This selection comes from this quarter’s Featured Writer, Fiona Givens.
“There is…a consensus in Greek patristic and Byzantine traditions in identifying the inheritance of the Fall as an inheritance…of mortality rather than sinfulness.” For the Eastern Christian Church it is death and not sin that is at the center of Christ’s Atonement: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” is the mantra of Eastern Christianity. The early Church Father, Ireneaus, described Christ’s mission in these terms:
In order to obtain life for us, ‘the Word became flesh, [John 1:14]…in order to undo death and vivify man, for we were… fallen under [the power of death]. Rich in mercy was God the Father. (Ephesians 2:4): He sent the creative Word, who, coming to save us, was in the same place and situation in which we were in when we lost life, breaking the bonds of prison, and His light appeared and dispelled the darkness [of the prison], and sanctified our birth and abolished death (2 Tim 1:10) loosening the same bonds by which we were trapped. And He demonstrated the resurrection, becoming Himself the ‘firstborn from the dead’ (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5) and raising Himself fallen man, raising [him] above the highest heaven to the right hand of the glory of the Father.
And it is death rather than sin that preoccupies the heart and mind of John Milton’s Eve as she laments the legacy she bequeaths to the human family: “Miserable it is to be to others cause of misery, our own begotten, and of our loins to bring Into this cursed world a woeful race, That after wretched life must be at last food for so foul a monster [death].” It is with this “foul monster” that Christ has contended for the souls of men in an engagement that started in pre-existent counsels, extended through the events of the Paradisiacal Garden and, finally, culminates in Gethsemane and on Golgotha.
The risks were real, the stakes were high, and the cost to the Christ excruciating beyond our comprehension. We cannot fathom a more than mortal fear that forced the Fashioner of life to hesitate at the brink of the abyss and cry out in agony: “Remove this cup from me.” Only the love borne out “to the edge of doom” could have prevailed against the onset of infinite horror and darkness by which the Saviour was assailed. We catch fleeting glimpses of the gaping void into which Christ stared in the account of Abraham who, on the brink of eternal covenant making, describes “a horror of great darkness [that] came upon” him. And at the Restoration’s cusp, a teenage boy recoils in terror at the “thick darkness [that] gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time that I was doomed to sudden destruction.”
It was into the abyss of His own destruction, that of Mankind, and that of the cosmos which He had created into which he now stared. The gaping void now yawning wide marked the beginning of His final battle against Satan, the Destroyer, which would culminate in the death of the Son of God and the victory of Satan. His triumph is indelibly etched upon the faces of those gathered at the deposition of Christ. All the colours in the pictorial renditions convey grief, despair, and insuperable loss. Absolute Love is vanquished in the man who laid down his life for his friends. And yet. And yet, in “seeking to destroy the world,” Satan “knew not the mind of God.” For, in Christ’s death lay “the seed of immortality” and eternal life, that could take root only upon the demise of the Christ—the God-Man. The death of the Son of Man would eventuate not only in new life but in the more complete and joyful life. By His death he fulfilled His promise to each one of us, children of Divine Parentage: “I come that [you] might have life and that [you] might have it abundantly…An inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled…reserved in heaven for you.”
The Church Father, Justin, who was martyred in 165 AD, recorded the practice of baptism among the early Christians: “We bring them to a place where there is water, where they are regenerated in the same way as we were: for they then make their ablution in the water in the name of God the Father and Lord of all, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ and of [the] Holy Spirit.” Immediately following the washing of the acolyte by baptism and her anointing by chrismation bread was then brought “and a cup of water and wine.” The regenerative properties of water were not only understood by the inchoate Church but deliberately applied to Christ’s actions in Gethsemane and upon the Cross. The offertory consisted of the emblems of the life-giving properties of both Christ’s blood and water. For “the life of the flesh is in the blood…[Therefore] it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.” In other words, in shedding His blood the Saviour made possible the perfect, permanent reunion [atonement] of spirit and body. The offering, however, is that of wine mixed with water: “One of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water”—a powerful, visual manifestation that Christ had not only taken up the cup but had drained it—such is the power of Absolute Love. By His blood, we are restored to life. By the water, we are healed from lives that are torn, scarred, broken. Through His death, Christ has conquered the Last Enemy—Death, and He has poured out before us a “well of water springing up unto everlasting life.” As Hippolytus attested the cups of mingled wine and water given to the converts “symbolized the fact that they were now pure as clean water and had passed not only through the Dead Sea but also the Jordan; that they had come out of slavery [Death] all the way to the promised land [Heaven].”