St Irenaeus on a Christ “of every age”
Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) · December 1, 2008
Beginning a new series of broadcasts reflecting on the writings of the Church Fathers, this opening segment explores St Irenaeus of Lyons' famous consideration of Christ "passing through every age" of human life.
It is our intention to bring you each week from here in the North of England a reflection on the writings of the Church Fathers, those great illumined persons whose testimony stands as a bedrock of the Church’s life, belief, and practice. Each week, we shall reflect on a passage from the writings of the Fathers, together with a small amount of history on the Father or Mother who has written the text; their life and influence, and the meaning of their writing, and its implications for Orthodox Christians in every period of time, most importantly our own today.
We begin this week with a writing from the second century corpus of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, drawn from his larger work which has as its full title, The Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So Called, but which is often known by the abbreviated title, Against Heresies. From that text Saint Irenaeus writes:
Being a master therefore Christ also possessed the age of a master, not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in himself that Law which he had appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age by that period corresponding to it which belonged to himself. For he came to save all through means of himself; all I say, who through him are born again to God; infants and children, boys, youths, old men. He therefore passed through every age becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise, He was an old man for old men, that he might be a perfect master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards that age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also and becoming likewise an example to them. Then, at the last, He came unto death itself, that he might be the firstborn of the dead, that in all things he might have the preeminence, “the Prince of Life,” existing before all and going before all.
That text which I just read comes from St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 22, Section 4. Before we begin a begin a brief reflection on the meaning of this important passage, a few words Saint Irenaeus. Born in Asia Minor, a Greek speaker from the eastern realms of the Empire. Irenaeus was a disciple of Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, who himself had been a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist and Apostle. Saint Irenaeus reflects how he used to sit at the feet of the Blessed Polycarp, hearing stories of his interactions with the Apostle who had known Jesus Christ. In this way, Saint Irenaeus very self-consciously feels himself a spiritual grandchild of the Apostle himself and is deeply indebted and impassioned by the spirituality of Saint John. At some point in his life, and we don’t know exactly when or exactly why, Saint Irenaeus travels west to Italy, to Rome where he becomes a part of the Christian community in that ancient city. Some time later he travels north in to what he considers to be the hinterlands of southern Gaul, in what is today France. It is here that the Church had suffered great persecutions in the generation before Irenaeus’ arrival, the martyrs of Vienne and Lyons having attained great fame already. And it is here that the bishop as he was then becomes a great defender of the faith in the face of many different groups challenging the apostolic testimony of the Church. We often think of Saint Irenaeus as a writer against the Gnostics, but of course this term is perhaps a little misleading. There were many groups against which Irenaeus wrote, some of which emphasized Gnosis, others not. But in all of his works, as in his episcopacy, Saint Irenaeus was concerned to show the true faith as handed down, Traditioned, by the Apostles, preserved in the Church, as he writes, one and the same everywhere throughout the world. Traditionally Saint Irenaeus suffered a martyrs death, though we do not know the details of his martyrdom, its time or its place, yet so he is commemorated by the Church each year.
It seems fitting to begin this series of broadcasts on Orthodoxy’s patristic and monastic heritage by reflecting on this passage in Saint Irenaeus, which causes us to ask the question so central to the Christian faith: What is the nature of salvation? What does it mean for Christ to save humanity; to save the cosmos? In our modern world there are many answers to such a question that abound, but the relationship of salvation to the Incarnation is often, while proclaimed, not deeply understood. So often, too often, the Incarnation, the becoming human of Christ is taken as a kind of preamble to the great saving act of the offering on the cross. It is certainly true that Christ’s self-offering on the cross, his death and resurrection, are at the very heart of the salvific work he accomplishes, and yet his incarnation, his human birth, his life as human person, is not a preamble to the salvation offered by Christ, but in fact part and parcel of that saving economia (saving history), and this is where the writings of Saint Irenaeus are so poignant and so relevant in our modern day.
In the text which I read at the beginning of this broadcast, we find Irenaeus suggesting in persuasive and beautiful terms that Christ sanctifies every age of humanity, not by some fiat from any point in his life, but Christ sanctifies and saves by becoming, by being humanity in all its living phases. Saint Irenaeus stresses that Christ comes for all; infants, children, boys and youths, elder people. And the way he saves all is by being all, by entering and passing through in Saint Irenaeus words, every stage of human life. He saves infancy by being himself human infants. He saves the youth by becoming youth. He is youthful person and youth personified. He becomes adult, and so sanctifies. This is not simply a question of giving an example, though Saint Irenaeus stresses that at every point Christ gives us an example; an image; an icon of how true and obedient life is to be lived at every stage and phase of human growth. But beyond this notion of example is the fact of sanctifying union. Christ is young. He is old. He is child. He is adult, and by being a human person at every phase of human growth, the whole human nature and experience is united to him in his divinity.
Christ sanctifies every age by being in his person the whole of human experience. This is a vision of the Incarnation which sees every moment of Christ’s life as the active work of salvation. When Christ lies naked in the cave at his birth at the Nativity in the flesh; at that moment Christ is sanctifying and saving the world. When he as a young boy lives in obedience to the Blessed Theotokos, to his foster father, he lives as a human person, sanctifying in that life, in that childhood youth, obedience and growth, the life which all human persons lead at that phase. And he comes to adulthood, and even interestingly what Saint Irenaeus calls His old manhood. Saint Irenaeus, in a curious passage, offers what he calls a tradition originating from Saint John that Christ was not thirty or thirty-three, but older, nearing fifty, when he was crucified. This does seem to be a small patristic tradition, not adopted by many, and yet Irenaeus’ point is that Christ becomes the whole of the race, not just as a person iconic of all people, but by living true human life and uniting it to himself. This leads of course to his self-sacrificial offering, as Irenaeus says, “at the last, he came unto death itself, that he might be the firstborn of the dead.” In his offering, his sacrifice, his death, and his resurrection, Christ lives human life as I will live it, as we all shall live it, for every person will die and in Christ all shall be raised. This is the vision of Saint Irenaeus as to how the Lord Jesus Christ sanctifies the Earth and raises up creation to Himself.
May the words and the thoughts of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons be for us a great blessing and an inspiration, through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.