Thursday, February 21, 2013

Death on the Byzantine Cross

     Just about every month I get a knock on my door from someone trying to save me. For me it is always an honor to talk with such people because it gives me a chance to share my faith. Usually, when these people present their gospel they demonstrate how guilty I am in the sight of God and that because of this he is going to punish me with Hell. However, because God loves me he sent Jesus to be punished in my place by dying on the Cross. At this point I have no trouble with agreeing that God punishes sin but from their point of view they make it seem like God is schizophrenic. For God is mad enough to put me in Hell but at the same time loves me to the point that He would sacrifice his only son. My question to them usually is why couldn’t God just forgive me and why is it necessary for him to kill his own son? You would think it would be more logical to just forgive rather than to have someone suffer for me.
     The way it is expressed above about Christ dying on the cross is very popular in modern evangelization. It’s easy to understand that we are guilty and to see that we need someone to make us right with God. However, this presentation of the Lord’s sacrifice is not without criticism or weakness. In fact, to some degree it often makes the Lord’s death resemble a sacrifice that is thrown into a volcano to stop the anger of the volcano god. Even one of our Byzantine fathers St. Gregory of Nazianzus had the following to say about this approach: “On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; (On Pascha Oration 45, XXII)”. There is no doubt that we are guilty of sin but there must be more to the Lord’s death then paying for our crimes.
     In the Byzantine tradition I believe there is a more complete understanding of the Lord’s death. In fact, each year we proclaim this during Holy Pascha when we say, “Christ is risen from the dead, By death He trampled death, And to those in the tombs He granted life”. From this perspective the Lord’s death becomes the means to end the problems with the human condition, which are the problems that keep us from God. Based on this, the guilt debt from sin is given a different position. Instead of our guilt being something that specifically makes God punish us with the fires of Hell it becomes more a power that leads us to our own self destruction. Being under the power of sin we are stuck in this cycle that leads to death, which is also a cycle that leads us to sin because we die. Finding ourselves in this impossible condition we are without a doubt in need of redemption. A redemption that not only just satisfies God’s wrath but one that gives us the freedom from our own condition.
     When it comes to understanding our redemption we are often faced with a powerful contradiction. If we die and sin because we die how can we free ourselves. This of course is why the Son of God became one of us. By becoming man the Lord was not only free of sin but he also suffered the effects of our condition in order to heal it. We see this healing at its fullest when the Lord experienced death on the cross. When it comes to show how this healing took place I believe St. Gregory of Nyssa gives the best explanation. In explaining the Lord’s death the saint teaches that the humanity of the Lord was like the bait on a fishing hook. When death came like a fish to swallow the bait it encountered the hook, which was the Lord’s Divine Nature. The saint demonstrated that it was Lord’s Divinity that healed us from our condition. The resurrection of the Lord from this point of view becomes for humanity the last act to free us from the slavery of our condition.Since by the Lord's death he destroyed what ultimately keeps us in the cycle of sin.
     There is no doubt that punishment for our sin is an aspect of the Lord death. However, the Byzantine tradition offers much more in understanding sins effects and also the power of God’s love. For not only do we receive forgiveness through Christ but we also receive the freedom from all the keeps us from God. Through the cross God has broken down every barrier that kept us from Him. As the scripture says, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves (Colossians 1:13)”. For us there is now by the cross not only just forgiveness but the ability to participate in the heavenly life or as our fathers have called it Theosis*. In addition, by cross we also receive the same power through Christ to heal our own condition. It is only by this power that we shall also overcome our own death.

*In Byzantine theology Theosis is the transforming effect of divine grace, the spirit of God, or the atonement of Christ. It literally means to become more divine, more like God, and/or take upon a divine nature.


  1. beautiful!

    ...just a it wrong that I find it a bit fun to shock Roman-rite visitors who don't know that we still sing 'Alleluia' during Lent? ;)

  2. I' m a "friend" of you through FB. Thank you.... I live in Greece, where there is a small Greek (Eastern) Catholic Community. But that community is so Latin.... All the priests are of Latin Catholic origin, the Exarch (Bishop) was a professor in Italia and France of the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church. There is no the Orthodox spirituality in that Community. All the priests are unmarried, except one who is from Romania, but there is no a monastery for men here, in Greece. The Philokalia spirituality is unknown. And there is the great problem in the Catholic Church. The Patriarchs of the Eastern Catholic Churches they don't receive the real respect, they are "so small" before the Bishop of Rome...

  3. I am Roman Catholic, but this understanding of the Lord's death makes so much more sense to me on both intellectual and spiritual levels.

  4. Just came across this important piece on Pascha. Thank you for posting it!