What sort of a eulogy could be given for such a man?
What sort of obituary could possibly be written?
Here lies one homeless man, without a wife, without children, with no employer, with no college degrees. He has no articles published. He has written no books. His own countrymen are the ones who rejected him and gave him up to death. Those who followed him for awhile, abandoned him. He’s not even a citizen of the empire which crucified him. . . .
The religious leaders may contradict each other on many things, but one thing they all agree on is that they don’t know who his father is. Ironically, this is one of the few things wherein Jesus agreed with them. They do not know who his Father is.
Had the philosopher Nietzsche lived a couple thousand years earlier, just for a few days, he would have spoken truly when he said, “God is dead”. What can it possibly mean for God to be dead? The Son of God, The Word, The Logos – The One who created the worlds. What can it possibly mean for the Way, the Truth and the Life to be dead?
Before we can understand the crucifixion, we first have to be immersed into the mystery of the Incarnation. It is a common misconception that one member of the Trinity took a leave of absence from heaven, put on a man suit, and walked around down here for thirty-three years, before he finally got the opportunity to hang the suit up and return back to heaven. In the meantime, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit [supposedly were] just waiting with bated breath for the Trinity to be reunited. As I said, this is a misconception, for that is not what happened.
As Saint Athanasius writes in his classic, On the Incarnation of the Word, the second Person of the Trinity did not have anything subtracted from Him. The Way, the Truth, the Life, the Logos, the Word of God, did not give up His omnipotence. He did not give up His omniscience. And He did not give up His omnipresence. You see, He has always been everywhere and in all places in Heaven and on Earth and under the Earth. There is nowhere in all of creation that you can go, or ever could have gone, to escape the presence of the Word of God. His humility came not in subtraction, but in an incomprehensible addition to the second person of the Trinity. For at the Incarnation, He did not strip off His “God suit”, as if such a thing were possible. At the Incarnation, He added a human body, and a human mind, and a human will, and a human soul, to His being.
And what this means to us, literally boggles the mind. For it means that in the Incarnation, the Son of God not only was truly the son of Mary, not only was he conceived and growing as the little baby in her womb, but at the same time, that same Son of God was knitting that body together in her womb. He was creating His own body!
The Son of God is the One who created the very tree that would be cut down and fashioned into the Cross which would be used to crucify him. The Son of God is the One who by the power of His creation and by the power of His very life and deity, nurtured and fed and grew the wheat and the grapes, which would go through their own personal Golgotha and Gethsemane as they were crushed and ground to make the very first loaf of bread and chalice of wine that would become the Last Supper. It was His life that pulsed through the hands of the men who slapped him. It was His thorn bush, that He created, that was woven into a crown of thorns that was to go on His head. When the Roman soldier stood at the foot of the cross and sent a lance piercing through His side, it was this Son of God – this Lord of Life – who was keeping that soldier’s heart beating, even as that soldier was verifying that God’s heart had stopped.
It was not only in life that the Son of God was in Heaven at the same time as He was on earth, but also in death. For you see, in death, His human soul and His human body were unnaturally separated. His corpse went into the tomb. His soul went into Hades. And as a human soul in Hades, preaching to the spirits in prison – at the same time, as God, He is still part of the Trinity, still holding everything in the universe together by the word of His power, even as His body is in the grave and His soul is in Hades. Like Schrodinger’s proverbial cat, He is dead and alive at the same time.
Christ said, “Greater love hath no man than this: that a man will lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And certainly in the lives of the Saints and the lives of the martyrs, we see cases of people willingly giving up their lives for their friends, willingly confessing Christ, willingly taking martyrdom upon themselves, as Saint Ignatius did around the year 107. He willingly sought martyrdom so that those under him in his diocese might be shielded from the wrath of the emperor. We read of men and women who laid down their lives for their friends. And however difficult it was, however loving it was, it was still just a one-time thing. For once you have been turned over to the executioner, there’s nothing more you can do about it. It may have been very difficult to become a martyr, it may have been very difficult to profess Christ and to refuse to offer that pinch of incense to the emperor. But once you are turned over to the executioner, now it’s just a matter of time. Say what you like, do what you like, but chances are, you’re going to die.
But it was not so for Christ at His passion. He did not make a one-time decision to go before Pilate, and to be as silent as was necessary for Pilate to finally make the decision to send Him to Calvary. As Jesus was walking the Via Dolorosa, as the spikes were being pounded into His wrists, as He was reeling under the pain on the cross, there was not one moment in which He said, “Oh . . . I had the chance to escape this! But now there’s nothing I can do about it.” At no point on the cross was He a helpless victim.
For you see, His love was such that He did not just lay down His life once. But He laid it down continually, over and over, every second, every moment. For there was no point of time at which He failed to be in perfect control of the situation. Some of you have seen The Passion of the Christ, the movie. And if you’re like me, you can just barely bring yourself to watch the screen when He’s being flogged. You see the unbearable pain racking His body, the tremors and the shivers, the blood splattered literally everywhere, so that you wonder how it is that He even survived to be crucified.
Do you realize that with every lash of that whip, every second that passed, every drop of blood that fell, He had the ability to walk away? The shackles were powerless for those hands that had fashioned the world. These hands which had healed, that had even raised the dead, were not powerless to heal the body that was His. Those spikes, which He created, had no power to hold Him to that shameful tree. As has been said many times, it was love that kept Him on the cross. For the joy set before Him, He despised the shame. He knew that death, and hell, and the grave, could not hold Him. . . .
He gives up His life as a ransom for many. And the death and the corruption and the hell that had terrorized the human race from the very beginning, since the time of Adam’s sin – that power was broken – for 100% of what was owed to death was paid that day. But [according to St. Athanasius] it was a double miracle, for not only were all of us captives released through that act, but once death clamped it’s jaws down on the Lord of Life, it realized – just a little too late – that it had bitten off more than it could chew.
The grave couldn’t hold Him. Death could not hold Him down. He made a triumphant show. And in front of the entire cosmos, He embarrassed the devil. He embarrassed all of the demons. He took the teeth of the lion and removed them, so that all he was left with was a roar. He took the keys of death and hell away from the evil one, so that now it is the Son of God who holds them.
And He has done something absolutely amazing. He has taken a symbol that was the very epitome of shame, rejection, finality, corruption, stench, and death, and He has turned it into what we call the “life-giving Cross.” Do you realize what a contradiction in terms that would have sounded like to first century ears? The “life-giving cross”? That would be like the “life-giving electric chair”, the “life-giving lethal injection”, or the “life-giving firing squad.” It would be like taking the shame of the Nazi symbol for Nazi Germany, and somehow having the power – not just in the life of one person or one community, but worldwide – to convert that into a symbol that everybody hallows and praises and venerates as a life-giving and glorious symbol.
Do you realize what a hideous symbol the cross was to somebody who lived in Rome? How many years of your life would you have to watch what road you take, so that you don’t smell the rotting flesh of your own family members and neighbors, as the wrath of Rome is displayed for all? How many times would you have to see a tortured person in the last days of their life? How many times would you have to smell the rotting flesh of human beings? How many times would you have to see the carrion ripped off by buzzards, before you grew to absolutely despise and hate even the idea of two sticks of wood crossing each other?
It makes it all the more amazing when we hear from Justin Martyr that the Jews, when celebrating the Passover, did not roast the lamb in exactly the same way that we may imagine it – on a spit. We have this idea of a single skewer placed through the lamb, rotating over a fire, much like the Greek Orthodox do today for Pascha. No. It was the tradition of the Jews 2000 years ago – for the feast of the Passover – they wouldn’t use metal; they would use wood. And not one piece of wood, but two. And not in parallel, but these two pieces of wood would be placed as a cross. The skewering would be done in one direction as we might predict, and then the other piece of wood would be put crossways, and the feet of the lamb would be affixed to that. So every year, they are literally roasting and eating the flesh of a lamb that has been roasted on a cross of wood.
The lamb’s blood had been put on the lentel and the doorpost. And the flesh of the lamb was eaten, not in most cases to save yourself, but on that very first Passover, it was to save your children. For it was not the heads of the household that were condemned to death, but you put the blood of the lamb on your home so that your firstborn might be spared. And then, in the crucifixion, we hear of these people that God had redeemed from Egypt, saying, “Crucify Him, Crucify Him! His blood be on us and our children . . . ”
Thanks be to God that Christ is our Passover Lamb, sacrificed for us. And not unlike the passover lamb: it was not just for the person embracing it, but it was for the firstborn, it was for the children, it was for the generations. So today, the promise is made not just to you, but the promise is made to you and your children and your children’s children, even unto a thousand generations, and to those that are afar off, even as many as the Lord shall call.
They needed that blood of the lamb for protection for their homes. They needed to eat the flesh of that lamb for the protection of their home. And so do we, the Church. We need the blood of the Lamb and the flesh of that Lamb that we consume, as His broken, bloody, sacrificed body is fed to us in the Eucharist. Christ is our Passover, sacrificed for us.
- Fr. Joseph Gleason
Rostov the Great, Russia