Archive for August 3rd, 2007

Christ Crucified

August 3, 2007

cimabue.jpg

Writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul makes one his most famous statements: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1Cor. 2:2). It is among the clearest definitions of the apostolic preaching to be found anywhere in the New Testament, or perhaps I should say, “everywhere in the New Testament.” For this is not a statement of the peculiar doctrine of St. Paul, but a plain statement of the Apostolic preaching in every place. Paul has his own peculiar matters, but not in such fundamental things as the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. We may contrast St. Paul’s writings with writings that fall outside the pale of the Christian Church, but not with those of his brothers within the Apostolic ministry. “Jesus Christ and Him crucified,” is the very heart of the Christian faith, a plain statement of the Apostolic Hyposthesis (in the phrase of St. Irenaeus), that is the summary of the faith received by the Apostles and traditioned by word and letter to all whom they Baptized and established in the Church. In the language of later centuries, this is simply Orthodox Christianity.

Christ crucified is more than a recitation of historical events, though it includes those events. It is the proclamation that in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, we see the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament, indeed, the fulfillment of all things. It is for this purpose everything was created and has its being. Christ crucified and resurrected is the meaning of the universe.

The writer (traditionally believed to be St. John) of the Revelation would say the same thing in a very short but pregnant phrase: “…the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). This crucified Christ was already the purpose of the world before ever the world was created.

Again, St. Paul: “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him” (Col. 1:16).

And the one for whom all these things were created is, indeed, the crucified Christ. Inasmuch as they were created for Him, none of them will find their fulfillment and purpose apart from Him.

It is certainly the case that the Apostolic Preaching believed and taught the historical character of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Christ’s crucifixion was not disputed by anyone. In defense of Christ’s resurrection, St. Paul cites a short part of Apostolic Tradition and then expands it (the Tradition I have put in italics):

Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast — unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed (1Cor. 15:3-11).

Key words in this passage are the words translated “delivered” and “received.” These are technical terms, used elsewhere in the life of the Church and are references to the Tradition. In the Greek, St. Paul says, “I traditioned to you…what I also received [by tradition]. The content of that Tradition is that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and was buried, and raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…and that he appeared [to the disciples.]” That these things happened in accordance with the scriptures, does not mean that “according to the scriptures these things happened,” but rather that their occurence was and is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. This man who was crucified and raised again is the very key to understanding the whole of the Old Testament. Indeed, the Gospel of Christ is itself the entire meaning of the Old Testament.

The Gospels cannot be rightly understood in any other manner. Not only do they frequently tell us, “This happened in fulfillment of that which was spoken of in the prophets…” then quoting and Old Testament passage, but the very shape of the stories, and occasionally their very arrangement (I think especially of the Gospel of John) give us an interpretation of the Old Testament. And in so doing they do not mean only to make reference to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, but to make the claim as well that this Crucified and Risen Christ is the fulfillment of all things, the meaning of the world.

For us as Christians in the modern world, this claim cannot be relegated to the minutiae of religious teaching, but is and should be the proclamation of our own life – the meaning of all we do. For St. Paul, the crucifixion of Christ is also the revelation of the very mind of God – not simply a revelation of His thoughts on a certain event – but a revelation of Who He Is. Thus in Philippians St. Paul will say: 

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The whole of Christ’s ethical teachings and commandments is summed up in this small passage. We love our enemies and forgive them, we seek first the Kingdom, etc., because, like Christ, we have a mind that empties itself and takes on the form of a servant. This is obedience to the Crucified and Risen Lord, it is the very heart of the Christian faith.

Again, to reduce the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ into religious data, which having been accepted as data, somehow constitute our ticket to heaven and salvation, is a caricature of the Gospel. These events are not merely data to be assimilated into the facts of faith, but are the very center and meaning of all things, the purpose of the universe. To believe that Christ was crucified and risen from the dead and not to empty ourselves and take on the form of a servant is not to be a Christian at all.

The substitution of other relgious forms for this essential activity is a distortion of the gospel and brings reproach on the faith. This is not only the testimony of the Apostles, but is the consistent message throughout the Fathers and Spirit-bearing elders throughout the ages in the Church. The liturgical life of the Orthodox faith exists to give praise and glory to God, but also to teach us how to empty ourselves and take on the form of a servant. Thus we have the Sunday of Forgiveness; thus we proclaim ourselves to be the the first among sinners; thus we bow before the icons of Christ and the saints; thus we kiss the cross of our Savior. But to do such outward things and not at the same time be conformed inwardly to the form of a servant is to make the gospel of no effect. As St. Basil warns us, we should not abstain from meat (in fasting) only to devour our brother.

“God is with us!” we proclaim in Matins. But His manifestation will only be full and complete when we live and act in the mind of Christ the Crucified – who emptied Himself and took on the form of a servant. Others will believe in Christ when they see his crucifixion displayed in the lives of his followers. Until they see his crucifixion displayed in His followers, they have not yet heard the Gospel.