By Fr. Peter Farrington – St. George Ministry – Coptic Mission Communities in the UK.
When we consider what Christ achieved on the Cross, what his death and suffering means, we discover that there are a variety of analogies and mutually illuminating explanations which the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church use to express this mystery of God experiencing death. Much of the controversy which sometimes surrounds this subject is caused by too narrowly adopting only one analogy, as if that represented all that Scripture and the Fathers say to us. What is required is a much broader study of the sources of our theological understanding, both in terms of the study of many Fathers in depth, and the comprehensiveness of the language they use. One of the problems with much writing about this topic is the adoption of a particular and narrow view into which the Fathers must be forced, rather than in allowing them to speak as they choose. One narrow description will not be enough.
In this first brief post I wish to consider the Hymns of St Severus of Antioch, the great Patriarch of Antioch and the primary theological figure of the Orthodox Church in the 6th century. He wrote many theological works, letters, hymns and liturgy, and his writings have been preserved for us in the Syriac translations which were made even while he was alive. The intention will be to consider only what he writes and teaches about the Cross in his hymns, and what he considers was accomplished there.
In Hymn 66 he writes,
Though there are many methods of slaying, you took upon yourself to suffer death by means of the cross on our behalf in the flesh. O Christ, our God, you declared that your emptying of yourself in this manner brought exaltation to the whole race of men. For you said to the people of the Jews before the Passion, crying openly, “And I when I have been lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me”. Merciful and exalted Lord, all praise to You.
In this hymn St Severus makes several points which we need to note. He says…
- Christ suffered death
- Christ is our God
- He suffered death on our behalf
- He emptied himself in this way
- His self emptying exalted the whole race of men
Some of these are perhaps not very controversial, though there are those who deny that Christ actually died. But we can say that St Severus certainly teaches that Christ, who is God, died on the cross in our place, and by his humbling himself in this way, all of mankind has been exalted. We can say that he died for us, and on our behalf, and that his death brought about some benefit to mankind. Indeed, it would seem that St Severus is saying that the death of Christ, who is God, was the means by which all of the human race is exalted or lifted up, as he reminds us that Christ himself had spoken in this way to the Jews.
In his Hymn 67, he says,
The signs that happened, after the Cross, O Saviour, showed that you suffered all in the flesh of your own will for us. For, as soon as you had fulfilled the dispensation on our behalf, and in opposition to the tyranny of death had undergone death in order to destroy it, the sun was obscured in darkness, and the earth quaked, and the rocks too were rent, the creation by actual deeds plainly confessing and proclaiming that you are the Creator of this universe and true God. Insomuch that even the centurion who stood before the Cross cried out, “In truth this was the Son of God”. And therefore we praise your ineffable mercy towards our race.
In this hymn we gain some further understanding of how St Severus wants us to consider the cross. The points we can draw out in this hymn include…
- Christ suffered in the flesh
- He suffered voluntarily
- He fulfilled what was necessary on our behalf
- He experienced death to destroy it
It was in our own flesh which he had made his own that Christ suffered death on our behalf, and it seems that it was to destroy death that he endured death himself, who is God and the Creator, who has truly become flesh without ceasing to be God. The word dispensation is the equivalent of another word, of Greek origin, which is economy. This doesn’t mean financial matters, but is to do with the organisation of affairs, much more in the sense of the school subject of Home Economics rather than Accountancy. So St Severus is saying that Christ fulfilled what had been arranged and organised on our behalf and for our salvation, and he performed all that was required by his own will, indicating that he was participating in death as an aspect of the will of God, of the Holy Trinity.
In his Hymn 68, St Severus writes,
The mad and blasphemous multitude of the Jews, jeering and mocking at your voluntary cross, said, “If you are the Son of God, come down now from the Cross so that we might believe you”. But you, who alone are long-suffering, did by your acts themselves cry out, “I have no contest with you now, O you of little understanding. But the time of your wickedness is already accomplished, and I now await the trial of death, in order that after undergoing it in the flesh I may render it dead and inoperative among you. But when again, you shall shut up my body under the stone and gate of the grave, and under a secure seal, then you shall now and understand and know through my Resurrection from among the dead, that though I could have come down from the Cross if I wished, yet nevertheless I remained to raise the race of men through my three days burial”. Therefore we praise you, Merciful Lord, who performed all things with wisdom for for our salvation, according to the abundance of your great mercy.
If we extract what St Severus is saying about what happened to Christ on the Cross and in his death, we find the following…
- His death was a trial that he was prepared to undergo
- After experiencing death he would destroy it and make it dead itself
- Death would no longer be operating in mankind
- His death was entirely voluntary
- He endured death so that the race of man might be raised by His Resurrection
We continue to see in the hymns of St Severus that at least the significant objective of the death of Christ in the flesh seems to be that death should be destroyed. There is the sense that death should be rendered without power over mankind, and that mankind, through the death of Christ, and his Resurrection, might be raised up. If the death of Christ is voluntary, then it is a matter of the divine mercy and love towards mankind, and if this mercy and love is expressed by the Son of God made man, then it is an aspect of the will of the Holy Trinity, and therefore also of the Father and of the Holy Spirit.
In Hymn 69 by St Severus we find,
Who is there who could fitly praise the boundless greatness of Your mercifulness, O Christ, our God? Who even in the very sufferings, mean and vile and very lowly, which You endured voluntarily 0n our behalf show that You are Creator and Lord and renovating artificer of this universe. For You took upon Yourself for the sake of our salvation to be crowned with a crown of thorns, And by this means You signified that, having gathered and compressed together the sins of the whole circuit of the world, and having taken these upon thyself, You carried them up with You upon the revered Cross. Wherefore also You have torn and blotted out the handwriting of sin that was laid upon us; and again being mocked You held a reed in Your hand, that thereby You might strengthen the rod of our sway that had been weakened, whereby we have been set to rule over all that are on earth; and, having gone down in Your soul to Sheol, You freed them that were there bound; and the multitudes of the hosts that are in heaven wondered and were astonished at Your wisdom rich in help through the dispensation on our behalf. Lord, who has enlightened and adorned with knowledge all creatures above and below, praise to You!
This is an interesting hymn and adds some further thoughts to the aspects already described by St Severus. Considering the hymn we find,
- Christ is our God
- His sufferings were mean and vile and lowly
- He endured them voluntarily
- He had gathered all the sins of mankind upon himself
- He carried them with him to the Cross
- This brought about their complete elimination
- He descended in his soul to Sheol
- He set free those who were bound in Sheol
- The Hosts of Heaven wonder at the plan of God on our behalf
We find that some points are re-iterated. Christ is God, he is not a mere man, and his sufferings were voluntary, and therefore an aspect of the purpose, the dispensation, which the Holy Trinity was working out for our behalf. We see that his sufferings are described as mean and vile and lowly. These would seem to be the sufferings associated with the beatings, the spitting and slapping, the thorns, the nails, and then the experience of death itself. But we also see that he had gathered all the sins of mankind to himself, and he took them to the Cross, just like the crown of thorns. Why did he do this? It was so that they could be destroyed, eliminated, wiped out and forgotten. And in his death? We are to remember that he descended to Sheol, to Hades, the place where the souls of the departed wait, and he set free those who were bound there, so that this freedom which his death brought to mankind might be experienced by all. The angels wonder at all of this. It is more wonderful than they could ever have imagined.
In Hymn 70, St Severus continues to reflect on the Cross and says,
Lord, who walked on the wings of the wind, and stretched out Your hands on the wood of the venerable Cross, and hung extended upon it of Your own will, and by this same type and figure showed us that You are the God of all the ends of the earth, who suffered on our behalf in the flesh by a voluntary passion, and through faith in You caught the robber as a fish, and thereafter went down in Your soul to the lower parts of the earth, having in the air above and on the earth beneath and in Sheol overthrown and removed from us the sway of the tyrant death and the strong rule of the evil hosts, and rose in a marvellous fashion from among the dead, and ascended and was lifted up to heaven. Praise to You!
In this last hymn o the Passion of Christ we find the following points being made by St Severus,
- The passion was voluntary
- It was God himself who suffered in the flesh on our behalf
- In the air and under the earth he destroyed the power of death
- He destroyed the rule of the demons over mankind
What is interesting is that St Severus stresses that the death of our Lord is the destruction of death, and in this hymn, the end of the rule of the demonic forces over mankind. What did our Lord suffer on our behalf, it would seem to be death itself, and in experiencing death on our behalf he destroyed it, and all the power of the enemy.
In other hymns by St Severus there are also references to the Passion, and to what was accomplished by it. In Hymn 76 we read,
For You overcame by force and dissolved at all points the curse and the gloomy fate to which our race was doomed; and You filled heaven and earth with joy and great gladness, making of us and of the sublime Hosts one glorious and Spiritual Company, in order to praise You, the only good and merciful one.
What do we find here? It is that St Severus considers that the death of Christ brought about the end of the curse which had been pronounced over man – you shall die, and changed our fate completely. This was the purpose of his death, to bring the curse to an end, not in weakness but by an exercise of divine power and force.
In Hymn 77 he says,
He who alone has immortality and dwells in light that cannot be approached underwent death by the cross in the flesh for our salvation, and, having shone in the dark chambers of Sheol, he rose from among the dead.
Why did Christ die? What did he achieve on the cross? It was for our salvation, and it was by his death, by his experience of the death which was ours, that he saved us. Then in Hymn 79 he adds,
You who in the beginning made heaven and earth out of nothing, also, being the same, at the end of times became incarnate, and suffered on the cross for our salvation, and through a God-befitting Resurrection renewed the creation of our mortal race, and became the beginning of life to us and father of the world to come.
What do we find here?
- Christ was the creator of all things in the beginning
- He became incarnate and suffered in the flesh for our salvation
- By his Resurrection he renewed our creation
We can see here that the purpose of the incarnation was the renewal of mankind by the one who had created us in the beginning, and that this was achieved by God in his suffering death for us on the cross and by his resurrection becoming a new beginning for us.
These are enough considerations of the Hymns of St Severus which deal with the passion. We can conclude from these that he understands the Cross as being the place where Christ destroys death for us by his death on our behalf. He brings to an end the power of Satan by his suffering death, and he carries our sins to the Cross where they are eliminated by divine force in the death and Resurrection. By his Resurrection all mankind is raised and the curse, that man must die, is removed by the death of God in the flesh.
We do not need to force St Severus into a narrow view of these things. But we should note that there is no sense whatsoever in his Hymns that he believes or teaches that God the Father is punishing the Son on the Cross, and certainly no sense that on the Cross, God the Father is pouring out his wrath on the Son instead of upon us. On the contrary, the Son willingly endures the suffering of death as an act of divine power, and destroys it forever. This voluntary nature of the Passion, repeated several times, shows us that the divine will, shared by the Persons of the Holy Trinity, is acting in mercy for our salvation, not to satisfy the anger of the Father. He saves us from the power of death by his own willing death on our behalf, not from the wrath of his Father.
In a second post, we will consider the letters of St Severus, and what they reveal to us about his views on the passion of Christ.