By Fr. Peter Farrington – St. George Ministry – Coptic Mission Communities in the UK.
In this further reflection in detail on the writings of the Fathers about the work of Christ on the Cross, I intend to consider some of the Letters of St Severus. He was a prolific correspondent both before his consecration as Patriarch of Antioch, during his years in Antioch, and then during his forced exile in Egypt where he continued to exercise pastoral care and leadership of the non-Chalcedonian Christians. Although it is estimated that there was a collection of his letters which contained more than 3000 different texts, in the present time we have only a fraction of these available to us. partially preserved in Syriac and translated into English.
In Letter XXV, written to the Monks of the East as they faced persecution and ejection from their monasteries by the Chalcedonians after his own exile in 518 A.D., he writes as follows…
They do not consent to confess that the true flesh of God and the Word which is from the holy God-bearer and ever-virgin Mary and from the Holy Spirit, which was hypostatically united to him, so that from the fact that he came to be with us as God who became man he was named Emmanuel, and that he was made like unto us in all things except sin, suffers like us and is susceptible of innocent passions, but say that he suffered in semblance, and that the flesh was impassible and immortal at the time of the voluntary and saving Cross; and besides other impossible things the wretched men foolishly speak of false passions, and in false words they name phantasy incorruptibility, and deny the true incorruptibility, and they fail to notice the wisdom of the dispensation whereby the impassible God united to himself those of our passions which do not fall under the description of sin, wishing in it to taste our death voluntarily, destroy its dominion over us, and by means of the Resurrection to set us free in incorruptibility, that is in impassibility and immortality, and raise us to our first state in which also we were created.
In this passage, St Severus is describing the Julianists, the followers of Julian of Halicarnassus, who insisted that the humanity of Christ was impassible and immortal from the moment of the Incarnation. If this is the case, he argues, then it would be impossible for Christ to suffer or to die, and it would mean that the humanity of our Lord Jesus was not the same as our own. In the first place he speaks of the true flesh, which our Lord Jesus took from the virgin Mary, so that he is Emmanuel, God with us. In the second place, having become truly human, his humanity has all of those natural and innocent passions and movements, such as hunger and tiredness, but without sin.
Why did God the Word become man? It was voluntarily, and so that he might taste death, and in doing so destroy its power over mankind. Then, by his Resurrection, he grants us incorruptibility which is impassibility and immortality. His argument with the Julianists was entirely based on the fact that if the humanity of Christ could not suffer and die, the the Word of God has not suffered and died on our behalf, and destroyed death by experiencing it himself. In respect of considering what it was that Christ accomplished on the Cross, it was this, according to St Severus, he destroyed the dominion of death by voluntarily tasting our death for us.
He then continues…
If the Word of God desired to display passions and death in unreal form, the Incarnation is quite superfluous. He had the divine impassibility and immortality, and so also he might have suffered as in semblance and shown himself after the fashion of former appearances, as he appeared as a man who wrestled with Jacob and was received in Abraham’s house, and was represented in many forms through the prophets: for this he himself is seen to have said in Hosea the prophet. But this was not what he desired, but that by means of a real death he might save the man who had died through the deceit of the serpent, and make his own Resurrection the gate and way of return to everlasting life. For this reason Paul cries louder than all trumpets in the ears of men who will not hear: “For, since by man came death, by man also comes the resurrection of the dead. For, as in Adam all died, so also in Christ shall all live”.
It would have been easy for God the Word to simply appear as a human, and appear to suffer, while remaining beyond suffering and death. But this would not have achieved his purpose. He desired to experience a real death, so that by this real death he might save mankind who had been deceived, and through his Resurrection from this real death, make a way for mankind to participate in everlasting life. The concern for St Severus in this passage is that Christ, the Word of God Incarnate, be understood to have become truly human in every way as we are, except for sin, so that he might truly die and save mankind who had fallen under the power of death and the deceit of Satan.
What we do not find is any sense at all that on the Cross, Christ is being punished by the Father, and is suffering the wrath of God. Rather this the divine purpose, that by God becoming truly man, he might destroy the power of death over man.
Then in Letter LXV, to Eupraxius the Chamberlain, he writes…
But we without going outside the divine Scriptures say that the reason for which he shone upon and gave light to this world by the coming of his Humanization in the flesh was that, as in Adam we die, so in Christ himself we might live , and, as it is said, “By man is death, so also by man is the resurrection of the dead”. Since Adam was condemned to death after the transgression which was committed through the deceitfulness of the serpent, and heard the words, “Dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return”, and, “Cursed is the ground in the work of thine hands”, and, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread”, and Eve too was also condemned with him by hearing the words, “In pains shalt thou bear children”, so with us also who are sprung from them the charges of disobedience have been confirmed, and we ourselves are dust and to dust we return, and we are condemned to the curse and are creatures born in pains: and from that time we have been in subjection, being subject to lust and to the varied pleasure of this, according to the saying of the blessed Paul. For it was right that against the cunning contriver of evil, the serpent and the destroyer of our life, we should contend with him with the same weapons with which he deceived those founders of our race: and, since it was not the part of another power to annul the punishment fixed by our Lord himself, he did not send an envoy nor an angel, but, as Isaiah cries, the Lord himself saved us.
Here, we find St Severus writing clearly. What is the reason for the Incarnation, the coming into the world of the Son of God? It was so that he might deal with the condemnation of death which had come upon Adam and all mankind because of his sin. It was so that he might renew mankind, over whom the words which St Severus quotes were spoken in Adam. Dust you are…. Cursed is the ground…. In your sweat…. In pains…
He makes it very clear. This curse applies to us, not because we are guilty of Adam’s sin, but because we also are dust, and we are born in pain, according to our mortal nature. We also come to manifest the same disobedience which was in Adam, and find ourselves subject to lust and the desire for pleasure. Therefore it was right that Satan, the deceiver, against whom the first Man fell so easily, being deceived, should be defeated by the same human nature, and since it was God who had spoken the sentence of judgement against Adam, it was only God who could remove the punishment, but becoming man and enduring it for us.
This punishment is not the wrath of God poured out on his Son, in our place, but is death itself, which God experiences for us in a real humanity, and destroys forever by suffering it on our behalf. St Severus continues, and says in this same letter…
Accordingly the Only God the Word became perfectly man, that he might:bestow upon us perfect salvation: for, as soon as he was born, he did away the punishment laid upon Eve, who was first led astray by the serpent. If Emmanuel had not been born, who is the Word of God who took flesh, who according to the saying of the prophet ‘removed weeping from all faces’, the curse, “In pains shalt thou bear children”, would not have ceased: nevertheless it ceased because God was born. Further witness is borne to this by the actual unerring words of the gospel also: for it introduces to us the angel saying, “I announce unto you great joy, which belongeth to all the world, that to-day there hath been born to us a Saviour, who is the Lord Christ, in the city of David”. Mark clearly that, if it were not that hé who was born was the Lord, the joy that came to all the world, which is also the joy of the whole race of men, the curse, «In pains shalt thou bear children», would not have ceased. But, if the birth is the cause of the joy, she who bore is also free from the punishment; and thenceforth the joy necessarily passes to those who believe in him: for he said, “Those who received him he gave them power to become sons of God”, those who attained to the adoption through the Spirit, after he became man.
It is interesting that St Severus doesn’t think of salvation only taking place on the Cross, and therefore not a matter of the Son bearing the wrath of God at all. On the contrary, we find that he understands by the Incarnation itself, Christ begins to remove different aspects of the punishment laid upon mankind. This punishment is not some sort of torture which the Father is waiting to impose. but is the various aspects of the mortality which came upon man as the consequence of Adam’s sin.
In this passage, we see that he teaches a progressive healing of mankind. It is not that mankind waits for the Son to be punished by the Father, but that from the moment of the Incarnation the judgement against mankind, the curse, is slowly being removed. The aspect of the curse – in pains shalt thou bear children – is removed both in the experience of the Virgin Mary, and in the words of the angel – I announce great joy … a Saviour has been born – and this brings the curse of birth to an end. This is clearly as aspect of the punishment from which Christ comes to free us, since St Severus says – she who bore is free from the punishment.
And in yet another passage in this same letter, St Severus writes…
You see that on all points by being himself made a curse he becomes a dispeller of the curse, and this curse he takes up on to the cross, and thence puts it to flight: for it was overcome by the law which said, “Cursed of God is everyone who shall be hanged upon wood”. And he himself underwent the accursed death that was for our sake, and thence blessed the whole human race; and the blessed Paul bears witness who writes to the Galatians and says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, and became a curse for our sake, because it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged upon wood’, in order that the blessing of Abraham might be among the nations in Jesus Christ”. So also he is said to have become sin, because he endured the death that was the due of sinners; for, while he is himself the pure justice of the Father, he is crucified between two robbers; but these on account of their offences, and in accordance with the passage in the Gospel of Mark who says, “And with him they crucified two robbers, one on the right hand and one on the left, and the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, ‘He was numbered with the unjust’”. So he became sin to remit the sins of others: so also he paid the debt that was incurred for us, and we ourselves became righteousness in him; for those who have been freed from debts are righteous, and are not termed liable. And, because during the time of his Humanization he did no sin, therefore also iniquity was not found in him, but he showed himself righteous, that is, he is righteousness; and, when he became flesh, all our nature again was justified in him as in first-fruits; and this is what the wise Paul said to the Corinthians about the Father, He made him sin for our sake, who knew no sin, that we might be the righteousness of God in him”.
St Severus teaches us that, according to the Scriptures, Christ became a curse for us, and that by becoming a curse he removed it. He became a curse by being hanged on the cross. This cursed death was experienced by him on our behalf, and in bearing such a death he removed the curse from us. He was not punished by the Father, rather he bore the punishment which is already our experience. He died, and in dying the curse which says – you will surely die – loses its power over mankind. More than this, he became sin for us. But this does not mean, as some say, that he became a rapist, and a murderer, an adulterer and every imaginable perversion of mankind. Nor does it mean that God the Father poured out his wrath on the Son, as if he was a rapist. St Severus is perfectly clear.
He is said to have become sin because he endured the death that belongs to sinners. This is what it means for him to have become sin. He paid the price of the death which belongs to us, and it was because he was crucified between two criminals that he was said to have been numbered with the unjust. He became sin for us – which St Severus has explained means that he endured our death – so that he could pay the debt we owed, and the debt we owed was our death. He was himself righteousness, and he became our righteousness by becoming a man like us, so that our whole nature was made new in him and by him.
In these extracts from his letters it is clear that St Severus understands that Christ did indeed become sin for us, and did become cursed, but this means that he experienced our death in our humanity so that we might be set free from its power, and having become man, he makes a new start for mankind. There is no thought that the Father is punishing the Son, or pouring out his hatred and wrath on the Son. Far from it, the Son is found doing the will of the Father in saving man from the power of death by facing death on our behalf, destroying its power, and the deception of Satan.