure it by the overwhelming light of His glory. It was in the uttermost humiliation that this revelation of Divinity was wrought. The Divine will does not abolish the original status of human freedom or “self-power” [το αύτεξούσιον], it does not destroy or abolish the “ancient law of human freedom.”4 Herein is revealed a certain self-limitation or “kenosis” of the Divine might. And more than that, a certain kenosis of Divine Love itself. Divine love, as it were, restricts and limits itself in the maintenance of the freedom of the creation. Love does not impose the healing by compulsion as it might have done. There was no compelling evidence in this manifestation of God. Not all recognized the Lord of Glory under that “guise of the servant” He deliberately took upon Himself. And whosoever did recognize, did so not by any natural insight, but by the revelation of the Father (cf. Matt. 16:17). The Incarnate Word appeared on earth as man among men. This was the redeeming assumption of all human fullness, not only of human nature, but also of all the fullness of human life. The Incarnation had to be manifested in all the fullness of life, in the fullness of human ages, that all that fullness might be sanctified. This is one of the aspects of the idea of the “summing up” of all in Christ (recapitulatio, άνακεφαλαίωσις) which was taken up with such emphasis by St. Irenaeus from St. Paul.5 This was the “humiliation” of the Word (cf. Phil. 2:7). But this “kenosis” was no reduction of His Divinity, which in the Incarnation continues unchanged, ανευ τροπής. It was, on the contrary, a lifting-up of man, the “deification” of human nature, the “theosis.” As St. John Damascene says, in the Incarnation “three things were accomplished at once: the assumption, the existence, and the deification of humanity by the Word.”6 It must be stressed that in the Incarnation the Word assumes the original human nature, innocent and free from original sin, without any stain. This does not violate the fullness of nature, nor does this affect the Savior’s likeness to us sinful people. For sin does not belong to human nature, but is a parasitic and abnormal growth. This point was vigorously stressed by St. Gregory of Nyssa and particularly by St. Maximus the Confessor in connection with their teaching of the will as the seat of sin.7 In the Incarnation the Word assumes the first-formed human nature, created “in the image of God,” and thereby the image of God is again re-established in man.8 This was not yet the assumption of human suffering or of suffering humanity. It was an assumption of human life, but not yet of human death. Christ’s freedom from original sin constitutes also His freedom from death, which is the “wages of sin.” Christ is unstained from corruption and mortality right from His birth. And like the First Adam before the Fall, He is able not to die at all, potens non mori, though obviously He can still die, potens autem mori. He was exempt from the necessity of death, because His humanity was pure and innocent. Therefore Christ’s death was and could not but be voluntary, not by the necessity of fallen nature, but by free choice and acceptance.9
A distinction must be made between the assumption of human nature and the taking up of sin by Christ. Christ is “the Lamb of God that taketh the sin of the world” (John I:29).10 But He does not take the sin of the world in the Incarnation. That is an act of the will, not a necessity of nature. The Savior bears the sin of the world (rather than assumes it) by the free choice of love. He bears it in such a way that it does not become His own sin, or violate the purity of His nature and will. He carries it freely; hence this “taking up” of sin has a redeeming power, as a free act of compassion and love.11 This taking up of sin is not merely a compassion. In this world, which “lies in sin,” even purity itself is suffering, it is a fount or cause of suffering. Hence it is that the righteous heart grieves and aches over unrighteousness, and suffers from the unrighteousness of this world. The Savior’s life, as the life of a righteous and pure being, as a life pure and sinless, must inevitably have been in this world the life of one who suffered. The good is oppressive to this world, and this world is oppressive to the good. This world resists good and does not regard light. And it does not accept Christ, it rejects both Him and His Father (John 15:23-24). The Savior submits Himself to the order of this world, forbears, and the very opposition of this world is covered by His all-forgiving love: “They know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The whole life of Our Lord is one Cross. But suffering is not yet the whole Cross. The Cross is more than merely suffering Good. The sacrifice of Christ is not yet exhausted by His obedience and endurance, forbearance, compassion, all-forgivingness. The one redeeming work of Christ cannot be separated into parts. Our Lord’s earthly life is one organic whole, and His redeeming action cannot be exclusively connected with any one particular moment in that life. However, the climax of this life was its death. And the Lord plainly bore witness to the hour of death: “For this cause came I unto this hour” (John 12:27). The redeeming death is the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation.”
The mystery of the Cross is beyond our rational comprehension. This “terrible sight” seems strange and startling. The whole life of Our Blessed Lord was one great act of forbearance, mercy and love. And the whole of it is illuminated by the eternal radiance of Divinity, though that radiance is invisible to the world of flesh and sin. But salvation is completed on Golgotha, not on Tabor, and the Cross of Jesus was foretold even on Tabor (cf. Luke 9:31). Christ came not only that He might teach with authority and tell people the name of the Father, not only that He might accomplish works of mercy. He came to suffer and to die, and to rise again. He Himself more than once witnessed to this before the perplexed and startled disciples. He not only prophesied the coming Passion and death, but plainly stated that He must, that He had to, suffer and be killed. He plainly said that “must,” not simply “was about to.” “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31, Matthew 16:21, Luke 9:22, 24:26). “Must” [δει] not just according to the law of this world, in which good and truth is persecuted and rejected, not just according to the law of hatred and evil. The death of Our Lord was in full freedom. No one takes His life away. He Himself offers His soul by His own supreme will and authority. “I have authority,” — έξουσίαν εχω — (John 10:18). He suffered and died, “not because He could not escape suffering, but because He chose to suffer,” as it is stated in the Russian Catechism. Chose, not merely in the sense of voluntary endurance or non-resistance, not merely in the sense that He permitted the rage of sin and unrighteousness to be vented on Himself. He not only permitted but willed it. He “must have died according to the law of truth and love. In no way was the Crucifixion a passive suicide or simply murder. It was a Sacrifice and an oblation. He had to die. This was not the necessity of this world. This was the necessity of Divine Love. The mystery of the Cross begins in eternity, “in the sanctuary of the Holy Trinity, unapproachable for creatures.” And the transcendent mystery of God’s wisdom and love is revealed and fulfilled in history. Hence Christ is spoken of as the Lamb, “who was foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world” (Peter 1:19), and even “that hath been slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). “The Cross of Jesus, composed of the enmity of the Jews and the violence of the Gentiles, is indeed but the earthly image and shadow of this heavenly Cross of love.”14 This “Divine necessity” of the death on the Cross passes all understanding indeed. And the Church has never attempted any rational definition of this supreme mystery. Scriptural terms have appeared, and do still appear, to be the most adequate ones. In any case, no merely ethical categories will do. The moral, and still more the legal or juridical conceptions, can never be more than colorless anthropomorphism. This is true even of the idea of sacrifice. The sacrifice of Christ cannot be considered as a mere offering or surrender. That would not explain the necessity of the death. For the whole life of the Incarnate One was one continuous sacrifice. Why then was this purest life yet insufficient for victory over death? Why was death vanquished only by death? And was death really a terrifying prospect for the Righteous One, for the Incarnate One, especially in the supreme foreknowledge of the coming Resurrection on the third day? But even ordinary Christian martyrs have accepted all their torments and sufferings, and death itself, in full calm and joy, as a crown and a triumph. The Chief of martyrs, the Protomartyr Christ Himself, was not less than they. And, by the same “Divine decree,” by the same “Divine necessity,” He “must” not only have been executed and reviled, and have died, but also have been raised on the third day. Whatever may be our interpretation of the Agony in the Garden, one point is perfectly clear. Christ was not a passive victim, but the Conqueror, even in His uttermost humiliation. He knew that this humiliation was no mere endurance or obedience, but the very path of Glory and of the ultimate victory. Nor does the idea of Divine justice alone, justitia vindicativa, reveal the ultimate meaning of the sacrifice of the Cross. The mystery of the Cross cannot be adequately presented in terms of the transaction, the requital, or the ransom.15 If the value of the death of Christ was infinitely enhanced by His Divine Personality, the same also applies to the whole of His life. All His deeds have an infinite value and significance as the deeds of the Incarnate Word of God. And they cover indeed superabundantly both all misdeeds and sinful shortcomings of the fallen human race. Finally, there could hardly be any retributive justice in the Passion and death of the Lord, which might possibly have been in the death of even a righteous man. For this was not the suffering and death of a mere man, graciously supported by the Divine help because of his faithfulness and endurance. This death was the suffering of the Incarnate Son of God Himself, the suffering of unstained human nature already deified by its assumption into the hypostasis of the Word. Nor is this to be explained by the idea of a substitutional satisfaction, the satisfactio vicaria of the scholastics. Not because substitution is not possible. Christ did indeed take upon Himself the sin of the world. But because God does not seek the sufferings of anyone, He grieves over them. How could the penal death of the Incarnate, most pure and undefiled, be the abolition of sin, if death itself is the wages of sin, and if death exists only in the sinful world? Does Justice really restrain Love and Mercy, and was the Crucifixion needed to disclose the pardoning love of God, otherwise precluded from manifesting itself by the restraint of vindicatory justice? If there was any restraint at all, it was rather a restraint of love. And justice was accomplished, in that Salvation was wrought by condescension, by a “kenosis,” and not by omnipotent might. Probably a recreation of fallen mankind by the mighty intervention of the Divine omnipotence would have seemed to us simpler and more merciful. Strangely enough, the fullness of the Divine Love, which is intent to preserve our human freedom, appears to us rather as a severe request of transcendent justice, simply because it implies an appeal to the cooperation of the human will. Thus Salvation becomes a task for man himself also, and can be consummated only in freedom, with the response of man. The “image of God” is manifested in freedom. And freedom itself is all too often a burden for man. And in a certain sense it is indeed a superhuman gift and request, a supernatural path, the path of “deification,” theosis. Is not this very theosis a burden for a self-imprisoned, selfish, and self-sufficient being? And yet this burdensome gift of freedom is the ultimate mark of the Divine love and benevolence towards man. The Cross is not a symbol of Justice, but the symbol of Love Divine. St. Gregory of Nazianzus utters all these doubts with great emphasis in his remarkable Easter Sermon:
To whom, and why, is this blood poured out for us and shed, the great and most precious blood of God, the High Priest and Victim … We were in the power of the Evil One, sold to sin, and had brought this harm on ourselves by sensuality … If the price of ransom is given to none other than him in whose power we are held, then I ask, to whom and for what reason is such a price paid … If it is to the Evil One, then how insulting is this! The thief receives the price of ransom; he not only receives it from God, but even receives God Himself. For his tyranny he receives so large a price that it was only right to have mercy upon us … If to the Father, then first, in what way ? Were we not in captivity under Him … And secondly, for what reason? For what reason was the blood of the Only Begotten pleasing to the Father, Who did not accept even Isaac, when offered by his father, but exchanged the offering, giving instead of the reasonable victim a lamb?
By all these questions St. Gregory tries to make clear the inexplicability of the Cross in terms of vindicatory justice. And he concludes: “From this it is evident that the Father accepted [the sacrifice], not because He demanded or had need, but by economy and because man had to be sanctified by the humanity of God.”16
Redemption is not just the forgiveness of sins, it is not just man’s reconciliation with God. Redemption is the abolition of sin altogether, the deliverance from sin and death. And Redemption was accomplished on the Cross, “by the blood of His Cross” (Col. 1:20; cf. Acts 20:28; Rom. 5:9; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; Heb. 9:22; I John 1:7; Rev. 1:5-6, 5:9). Not by the suffering of the Cross only, but precisely by the death on the Cross. And the ultimate victory is wrought, not by sufferings or endurance, but by death and resurrection. We enter here into the ontological depth of human existence. The death of Our Lord was the victory over death and mortality, not just the remission of sins, nor merely a justification of man, nor again a satisfaction of an abstract justice. And the very key to the Mystery can be given only by a coherent doctrine of human death.