As we approach Holy Pascha (Passover) Week, I wanted to share a little-known series of questions posed in the widely popular writing by St. Athanasius, “On the Incarnation” (in parts 4 and 5). It really makes you think, and the answers are quite fulfilling.
See for yourself:
1. If it is essential that Christ dies, then why not die privately instead of publicly?
First, Christ is Life, and if He were never killed, technically He should have remained alive forever (for more on this point, see this series of sermons by H.G. Bishop Raphael – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). So if He died privately, people may have thought He simply died a natural death, as is the normal, natural course for humans. Thus, St. Athanasius says:
“If He had died quietly in His bed like other men it would have looked as if He did so in accordance with His nature, and as though He was indeed no more than other men.”
Instead, Christ allowed death to happen to Him on the cross, publicly displaying His willing subjection to it.
Second, it was to show that when our physical bodies resurrect at the end of times to reunite with our spirits, it will not show signs of decay. When we die, our spirits will depart, and our bodies will remain in the ground. But at the end of times, our bodies will reunite with our spirits, in some mysterious way akin to the resurrected body of Christ, and that new body/spirit we will not bear evidence of decay. Note that the term often used (in the Bible and elsewhere) for decay is “corruption.” When we say a person’s body has suffered “corruption,” we are saying it suffered decay. If Christ died privately, we would not be able to be sure of the day He died and the day He resurrected, and show that there was a passing of enough days that a normal person’s body should show signs of corruption. By dying publicly on Friday, and resurrecting on Sunday and showing His body having not suffered corruption when it otherwise should have, we are assured of our own resurrection. (For more see 1 Corinthians 15 and Philippians 3:20-21).
2. Why not avoid the plot of the Jews and guard Himself from death?
Christ, being Life, could not kill Himself, but He had to take upon Himself the penalty of death that all humans owed due to the fall of Adam and Eve. On the other hand, being subject to death by others was not a sign of limitation or weakness, as St. Athanasius explains: “He waited for death in order to make an end of it.”
3. Why not die alone, and then resurrect?
People would have thought He fabricated the resurrection. St. Athanasius says, “A secret and un-witnessed death would have left the resurrection without any proof or evidence to support it.” Thus, it had to be a death witnessed by all, declared publicly like His miracles, followed by a resurrection that proved His body was not susceptible to decay, so that the disciples could claim the resurrection boldly.
“Even on the cross He did not hide Himself from sight; rather, He made all creation witness to the presence of its Maker.”
4. Okay, make it public, but why not make it honorable?
This would be suspicious. The mighty Lord, like a mighty fighter, should not choose His opponent, since it may look like He “rigged” the fight to make it easy on Himself, making Him look weak and afraid. As St. Athanasius eloquently puts it: “A generous wrestler, virile and strong, does not himself choose his antagonists, lest it should be though that of some of them he is afraid.”
Here is a beautiful contemplation on Christ’s manner of death from St. Athanasius:
He did not die like St. John the Baptist by beheading. He did not die by being sawed in half like Isaiah. “Even in death He preserved His body whole and undivided, so that there should be no excuse hereafter for those who would divide the Church.”
5. Okay, die dishonorably, but why then the cross of all ways to die dishonorably?
The sin of Adam and Eve brought upon us the curse of mortality and death, and separation from God. Christ came to overturn this curse. God proclaimed in the Old Testament that dying on a tree is a cursed death. So Christ died on a tree (the cross), evincing that He was taking the cursed status of mankind upon Himself and overriding it by His resurrection and ascension. Christ’s death being displayed on a cross was then the perfect symbol for declaring Christ’s victory over the curse which it signified. Here’s what the Bible says:
“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13). He broke the “middle wall of separation” (Eph. 2:14), being “lifted up from the earth … [to, as Christ puts it] draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32).
St. Athanasius adds:
He … displayed [His body] by the sign of the cross as the monument to His victory over death and its corruption.
I pray that each of you enjoy the blessings of Holy Pascha Week and thank Christ for subjecting Himself to death, and not just any death, but one brought upon Him by the same people He came to save, by means of the dishonorable cross which He changed to being a throne upon which He declared His love to all of us, stretching out his precious hands, inviting us all to His embrace.