Great and Holy Friday
Fr. Thomas Hopko · April 24, 2008
Fr. Thomas examines the Mystery of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord and how it led to the re-creation of the world.
The Crucifixion and the death and the burial and the Resurrection and the glorification of Jesus the Christ, for Orthodox Christians, is incomparably the most important event in creation and human history. It is certainly the most important event on the planet Earth.
Orthodox Christians believe that God Almighty created the world, knowing that it would have to be saved. It would have to be redeemed from the powers of darkness and death; in a word, that it would have to be re-created.
The world was created by God and actually, more technically speaking, was created through Christ, through the Logos, the Word, the Son of God. The Apostle Paul says, “All things were made through Him, by Him, for Him, toward Him.”
St. John says, “In the beginning was the Logos,” the Word (John 1:1). “He was in the beginning with God, and He was God. And everything that came to be, came to be through Him,” and then for Him, in Him, toward Him. He is the Alpha and the Omega. We believe that God Almighty, in deciding to create through His Word by the power of His Holy Spirit, knew that the Incarnation of the Son of God would be necessary.
And it would have to be an Incarnation with a Crucifixion; an execution; a being put to death, a voluntary death, so that the world could be re-created and so that sinful and rebellious humanity would have the opportunity for healing, salvation, resurrection, and a new creation; to be created again, not from nothing this time, but to be created from their own nothingness, their own sinfulness, in order to live forever with God.
So we Orthodox believe “no creation without Incarnation, no creation without Crucifixion of the Son of God, and no creation without re-creation.” Christ is the God-man, the Son of God who became human, and not only human but took on the curse and death of the world.
St. Gregory the Theologian said, “One drop of His blood re-creates the whole creation.” And Gregory of Nyssa, another Gregory who lived at the same time, said that the Church of Christ, the Church of the New Covenant, is the re-creation of creation. He followed Origen who said that the Church is the world of the world, cosmos tou cosmou.
In other words, the Church as we know it, the Church in Christ, the re-creation, what we experience at worship; what we experience when we contemplate the Holy Scriptures; when we contemplate the Word of the Cross; when we participate in the Holy Mysteries of Christ, especially the Holy Eucharist when we participate in His broken Body and shed Blood, and the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and we have Communion with God, that is a foretaste of God’s coming Kingdom.
In fact, it’s even the presence and mystery of the Kingdom itself; of the world as it was created to be; the world as it is in the risen Christ, the world, the whole of creation, as it will be when Christ returns in glory with all of His angels being raised and glorified after His shameful, cursed Crucifixion on the tree of the Cross.
So we contemplate the Cross. And on these great and holy days of Great and Holy Friday, Great and Holy Saturday, and then the Great Pascha, which is the first day, the eighth day, the Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, this is what we’re contemplating. And it can only be contemplated in faith and in silence.
In silent adoration, when we look upon Jesus hanging on the Cross; when we see Him lying in the tomb, then we know that all mortal flesh must keep silent. And in fear and trembling, contemplate nothing earthly-minded because the Lord of lords and the King of kings is coming to re-create the whole creation, and to give Himself as food for the faithful; to give Himself for the sake of the life of the world.
That’s how St. John put it. He said, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you. For the flesh (my body) that I give is given (broken) for the life of the world.” So there can be no life for this world. This world is just dead.
We are all just dead without the Incarnation and the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of God’s own Son, Jesus of Nazareth who is God’s eternal, divine Word and Wisdom. God’s own divine Son, who becomes the son of Mary, is born of a virgin for the sake of our salvation.
Now we contemplate in silence and in adoration this magnificent, ineffable event. And if you go to church in the Orthodox Church, we say a lot of things. We say practically everything that you can think to say, i.e., “Over the dead Christ, reading the Scriptures, hearing all of the prophecies from the Old Testament, reading the Gospels, reading the words of the Apostles like St. Paul.”
We just pile up these words. And then on the Matins of Great and Holy Saturday, after the Vespers on Friday when the winding sheet that depicts the dead Christ is placed in the tomb, we stand over it with our candles and incense and we chant the entire 119th Psalm. Of course, sometimes this is abbreviated in parish churches.
But in the monastery, where I now serve, and at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, where I used to work, we would sing this whole psalm. And in between each of the lines of the psalm, a verse has been created by the Holy Spirit within the Church tradition, sometimes called the Lamentations over the Tomb.
But they are actually more than lamentations. They are praises. They are expressions of our inability to express. That’s why it’s so long. When you’re dealing with something that can be contemplated, grasped, and comprehended only in the depth of the soul and the heart that’s purified before God, in complete and total silence. Our silence has to meet the silence of the dead Christ.
And as St. Maximus said, “The language of God, the language of the age to come, is ultimately silence.” So we enter into this mystery, not knowing what to say; saying everything we can. And then finally, ultimately, just being quiet; contemplating this great mystery of the love of God.
But we speak about it. And through the centuries, the Holy Fathers and the saints speak about it, especially when confronted with wrong and deformed Christian teachings, which are technically called heresies. The word heresy does not mean a mistake or error. Heresy technically means a choice. The people have chosen to understand it in a certain way, because of their own fallen mind or because of their own passions, and therefore have deformed it.
And there are people deforming the Christian faith from the beginning. Take for example, the Gnostic gospels, the spurious gospels, which are sometimes called on TV “The Lost Books of the Bible.” They were never lost. They were always known, and they were never of the Bible or the Holy Scripture.
But in those books, what differentiates them from the writings of the New Testament that we believe are true and sound is that the New Testament writings—the four Gospels, the Acts, the Letters of Paul, the other Letters, and the Apocalypse—have at the center of it the crucified Christ. Christ is the one who is dead and was alive again. He was put to shameful execution but was victorious through it for the sake of the re-creation of the world.
So the Cross of Christ sometimes is just denied. It’s denied by Islam for example. The Koran simply denies that Jesus ever died. Of course, the Jewish people do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was and is, not only the Messiah and the Christ, but is literally divine; of the same divinity as the one God and Father; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That’s denied.
Of course, there are different kinds of Judaism, which understand things differently. Perhaps some are still waiting for a Messiah. Perhaps others don’t believe that there will be a Messiah, and that there wasn’t. Some people believe that Jesus was just a blasphemous impostor that got what was coming to Him.
And that was pretty much the Jewish apologetic to Christianity until the 19th or beginning of the 20th century. They simply said Jesus was just wrong; the Christians were just wrong. Now many people say that Jesus was a good prophet and taught many beautiful things, but He wasn’t God’s Son. And he may have been put to death as a martyr, the Crucifixion has no saving, redeeming, re-creating power or value at all. It’s just a very spectacular death of a very good man.
But for us Orthodox Christians, it was certainly a spectacular death of a very good man, for sure, but that man was God’s Son. And that man was even God. He was divine, with the same divinity as God. He was also human, with the same humanity that we all have.
So the one who died on that Good Friday afternoon and was put to death by the Roman soldiers at the instigation of the Jewish leaders, he was God and man. He was Theanthropos, the God-man. But how do we understand that mystery that the God-man was put to death in the flesh.
As St. Cyril of Alexandria said, “God, Himself, was born of a virgin. God, Himself, lived the human life. God, Himself, hungered and thirsted. God, Himself, underwent the human condition,” of ignorance and specificity and being a concrete, particular human being. “God, Himself, was put to death on the cross.” God was crucified in the flesh. “God, Himself, was raised from the dead.”
And the Scripture says that Christ, being God’s Son, was still raised by God the Father; that God the Father raised Him from the dead; that He, being God, so totally identified with humanity that he gave Himself over unto death. He became sin, became a curse, became dead. And that very power of God, by which the dead are raised, is the very power of God’s love and mercy that are shown to us in the person of His divine Son who has become human and was crucified on the cross.
When I was a young priest, I was visiting a man who was sick in the hospital. I may have mentioned this before on some tapes or perhaps even on the radio. I was visiting this man who was suffering terribly. His name was Steve, and I always remember him and how sickly he was and how he had these threads sewing up where his bones were coming through his skin and little black bows all over him.
I tried to comfort him. I spoke to him of the crucified Christ. I tried to encourage him to bear his suffering with the crucified Christ. And this simple worker, an elderly man, he looked at me and said, “Fr. Tom, I’ve been lying here for three years. The Lord Jesus was on the cross only for three hours. And though the suffering was horrible, at least it was over quick, and He was dead immediately. He suffered horribly, but here I am suffering and suffering.”
And then he could have added, “And I’m not even sure that I’ll get raised up the day after tomorrow, on the third day. Whereas the Lord Jesus predicted that He would be raised and glorified; that God would not let Him see corruption; that if He identified totally with us fallen creatures, God would act and raise Him up.”
And God would raise Him up through His very death. The paradox here is that it is actually Jesus’ total giving up of all power that is the power that raises Him. It’s the power of God, the power of love, the power of justice, the power of truth, the power of beauty, the power of life itself that cannot die. As we sing in Church, “O Life, how can thou die?”
Well He can die, and He can’t die. That’s what the Holy Fathers say. St. Leo the Great, in the 28th Letter of his Tome, where he is defending the real divinity and the real humanity of Jesus, says “At one in the same time that He can’t die, but He does die. At one in the same time, He is destroying death, and He is dying. And through the dying, He’s destroying the death.
This is the great paradox. God’s power is made perfect in weakness. His wisdom is made perfect in foolishness. His victory is won by what appears a total and complete defeat. That is the paradox of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy’s Paradoxy. But He is divine and human.
So I told Steve that day in the hospital. I said, Steve, you’re just a man. Jesus was a man too, but He was God’s Son. And what He endured on that cross on that day; what he endured in his lifetime of being rejected by people, of being called a Samaritan and having a devil, of wanting to save people and people not taking it, of doing everything He can and saying everything and showing everything, only to be rejected and killed.
And the more He loved, the more people hated Him. The more He showed His divinity, the more they considered Him a blasphemer. Until ultimately, He was delivered into the hands of the Roman to be put to death in the most vile, cursed, degrading, painful death that anyone can die. And it’s God’s Son who is doing that.
And so I said to Steve that your suffering, the suffering of all the people in this hospital, the suffering of all people in all the hospitals in all the world, and the suffering of all the people from the beginning of humanity until the end of the world will not even begin to compare to the suffering of Christ.
Because He who suffers is God’s Son; He who suffers is God Himself. He who suffers is the man that God has become, and He who suffers is a man who never sinned. He who suffers is a man who did not have to die. His suffering was voluntary, yet His suffering absorbs and takes into itself, because He is the Divine Logos, all the suffering from the foundation of the world until its final moment is all taken up in Him on that cross. And that’s what we contemplate.
So we are suffering, and so many people are suffering. I visited, yesterday, the wife of a priest who’s horribly suffering in a hospital in Pittsburgh, and she’s suffered her whole life. She had nothing in her life but suffering, from her youngest days. And now she’s suffering some more.
You see her lying in that bed, and she couldn’t even talk to me because she had her mouth filled with tubes in her nose and her cancerous throat. And her eyes looked at me, and the tears came out. But we see and know how outrageous that suffering is. Yet we know that God, Himself, suffers with us. But we also say the most outrageous thing.
God created the world knowing all of the suffering that would be; knowing every suffering of every person and every innocent child and every victim of the evil of the world and everyone abused and all the children killed in their mother’s wombs by abortions and all the holocausts and the massacres of the Jews, gay people, and Slavic people by the Nazis and all those 70 million killed by Communists. God saw all that.
He saw it all. He did it anyway, but He did it knowing that He would have to come and take it all upon Himself and expiate it. That’s a word from the New Testament. He would have to expiate it in His own body on the tree of the cross; purge it all out, get rid of it, forgive it, heal it, and make a whole new creation from that empty tomb as the real Adam, the new Adam, the man from Heaven that the world was created for from the beginning.
So we stand before that cross, and we contemplate it. And we sing our songs and we make our psalms. And we carry our winding sheet around the church as if Christ were entering again into our world, destroying death, taking it upon Himself. That’s what we do in church on the Great and Holy Friday and the Great Saturday.
And then we proclaim the victory on the great day of the Resurrection of Christ. Now when we contemplate this, we know ultimately and the Holy Fathers teach us that it couldn’t be different. It just literally could not be different. This is the way it is. This is the way God did it, and this is the only way God could do it.
We’re bold. We dare to say that. When we contemplate the mystery of Christ in the Gospel and the teachings of the apostles and all the saints and we contemplate the suffering of all creation, we know God could only do it this way. It’s either this way or no way.
That’s the Christian scandal. It’s a scandal to Jews and Muslims and total nonsense to the philosophical Helenes and all the great thinkers of this fallen world with their fallen brains, trying to figure things out. We say, no. This is it. It’s only it. There isn’t anything else than this.
And as the songs of Holy Week say, “And there’s nothing more beautiful.” There’s nothing more amazing. There’s nothing more fitting. There’s nothing that makes more sense when you contemplate the total reality of our human condition.
This human condition had to be dealt with. This human condition that we’re in—cursed, sinful, dead—it had to be healed. Things had to be made right. And we believe that only God becoming man could make it right. Only God could save it.
And many, many Christian thinkers through the centuries, beginning with the Holy Fathers, thought this. And then all the heretics too, they’re trying to figure all this out and come to it. Many things were written.
And we can, for the sake of our contemplation right now, think of a work by St. Anselm of Canterbury. He was a western bishop who wrote a little treatise called Cur Deus Homo or Why God Became a Man. And he tried to explain why it was necessary that God could become a man.
And this book became very controverted, and some of us think that there are some deep truths in there. But they’ve been skewed, and perhaps it’s not exactly right. And perhaps it caused a lot of trouble and made Christians, themselves, not really understand why it is that Christ had to be crucified. Every Christian says, “Jesus saves.” Every Christian says, “He died on the cross for us.”
Virtually every Christian, at least every traditional, classical, Evangelical Christian who follows Scripture would say, “Christ died for us. He redeemed us from the curse of the law. He ransomed us from the power of the devil. He paid the price for our salvation. He bought us on the cross.” But how to explain all that? How to understand it?
Well, there are many ways, and there are many thoughts about it. But for today, there’s just one thing that we really must say; that we have to say. And that is that Jesus, as the Christ, had to be the final messianic prophet. And therefore, He had to show the truth. And He had to be the truth. And He had to show God’s truth. And He had to, not only pronounce it and preach it, He had to live it, actualize it, realize it.
And if the truth is that God is love and that God ultimately loves us and that God created us free, knowing that we would sin and our world would become cursed and sinful and dead and unjust, He did it and took it all upon Himself to show how loving He is. And it is loving.
Therefore, why God’s Son becomes man is to show the love of God; to give the ultimate prophetic word; to be the ultimate prophetic Word. And when He hangs dead on a cross, silent, He reveals the mystery of the truth of God and the truth of humanity too. That truth is that we too must love God perfectly. We must love the God who loves us.
And so Jesus reveals and actualizes the total love of God on the Cross. But He also shows a human life—the man Jesus; the one Mediator between God and man; the man that the Son of God became; Why He Became Man, Cur Deus Homo. He became man to reveal Got to us and to reveal us to ourselves.
As Bishop Kallistos Ware often would say, “God became man, not only to make divine, but to make man human,” to make humans human and to show what the perfect human life is when it is completely given to God. And that perfect human life is perfect when no matter what is happening, the person obeys God. The person trusts God. The person loves with the love of which God has loved us.
That’s what happens on the Cross. God is loving us. We are loving God in return in the person of Christ. God is loving us in the person of His Son. We are loving God in the person of His Son, who is our brother, Christ, one of us, a human being. And then that perfect truth is revealed.
And therefore, we’re saved. We are redeemed from ignorance. We are redeemed from darkness. We are freed and delivered from madness and foolishness of not knowing what life is about. We are now shown the truth. We know what life is about in Him. And in His death, it becomes perfectly clear, the death that is victorious in Resurrection.
But we also know that in the Cross of Christ, we are redeemed from the curse of the law. We are all sinners according to God’s law, and therefore we are cursed. We are all sinners according to God’s law, and therefore the wrath of God is upon us. The wrath of God is upon us because we’re sinners. God loves sinners. He came to die for sinners, but He hates the sin.
And therefore when that evil is there and when evildoers are actually rooted and grounded and they’re evil and hang onto it, God is angry. God is wrathful. He has to be because He’s a lover. And if you’re a lover, you cannot just look at evil and sin and evildoers and say, “Ho hum nice.” That divine wrath comes.
Even the mercy and love of God is experienced as wrath by those who don’t love mercy, who don’t love love, who don’t love God. And so we’re in this situation, sinful and cursed. And according to the law, we just deserve to die. We will die. It’s a metaphysical law.
But we, Orthodox Christians, believe that on the Cross, in the person of His Son, God reconciles us to Himself. He ransoms us from the curse of the law. He pays the price that is necessary to free us, to liberate us, to heal us. He sets us free. He is the expiation and the propitiation for our sins.
When He dies on the cross, God then forgives us. God takes us to Himself, for the sake of Christ; for the sake of the perfection of the Son of God. And that’s why when we believe in Christ, our sins are forgiven. When we believe in Him and accept Him as our Lord and follow Him and live by His Spirit and repent of it when we don’t and weep over it when we fail. Then we know that we are forgiven and that God is with us and we are with God, and we are saved from death.
Now some folks think that Jesus had to suffer on the cross in order to be punished for us. Even Anselm has this teaching, at least simply and superficially understood. There’s a debate about what it really means, but some Christians actually think this.
They think that we sinned against God, and we’re all sinners. And there’s no one righteous, no not one. And even if there were righteous, let’s say innocent children or babies or really holy people, we’re still caught up in the sin of the world and we all die. We’re all infected and poisoned by the sin of the world. We can’t free ourselves from it. We’re caught.
And so some folks think that the only way that God could set us free was to satisfy the divine justice. And the justice means that God is angry with us because we have sinned, and the only way we’re going to get rid of that anger is by being sufficiently punished.
“So God so loves the world that He sends His only begotten Son,” He sends his Son as a man to be punished—that’s what a lot of people think. And Jesus on the cross was getting punished. And He was getting punished in our place, because all our punishment together could never assuage and satisfy the justice of God. Because it’s God who is offended, and God is God.
And so when creatures offend God, how can they repair for their offense? Because in order to make reparation and for there to be real justice done according to the letter of the law, we would have to suffer and pay a punishment that would be divine. Human punishment and suffering wouldn’t be enough.
So God loves the world and sends His Son, who is divine, to suffer. And in that suffering, the punishment that is do to us; the punishment that we’re supposed to get because of our sins, He pays on the cross. And that’s how some people understand it.
When Jesus is dying on the cross and in agony and in pain, He’s actually getting punished for us. And then He gets punished enough, so that God can now justly let us off. According to the law, He can let us off. Why? Because the law has been broken; the crime has been committed, but the reparation has been made through punishment. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. God is offended, so God gets punished. And therefore, we’re set free.
Well, although there in some way might be some kind of truth to this, in some way especially if we think that law is an expression of the reality of things, to make things right. However, in this kind of understanding, speaking the truth in love, we’d really have to say that you don’t find this in the New Testament. You don’t find this in the Bible.
You certainly don’t find this in the Orthodox Church services. And I went through all the services of Great Friday and all the services and all the readings. And you find not one word there about Jesus getting punished for us or getting punished in our place. In fact, the word punishment isn’t even there.
But you do find the Biblical teaching when the prophet Isaiah is read about the Suffering Servant; that Jesus is the Suffering Servant. He is the man of sorrows, rejected and despised by men, acquainted with grief, despised not esteemed. He bore our griefs. He carried our sorrows, stricken and smitten by God. He was afflicted and wounded for our transgressions.
He was bruised for our iniquities and upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole. By His lashes and by His stripes, we are healed because we are all like sheep gone astray. And he was the Lamb of God led to the slaughter, like a sheep before his shears is dumb. He didn’t open His mouth. By oppression and judgment, He was taken away.
You can’t declare even His generation or where He comes from. He was cut off from the earth, cut off from the land of the living, stricken among the criminals, stricken because of the transgressions of God’s people and all people, and making His grave with the wicked. And it even says with the rich man, that we understand being Joseph of Arimathea, is whose tomb Jesus was buried in.
That’s all true. We contemplate all of that. But in all of that, there’s no one word about punishment. And there’s no word that it’s His suffering and His punishment that redeems us and buys us back. Certainly, we are purchased by His blood. Certainly, He has redeemed us from the curse of the law. Certainly, He has liberated us from our being held by our sins and our being sold over into the power of Satan.
Yes, His death does liberate us. It ransoms us. It is the price that had to be paid; the debt that we owe is paid. He pays it on the cross. And that word debt, it means also ought. Debt is not only what you pay. Debt is what you ought to do, what you ought to be, what is necessary to have everything settled.
And in Biblical language, He does and pays the price and gives the cost and suffers what is necessary to make everything right and set everything right again. But He doesn’t set everything right because He gets punished enough. No, He sets everything right by being righteous. He sets everything right by not sinning. He sets everything right by keeping all the commandments of God His Father, as a man.
He sets everything right by loving God with all His mind, soul, heart and strength. He sets everything right because He loves His neighbor and even His worst enemy as His very own self. He sets everything right because being the totally, righteous, sinless man in the world, the evildoers and the sinners hate Him. And they mock Him. They spit on Him. They beat Him. They scourge Him. They kill Him. They crucify Him. And yet, He’s right. He is true. He is good.
And it’s so beautiful. And He says, “Father forgive them.” And He says, into your hands, God Father, I give my life. I really did not want to go through this humanly as I prayed in the garden, but I must. Your will be done Father, to re-create the world. And so the death of Jesus on the cross is a ransom. We are bought by His blood. He does pay the price. He does what is necessary. But that paying the price, to quote St. Leo the Great in that famous 28th Letter:
Being divine, He became human. And in His suffering, He endured everything and paid every price and did all that was necessary for the sake of our condition, to heal us and redeem us from our sinful, cursed, dead condition.
St. Basil the Great, in the anaphora of his Divine Liturgy, his actual words were, “And He gave Himself as a ransom unto death, into which we were held captive soul under sin.” What that means is that the only way He could free us from death was by being perfectly, totally righteous. And then showing that righteousness and love by dying for those who were sinners.
So He gives Himself as a ransom to death. In other words, we sinners are held by death. The wages of sin is death, so He gives Himself over to the condition of being dead. He enters in Sheol. He actually dies. He is buried in a cave. But being God with that divine activity, it’s a divine activity through that humanity that then re-creates the world and ransoms us.
So if we use the language of ransom or redemption, 35:45, that means you do what is necessary to set us free. Or you pay the price that is necessary. You give what is necessary that we can be liberated. What Christ gives is His blood, which stands for His life. He gives a life of truth, a life of love, a life of total obedience and trust in God, His Father, in His humanity.
That’s what God wants from us. That’s what takes the wrath away. That’s what frees us from the curse. That’s what kind of delivers us from whatever punishment, in that sense, would be due. But we know that God doesn’t want to punish anybody. He chastens us to try to get us to come to our senses.
But He’s not going to just torment us enough until He would be satisfied that we had been tormented enough to go to Heaven. But He can’t torment us enough because we’re just creatures, so He sends His Son and torments Him and tortures Him and let’s Him endure the pain. No, no, no. The suffering is the suffering of love.
Because when you have perfect love in the fallen world of evil doers who don’t love God, you suffer. St. Paul said he found it to be a law that when you try to do good the devil is close at hand. And those who live a godly life will be persecuted by the evil of this world. That’s what Jesus shows, but He is not overcome by the evil of this world. He overcomes it by His righteousness.
So we’re saved by His righteousness and His justice. He does it right, and therefore He does not break the law. Therefore, the law is fulfilled, and in Him, when we believe in Him, the law is fulfilled, and we can fulfill it too. We can have the Holy Spirit.
And when we repent over the fact that we don’t fulfill it and weep and say, “God be merciful a sinner, for the sake of your Son Jesus,” then God has mercy on us too. For the sake of Christ, He forgives us too. For the sake of His broken body and His spilled blood, we are forgiven. The wrath is removed from us because God can’t hold wrath against Jesus because Jesus is perfectly righteous.
Jesus could put Himself and God could insist that Jesus take that wrath upon Himself in going through the wages of sin, which is death. But by doing so, the wrath is removed. Now way back in the 4th century, the best friend of Basil the Great who said in his prayer, “He gave Himself ransom unto death by which we were held captive; sold under sin.” As St. Leo said, that’s our condition. Our condition is sold under sin in death.
So He gives Himself to that to free us. He’s the ransom. He’s the price that is paid. But St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Basil’s best friend, already struggled with trying to understand this Biblical imagery of payment, of ransom, of redemption, of being bought. Because it says in Scripture that He has purchased us.
And then even, it says in the Scripture that He has given Himself as a redemption, not only for us, but for the whole world, and that He bought us; we belong to Him now. By His blood, we are healed. But that’s the blood of God, it says in Acts. It says that God saved us by His own blood.
But that blood saves us because it pays the debt of righteousness, the debt of love, the debt of fulfilling the commandments. It’s not a payment of a punishment that was due. It’s a payment of the act that sets us free from the wrath of God, the curse of the law, and the power of the devil. So Gregory the Theologian, he wrote this in his 2nd Pastoral Oration. I’ll read it to you. He said:
Now we are to examine another fact in dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth inquiring into. We can ask to whom was that blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious blood of our God and the Great High Priest and the living victim, the Sacrifice, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.
So he’s asking to whom was the payment made? To whom was the blood offered? Then, he continues and says:
We were held in bondage by the evil one, the devil; sold under sin and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now since a ransom belongs only to Him who holds in bondage, I ask you, to whom was this offered and for what reason? If we say that God offered His blood to the devil, that he paid off the devil by giving the devil His son, if that’s what you think, fie upon the outrage!
If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, the Son of God, and as such an illustrious payment for His tyranny, then it would have been right for Him to have left us alone altogether.
In other words, he says that God can’t pay off the devil. The devil has deceived us. He’s holding us unjustly. Why would God give him a ransom to let us go, as if he held us in some legitimate way? Now some people could say, he held us legitimately because we gave ourselves to him, and we made ourselves sinners.
He deceived us. He lied to us. We were tricked. We were weak. We fell. We don’t want to be held by him. So God is not paying him off. Then, St. Gregory continues, “But if we say that the blood was offered to God the Father, because of course Scripture says He gave Himself in offering to God.
He offered Himself to the Father on the Cross as the pure, sacrificial victim, in place of all those cows and bulls. He offered His own blood to God. He gave His life to God. But Gregory says, “However, it’s not God who is holding us. For it was not by God that we are being oppressed; it was not God that was holding us in captivity.”
Why would God send His Son to offer Himself back to God so that God could let us go? He says that it just doesn’t make any sense, and it’s even outrageous. He said, “On what principle did the blood of His only begotten Son delight God the Father?”
Why would God take delight in the sacrificial, degrading, vile death of His Son? It would be almost like child abuse that the father would have to abuse his child and have him tormented, so that he could then forgive him and let him go, justly. But Gregory continues:
God the Father would not receive even Isaac when he was being sacrificed by his father, Abraham. But He changed the sacrifice by putting the ram in the place of the human victim.
Now certainly the Holy Fathers say that Jesus became that ram, that Lamb of God, the victim. But it wasn’t to pay off God. It wasn’t to satisfy God’s justice or anything by that. God does not want that, Gregory says. He says:
Is it not evident that God the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him. But on account of the Incarnation and because humanity must be sanctified by humanity of God that he might deliver us Himself and overcome the devil and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, who also arranged us to the honor of God the Father, whom it is manifest He obeys in all things.
So what Gregory is saying here is that God sent His Son to be the ransom, to redeem us, to do what was necessary to make everything right. And so it was a costly act. It was the cost of His own life in blood, and not just His own death, but a vile, degrading, shameful death. This was necessary to show the love of God and the love of man and for love and truth to be victorious and for the devil to be defeated.
And that’s why the Church services just keep repeating this theme all the time, as do the Holy Fathers. When Christ the life comes on earth and dies, that life through that death destroys death. Because when life dies, it’s death that’s put to death.
And then they say the same things. When light goes into darkness, it’s the darkness that’s destroyed. Because the light eliminates the darkness, just as life eliminates death. It’s kind of an ontological, metaphysical law that if you bring together light and darkness, it’s the darkness that goes. If you bring together life and death, it’s the death that goes.
If you bring together truth and falsehood, it’s the falsehood that is overcome and conquered. If you bring together justice and injustice, it’s the injustice that is destroyed. Everything is made right. When you bring together the righteousness and the unrighteousness, the righteousness triumphs. When you bring together the beauty, it’s the ugliness that disappears cause the beauty is victorious.
When you bring together everything that is good, true, beautiful, and living, then everything that is ugly, wrong, false, unjust, and ultimately dead is overcome. And so as the Messianic King, the Great High Priest, the last Prophet, the final Messianic Prophet, Priest, and King, Jesus’ death on the cross re-creates the whole creation.
It makes everything right. It’s the price that had to be paid. It was the price of perfect perfection, truth, love, goodness, forgiveness, mercy in a world that is ugly, wrong, sinful, twisted, perverted, and dead. And that’s why we are redeemed by the death of Jesus. That’s why His death is an expiation, a propitiation, a ransom.
That is why by His wounds we are healed. That is why God placed upon Him all the sins of the world, so that He could expiate them through His goodness, His righteousness, His truth, His beauty, His light. And that is why He is the Suffering Servant through whose wounds we are healed.
Not because God is some kind of Nebuchadnezzar who wants to torment us; not because God is some kind of a forensic, legalistic lawgiver who lay down the law and the only way we can somehow make everything right is get punished according to the law. No, the law of God is not legalistic in the Bible. The law of God is metaphysical.
There’s a law about how reality has to be. There’s a law about how the way things have to be, and that’s what has to be done. Jesus, through the cross, makes everything to be the way it has to be. But he can only do it by dying. He can only do it by suffering. He can only do it by forgiving those who kill him.
He can only do it being perfectly righteous in the most ugly, unrighteous condition that you can imagine. And this is the great mystery of the cross. And when that happens, then death is destroyed and live lives. And so Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death with His own death by which He ransoms us and pays the price.
And upon all those in the tombs who love Him and repent of their sins, He gives them everlasting life. This is the Pascha of the Lord. This is the great mystery of God hidden from the angels and made known to the Church.
It is the mystery of the suffering, crucified, dead Son of God who is God Himself in human form, who through that act makes everything right and puts everything back together again, so to speak, who makes everything to be the way God intended it to be from the beginning, who re-creates creation, who makes creation what God intended it to be from the moment He said let there be light.
It had to be this way, and this is the way it is. And the result of it is, Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death down by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing eternal, everlasting, divine life.