Conversation this past week on this site has centered around mercy and justice and the understanding of the sacrifice of Christ. I began with an article on a quote by St. Isaac of Syria, who famously questions the human concept of justice and its relation to God. The Christian treatment of the atonement – what does it mean to say that “Christ died for us” – has found expression in a variety of forms over the centuries – not always compatible with one another.
I want to take the discussion into a different place with this post. Frequently the question of “sacrifice” drives the discussion of the atonement. It is a powerful presence in both Old and New Testament – though, I would suggest, the New Testament is not properly interpreted by the Old – but rather the Old by the New. Christ’s sacrifice is a redefinition of sacrifice – just as His revelation of the Father offers something that was not known before. The disciples do not “understand the Scriptures” until they are interpreted by Christ. They do not know Him to be the Christ because they first knew the Scriptures – rather they come to know the Scriptures because they know Him as Christ (Luke 24:27; Luke 24:45).
There is an image in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians that offers an understanding of the sacrifice of Christ – an image that has found a profound place within the inner life of the Orthodox faith:
Have this mind within you which is yours in Christ Jesus: who, though He was in the form of God did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but made Himself of no reputation; and taking the form of a bondservant came in the likeness of men; and being found in human form He emptied Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Wherefore God has highly exalted Him and given 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 (Philippians 2:5-11).
This passage, which is generally acknowledged by scholars to be largely a quote by St. Paul from an early Christian hymn, represents an approach to “sacrifice” which suggests the imagery which plays a large role in the liturgical and spiritual life of the Christian East. Here there is no question of payment, whether to the Father or to Satan. Neither is the question of justice within the scope of its imagery. It is a passage, however, that is at one with the dominant hymn of Orthodox Pascha:
Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death.
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
It is an account of Christ’s saving action on behalf of humanity, defined by His emptying of Himself – His voluntary obedience to death by which He conquers death and sets humanity free.
For this reason does the Father love me: because I lay down my life that I might take it again. No man takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down and power to take it again (John 10:17-18).
The same thought is emphasized in the Eucharistic prayer of St. John Chrysostom:
On the night in which he was given up, or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world, He took bread…
The sacrifice in this account is Christ’s voluntary entrance into death – His voluntary self-emptying.
The same image of self-emptying is a dominant image in the teaching of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos and his disciple, the Elder Sophrony (Sakharov). The union of the Christian with Christ is a union with His self-emptying. As Christ emptied Himself and entered the depths of Hades, “for the life of the world,” so, too, the Christian unites himself with Christ in prayer for the world – making himself the servant of all, entering even into the emptiness of Hades where he prays for all. Neither St. Silouan nor his biographer (Father Sophrony) can be characterized as modernizing or teaching anything other than the faith of the Church. St. Silouan’s canonization as a saint of the Church is an affirmation that his life and teaching are representative of the faith of the Church.
Father Sophrony’s explicit teaching on this aspect of prayer is among the most revealing of the mystical life of union with Christ. It suggests a literal fulfillment of St. Paul’s command: “Have this mind within you…” It has as well the asset of removing discussion of the atonement from something that happens apart from us – and placing the atonement at the very heart of the Christian life of self-sacrificing love. Rather than compartmentalizing the Christian faith into moral theology and soteriology (atonement doctrine, etc.), everything is united in the likeness of Christ. We are not asked to offer ourselves as a penal substitute for the sin-debt of others, nor are we asked to become a propitiation. We are, however, asked to empty ourselves and to make ourselves of no reputation – to become the servants of all. And in the depths of understanding made known in the life of prayer, that servanthood extends even into the darkest corners of our existence (or near non-existence).
Buried with Christ in baptism we are united with His death. By the same action we are united with Christ in His resurrection, trampling down death by death. And this model given to us in the mystery of baptism is not an isolated moment within the Christian life, but a definitive action by which we understand the whole of our life in Christ. It is proper that we are always dying with Christ and being united to His resurrection. In the context of our daily life – laying down our lives for others is the very meaning of love (of friend and enemy). It is the fulfilling of the gospel.
Kenosis (emptying) is not often included within discussions on the atonement – a fact which leaves such discussions removed from a major portion of the Tradition and a deeply embedded understanding within the New Testament. Christ has reconciled us to God by uniting Himself to us, and us to Himself. Through his voluntary self-emptying He united Himself with us even to the point of death – raising us with Him into new life – a life whose very definition is communion with God.