As I get older, as I confessed to one of our young acolytes just the other day, I get lazier and count on my experience, choosing the path of least resistance. I find myself doing this in my personal life, in my prayer life, professionally, as a parent and as a husband. Thankfully, I often take pause, especially in moments of clarity while at prayer or during periods of solitude and reflection. I offer words of contrition and ask for God’s forgiveness and the gift of a willing heart and the desire to excel by His grace and to His glory.
Of course, I know and am convinced that God is a loving and forgiving God and that, if I confess my sins, He is not only able but faithful to forgive my sin (1 John 1:9) in order to reset me and place me on the wholesome path. Yes, God “is patient with us, not wanting anyone to perish, but that all should reach repentance,” (2 Peter 3:9) and desires “all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4). The remaining question is, however, can “simple” forgiveness be enough? What does forgiveness do ultimately? Of course, it puts me in proper stead before God but what does it change in me? The word repentance in Greek is metanoia, a change of mind and in Armenian abashxarutiun or a reorientation from the way of the world, darkness to light, sin to righteousness, from a path of desolation and despair to a road that leads to the springs of eternal life.
This sounds pretty awesome and if true amazing, speaking to the power vested in the church to absolve sin, however, a problem, as a direct result of the very nature of God, in whom there is no falsehood, still remains.
From the time of Adam, where by his disobedience transmitted to all the generations of the children of man, the “law of death” came into the created order. According to the command and promise of God, who created man in the beginning, death not only holds a grip on us, but has since the Fall led us to greater destruction with the work of God seemingly being undone. Even if sins are forgiven , God who must be eternally true to Himself does not eliminate death which would mean that He went back on his Word, where He announces “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:17) Therefore, death still remains. If death did not continue to hold dominion over man God’s word would be false. Ours is not merely a case of sin, trespassing against God’s commandments, but in so doing receiving an inheritance of corruption from which there is no return, an ailment so sinister that it infects both body and soul eventually and always unto death.
The only antidote for death therefore in the infinite and profound omnipotent, divine omniscience was the very death of God Himself.
The question is, how can Holy, Mighty and Immortal God die?
St. Athanasius (296-373 AD) in his Treatise de Incarnatione Verbi Dei, treats this divine paradox with grace, virtue, and insight into the mind of God and the truth of the Holy Scriptures. Understanding that repentance cannot recall a man from his very nature, God applies His nature to the existence of His creation by which, not the question of What is required, but Who? St. Athanasius says, ” Who (emph.mine), save the Word of God Himself, Who also, in the beginning, had made all things out of nothing? His part it was , and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone being Word of the Father and above all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, SVP, NY, 1982, p.33.)
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, it is vital that I bring to mind and to the mind of our faithful, that the celebration of the Birth of God is tempered by the knowledge that God was born in order to die, that all who were and are dying may through Him be made alive, recalling the words of the hymn of Vesting, “Through the sufferings of Thine only Begotten Thou hast received all creatures, and again hast made man immortal, adorning him with a garment no more to be divested.” (Khorhoort Khorin, Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Orthodox Church, 3rd stanza).