Last Friday night, 30 September, saw the fourth session of The Way at the Metropolis in Rondebosch. In it Gladys Bland addressed the question of why Jesus Christ came to us, the answer to which can be summed up in the one word – “Love”. After two thousand years we still struggle to express the depths and heights of that love.
To answer the question of how Jesus Christ came to us is a little more complex however, but it takes us to the heart of the Christian message:
Since man could not come to God, God came to man. Jesus Christ healed and restored our disgraced humanity, by taking the whole of it upon Himself.
This was the faith that the bishops of the early Church expressed in what became known as the Nicene Creed:
… I believe in One Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
the Only begotten of the Father before all worlds,
Light from Light, Very God from Very God,
Begotten not made, being of one essence with the Father,
by whom all things were made;
Who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven
and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
and became man;
and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,
and suffered and was buried;
and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures;
and ascended to heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father;
and He shall come again with glory to judge
the living and the dead,
whose kingdom shall have no end …
The various Councils of the Church sought to express and safeguard the basic reality that
Only God can save us – and Christ was fully divine
He was also fully human – and so was able to reach to the point of our human need.
Following the New Testament, the Church taught that Jesus Christ was conceived of a virgin. His birth was a real human birth. But
As the Son of God – Christ had no mother
As the Son of Man – He had no father
We speak of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God.
St Cyril of Alexandria said of those who would not give her this title that they ‘are denying Christ is really God and Son’. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox do not believe in the immaculate conception of Mary. This is the view that from the first moment of her conception, Mary was kept free from all stain of original sin. We believe, on the other hand, that she shared in the imperfect condition of being human, but actually never sinned. She is, according to our Church teaching, ‘spotless’, ‘all holy’ and ‘altogether without sin’. In the Eucharist of St Basil, she is declared to be ‘the joy of all creation’. The Russian theologian Alexander Schmemann said of her: ‘She is the affirmation of the ultimate destiny of all creation: that God may finally be all in all, may fill all things with Himself ’.
Jesus Christ was a real person, but He was one who taught with authority. In His public ministry He showed that God is the “Lover of mankind”. He showed His authority in His teaching and miracles and He left us an example of how to live as humans.
We cannot separate Christ’s life from his death and resurrection. In a perfect world His life would have been enough to save us but in our sinful world a sacrificial act was needed. Christ “assumed not only human life, but human death, thus conquering death and restoring man to eternal life.” He “‘descended into hell’, not only to preach to the departed, but to share yet again in our humanity.”
It is important for us to see Christ’s death on the Cross as a great victory, which we can celebrate to the full. We began this talk with the theme of the love of God – so we can see the Cross as the victory of the love of God over the bitter fruits of human sin and failure. St John tells us that Christ loved his disciples ‘to the end’ (John 13:1). The cry of Christ on the Cross ‘It is finished’ was not a cry of despair, as it can so easily be with us, but a cry of victory. The whole destiny of the human race was irrevocably changed. In the words which Dostoevsky put into the mouth of the Staretz Zosima, ‘Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it’. The St Basil Liturgy refers to it as ‘Christ’s life-creating death’.
Christ’s death could not have been the end, for He is also fully divine. As St John Chrysostom wrote in the words read at the Pascha (Easter) service:
‘Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free’
‘Christ is risen and the demons have fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!’
This was not simply a spiritual experience, but a physical conquering of death.
The tomb of Christ was empty, and the women who came to embalm his body were unable to do so, because the body was no longer there, for Christ had risen from the dead. Instead the women were filled with awe and unspeakable joy.
The resurrection of Christ was the turning point of human history. Yet we still await with expectation the triumphant return of Christ. The Church does not encourage us to speculate on the details of this, but we are aware that we need to be saved.
Jesus came to heal and restore all creation. He did not come to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (cf. John 3:17). According to Metropolitan Kallistos, salvation can best be summed up as sharing, as God’s solidarity and identification with man: ‘Sharing is the key alike to the doctrine of God in Trinity and to the doctrine of God made man.’ Salvation means healing. As we share in Christ’s life we are healed. In the Liturgy the priest prays that our participation in the mysteries may be to the healing of the soul and body.
When we look at the icon of Christ’s Resurrection, we see Adam and Even being raised by Christ.
We see first that the focus is on the glory, light and power of the risen Christ, who stands on the gates of hell which have been broken down by Him. These gates had held as prisoners Adam and Eve, the father and mother of the human race. They now look away from selfish concern with themselves towards the glory of Christ their Saviour.
The icon also shows that the initiative comes from the Son of God – He moves towards them, rather than they towards Him. Christ reaches out his hands to pull us from death, from our weaknesses and our blindness to our human limitations – into his light, life and love. As St Paul put it ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The initiative comes from God but we must also do our part, for God has given us free will and does not force Himself on us. God does not condemn us when we are tempted to doubt, but we need to resist the temptation and ask for the gift of faith. We should look to the example of the Mother of God who asked “How can these things be?” and yet still responded to God.
Faith involves a change in direction.
The Greek word for ‘repentance’ is ‘metanoia’. It means a complete about-turn, so we point in a new direction. Although we are all created in the image of God, that image needs to be restored. The process begins at our baptism when we are buried with Christ in the water, and raised to new life and given the Holy Spirit to change us into the likeness of Christ. But we need personally to respond to this.
Sometimes people ask whether all will be saved.
In the Paschal Liturgy we sing ‘All is filled with light; heaven, the earth, hell’. We cannot, however, say all will be saved, as with freewill it is possible to continue to reject God’s grace. The fire of God’s love that brings light and joy to those who accept it brings pain to those who reject it. Bishop Kallistos comments: ‘God’s ultimate plans for his creation remain a mystery … but at heart we know two things. First, God has given us freewill. And secondly, divine love is inexhaustible. Beyond this we cannot go. But, obedient to the words of St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938), “we must pray for all”.’
Our journey to salvation is not an isolated individual journey, but it is always in and through the community of the Church. It is most profoundly exerienced in the Divine Liturgy in which, in partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ we become “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4)
Jesus came to bring the whole creation back to the perfection of the original creation. In Genesis 1:31 we read that ‘God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good’. In the Vigil service of the Nativity we sing ‘Heaven and Earth are united today, for Christ is born. Today has God come upon earth and man gone up to heaven’. This dramatic change-over is called ‘salvation’, and it is lived out a day at a time. So let us gladly echo the words of St Paul, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20).