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5 June 2007

The human face of God

What is God's relation to death?

By Andrew Louth

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.

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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.

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