The Epistle reading for today encompasses the whole Divine economy, what God has done for our salvation. In it, we read about justification, faith, grace and the love of God. For us to understand these realities, we need to look at the whole scope of history beginning in the Garden of Eden.
In the Garden of Paradise, Adam was created in the image and likeness of God and fashioned as a spiritual infant. Here, Adam and Eve would “walk and talk” and be nourished, reaching their full development, notes St. Irenaeus.
In creating man after His image; man was also endowed with the freedom of his will to choose to obey God or to disobey Him, and God gave him a law, not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By keeping this law, Adam and Eve would preserve the grace of God that they were given and would grow in the perfection of that grace. If they transgressed this law, the grace would be taken away, and they would fall into corruption and death.
When Adam chose to disobey God, he became naked, losing the grace of God that clothed him. He received death and corruption, and this was passed on to all his descendants, including us. It is not Adam’s guilt that is passed onto us. We are not blamed or held accountable for inheriting death and corruption but only for our personal sins. We will all die so that sin has an end and does not become immortal.
Adam retained the image of God (an intellect and free will) though now in a fractured form but not obliterated. He lost His likeness in virtue. We also have the fractured image of God in us and a free will which is influenced but not coerced. St. John Chrysostom continuously emphasizes this throughout his commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
God did not create man for corruption. The wise Solomon tells us, “God made man for incorruption, and as an image of His own eternity; but by [the] envy of the devil death came into the world” (Wisdom of Solomon 6:18). Instead, God “will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) and “has not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation” (1 Thess. 5:9).
Therefore, to restore man back to communion with God, from the corruption and death in which he had fallen into, the Word of God condescended to us and took on a body of our kind. As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man” (2:9). And Further, the Apostle Paul says, “For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (1 Cor. 5:14-15).
Since it was impossible for the Word to suffer death because He is immortal and is the Son of the Father, He took to Himself a body capable of death. This body would be made worthy to die for all and because of the Word Who dwelt in it, it would remain incorruptible and from thenceforth corruption would be stopped. As St. Athanasius says, further, “by offering unto death the body He Himself had taken, as an offering and a sacrifice free from stain, straightway He put away death from all His peers by the offering of an equivalent. Herein, in offering His life for all, He satisfied the debt of death which came to all men. As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb 2:14-15).
Therefore, it was necessary that the incorruptible Son of God, using His corruptible flesh, should be given as a sacrifice so as to redeem us from corruption.
The restoration of our union and communion with God is not only effected through the death of Christ but with the whole of Christ’s life. St. John of Damascus writes: “…by His own birth, or incarnation, and by His baptism and passion and resurrection, He freed our nature from the sin of our first parent, from death and corruption.” Fr. Georges Florovsky writes of the same but applies it to various understandings of the sacrifice of Christ that are present today when he says:
[T]he idea of Divine justice alone [does not]… reveal the ultimate meaning of the sacrifice of the Cross. The mystery of the Cross cannot be adequately presented in terms of the transaction, the requital, or the ransom… The sacrifice of Christ cannot be considered as a mere offering or surrender. That would not explain the necessity of the death. For the whole life of the Incarnate One was one continuous sacrifice.
In noting that it is the whole life of Christ that has freed our nature from sin, the Cross has a very particular place in it. As St. John Damascene writes:
But of all things the most wonderful is His Honorable cross. For by nothing else except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ has death been brought low, the sin of our first parent destroyed, hell plundered, resurrection bestowed, the power given us to despise the things of this world and even death itself, the road back to the former blessedness made smooth, the gates of paradise opened, our nature seated at the right hand of God, and we made children and heirs of God.
How, then does this come to us, the fruits of Christ’s life, that is? It begins at Baptism. Baptism provides the remission of all of our sins and the guilt of the curse. As the Apostle Paul writes, “…So many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death…” (Romans 6:3-4). St. Gregory Palamas interprets this verse saying: “This is the beginning of our renewal. Christ tore up the handwriting of our transgressions on the Cross and made all those who were buried with Him through baptism guiltless.”
St. Symeon the New Theologian says that we were given a new birth and are recreated in baptism. As we are baptized, being immersed three times in the image of the three-day burial of our Lord, so when we come out of the waters on the third time it is then that our souls are brought to life, and we receive the grace of the Holy Spirit as Adam had it before the transgression. And what is further, after our baptism, when we are anointed with myrrh, we are anointed with Christ. Now, having been made worthy, we eat His flesh and drink His blood in the sanctified bread, and wine of God incarnate who gave Himself as a sacrifice and in this way we become united to Christ. As Christ Himself said:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. (John 6:53-56)
In each of the above points regarding how the work of Christ is brought to effect our life, what we see is that because we are united to Christ (only because the Word of God united Himself to a human body first), we are made righteous. Righteousness is not something we are clothed in, but because Christ is righteous and we are united to Him through Baptism, we become righteous. By being united to Christ, we grow towards perfection in Him and receive grace from him.
As St. Mark the Ascetic writes when interpreting the passage, “[God] will reward every man according to his works” (Matt. 16:27), he says, do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom. On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith in Himself; and he is not a dealer bound by contract, but God our Creator and Redeemer.” It must not be imagined that because a man accepts and guards the grace of God given him that he earns any merit. God’s gifts are always free.
St. John Chrysostom draws our attention to the vastness of God’s grace and the minuteness of our contribution, although both are needed, when he comments on the verse in Romans from our reading today which states: “By Whom we also have access by faith into this grace.” He says:
But we have brought faith as our contribution. And so he says, “by faith, unto grace.” What grace is this? Tell me. It is the being worthy of the knowledge of God, the being forced from error, the coming to a knowledge of the Truth, the obtaining of all blessings that come through Baptism. For the end of His bringing us near was that we might receive these gifts. For it was not only that we might have simple remission of sins, that we were reconciled; but that we might receive also countless benefits. Nor did he even pause at these, but promised others, namely, those unutterable blessings that pass understanding alike and language… For this is the nature of God’s grace. It hath no end, it knows no bound, but evermore is on the advance to greater things, which in humans things is not the case.
What are we to do then? We are to preserve the purity that has been given to us.
In conclusion, let us leave off with a stanza from a poem by St. Silouan entitled Adam’s Lament. In it, St. Silouan depicts the magnitude of the Fall from grace and Adam’s response and separation from God. Adam walked with God in the cool of the day and when he transgressed God’s commandment he was destitute of that communion. He does not blame God, but in a spirit of humility and repentance, he longs to be near God and God’s love again. He writes:
God is love insaturable, love impossible to describe.
Adam walked the earth, weeping from his hearts manifold ills, while the thoughts of his mind were on God;
And when his body grew faint, and he could no longer
Shed tears, still his spirit burned with longing for God,
For he could not forget paradise and the beauty thereof.
But even more was it the power of love which caused the soul of Adam to reach out towards God.
May we realize, and I first, the grandeur and condescension of God and His exceeding love for mankind; for our neighbor, for ourselves, and in so doing, shed tears, longing not to offend God but to draw near to that love that gave us new life.
Yesterday, Christ was born; today, He is baptized. Yesterday, God immersed Himself in our flesh; today, our flesh is immersed in the Most Holy Trinity. Yesterday, the Timeless Son of the Virgin-Father was begotten in time of the Virgin-Mother; today He gives birth to us as sons of God forever.