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Death as Victory

April 2, 2010

Christ’s death upon the Cross is not a failure which was put right afterwards by His Resurrection. In itself the death upon the Cross is a victory–the victory of suffering love. “Love is strong as death…Many waters cannot quench love” (Song of Songs 8:6-7).  The Cross shows us a love that is strong as death, a love that is even stronger.

St John introduces his account of the Last Supper and the Passion with these words: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1). “To the end”—the Greek says eis telos, meaning “to the last”, “to the uttermost”. And this word telos is taken up later in the final cry uttered by Christ on the Cross: “It is finished”, tetelestai(John 19:30). This is to be understood, not as a cry of resignation or despair, but as a cry of victory: It is completed, it is accomplished, it is fulfilled.
What has been fulfilled? We reply: The work of suffering love, the victory of love over hatred. Christ our God has loved his own to the uttermost. Because of love he created the world, because of love he was born into this world as a man, because of love he took up our broken humanity into himself and made it his own. Because of love he identified himself with all our distress. Because of love he offered himself as a sacrifice, choosing at Gethsemane to go voluntarily to his Passion: “I lay down my life for my sheep…No one lakes it from me, but I lay it down of myself (John 10:15,18). It was willing love, not exterior compulsion, that brought Jesus to his death. At his Agony in the garden and at his Crucifixion the forces of darkness assail him with all their violence, but they cannot change his compassion into hatred; they cannot prevent his love from continuing to be itself. His love is tested to the furthest point, hut it is not overwhelmed. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not swallowed it up” (John 1:5). To Christ’s victory upon the Cross we may apply the words spoken by a Russian priest on his release from prison camp: “Suffering has destroyed all things. One thing alone has stood firm—it is love.”
The Cross, understood as victory, sets before us the paradox of love’s omnipotence. Dostoevsky comes near to the true meaning of Christ’s victory in some statements which he puts into the mouth of Starets Zosima:
At some thoughts a man stands perplexed, above all at the sight of human sin, and he wonders whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide: “I will combat it by humble love.” If you resolve on that once for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it
Loving humility is a terrible force: whenever we give up anything or suffer anything, not with a sense of rebellious bitterness, but willingly and out of love, this makes us not weaker but stronger. So it is, above all, in the case of Jesus Christ. “His weakness was of strength”, says St Augustine. The power of God is shown, not so much in his creation of the world or in any of his miracles, but rather in the fact that out of love God has “emptied himself (Phil. 2:7), has poured himself out in generous self-giving, by his own free choice consenting to suffer and to die. And this self-emptying is a self-fulfillment: kenosis is plerosis. God is never so strong as when he is most weak.
Love and hatred are not merely subjective feelings, affecting the inward universe of those who experience them, but they are also objective forces, altering the world outside ourselves. By loving or hating another, I cause the other in some measure to become that which I see in him or her. Not for myself alone, but for the lives of all around me, my love is creative, just as my hatred is destructive. And if this is true of my love, it is true to an incomparably greater extent of Christ’s love. The victory of his suffering love upon the Cross does not merely set me an example, showing me what I myself may achieve if by my own efforts I imitate him. Much more than this, his suffering love has a creative effect upon me, trans forming my own heart and will, releasing me from bondage, making me whole, rendering it possible for me to love in a way that would lie altogether beyond my powers, had I not first been loved by him. Because in love he has identified himself with me, his victory is my victory. And so Christ’s death upon the Cross is truly, as the Liturgy of St Basil describes it, a “life-creating death”.
Christ’s suffering and death have, then, an objective value: he has done for us something we should be altogether incapable of doing without him. At the same time, we should not say that Christ has suffered “instead of us”, but rather that he has suffered on our behalf. The Son of God suffered “unto death”, not that we might be exempt from suffering, but that our suffering might be like his. Christ offers us, not a way round suffering, but a way through it; not substitution, but saving companionship.
Such is the value of Christ’s Cross for us. Taken closely In conjunction with the Incarnation and the Transfiguration which precede it, and with the Resurrection which follows it -for all these are inseparable parts of a single action or “drama” — the Crucifixion is to be understood as the supreme and perfect victory, sacrifice and example. And in each case the victory, sacrifice and example is that of suffering love. So we see in the Cross: the perfect victory of loving humility over hatred and fear; the perfect sacrifice or voluntary self-offering of loving compassion; the perfect example of love’s creative power. In the words of Julian of Norwich:

Wouldst thou learn thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was his meaning. Who showed it thee? Love. What showed he thee? Love. Wherefore showed it he? For Love. Hold thou therein and thou shall learn and know more in the same. But thou shall never know nor learn therein other thing without end. ..Then said our good Lord Jesus Christ: Art thou well pleased that I suffered for thee? I said: Yea, good Lord, I thank thee: Yea, good Lord, blessed mayst thou be. Then said Jesus, our kind Lord: If thou art pleased, I am pleased: it is a joy, a bliss, an endless satisfying to me that ever I suffered Passion for thee; and if I might suffer more, I would suffer more.

The Orthodox Way

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