The human face of God

What is God's relation to death?

The face of Christ that gazes down from the domes of our churches is a human face, but the gaze is the gaze of God Himself. For we believe that in Jesus Christ, God Himself took on a human form and came to live a human life. That is to say that in Christ we encounter God living a human life, God with a human face.

It was not however, just a human life that he lived, he also endured a human death. For the Orthodox, the fallen condition of the world and humanity is manifest primarily in the fact of death, rather than simply sin. It is death that characterizes the fallen human condition, that challenges every human achievement, that threatens us with ultimate meaninglessness.

Like all creatures, we humans were created by God out of nothing. As the nineteenth-century Metropolitan of Moscow, Philaret put it, ‘all creatures are balanced upon the creative word of God, as if upon a bridge of diamond; above them is the abyss of divine infinitude, below them that of their own nothingness’.In turning away from God, the source of our being, there is nowhere else to go than the abyss of nothingness an ultimate diminishment in which all hopes, longings and desires are swallowed up. We experience this as death.

In creating humanity, God granted us freedom to be, and through human fallenness that freedom has become self-destructive. It has become ordered towards death and in some mysterious way we drag the whole created order into an abyss of meaninglessness.

Because we are free, however, God will not simply extinguish us and start again. Instead, out of love for human kind God has opened up his very being to us. He is the Father sending his Son to become a human being. A Son born of the Holy Virgin through the Holy Spirit, sent to embrace all the conditions of fallen human life, including death - death as a criminal on a cross. Death did not however, swallow him up—as it does finite human beings—it swallowed itself up, in the abyss of the divine infinitude.

So death was overcome and on the third day Christ rose from the dead, the conqueror over death. It is this event that we celebrate at Easter or Pascha, the Christian Passover, singing over and over again: ‘Christ has risen from the dead, trampling on death by death, and to those in the graves giving life!’ At Easter we also greet one another with ‘Christ has risen! He has risen indeed!’

The divine taking on death and destroying it sounds like a myth but there has always been the temptation to reduce Christian belief to a myth. Either by turning the Incarnate Son of God into some semi-‘divine’ being, so dissolving the doctrine of the Trinity. Or in some way diminishing the humanity of Christ as if the presence of the divine must overshadow or diminish some aspect of his humanity, making him no longer ‘one of us’.

The first and last of the Seven Œcumenical Synods, both held at Nicaea (modern Iznik in Turkey) and the others mostly held in Constantinople, sought to prevent this blunting of the truth of Christ’s human victory over death. They remain for all Orthodox Christians, an enduring witness to our faith in the human face of God that we encounter in Christ through prayer, in the Divine Liturgy (as we call the Mass or Eucharist), and in the face of every human being that turns to us seeking our love.

Andrew Louth was ordained a priest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Diocese of Sourozh four years ago and serves a parish in Durham. He is also Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies in Durham University.
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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.