St. Athanasios contra James of the Northwest
Our Parish men's group has been reading On the Incarnation and have found it to be quite appropriate to the season. It is a great work, and those unfamiliar with it ought to put down whatever they are reading right now and get a copy (or read it online!) An interesting portion of the book though, I think I may disagree with...while recognizing that minds loftier and hearts holier than mine have tackled this issue on both sides, I brave to enter into the debate anyway. I once heard someone postulate that Christ needn't have died on the cross (as a sacrifice) but could have just as easily destroyed "death by death" by dying as we all might hope to do: a very old man in his sleep. Here is what St. Athanasios says:
"Well then," some people may say, "if the essential thing was that He should surrender His body to death in place of all, why did He not do so as Man privately, without going to the length of public crucifixion? Surely it would have been more suitable for Him to have laid aside His body with honor than to endure so shameful a death." But look at this argument closely, and see how merely human it is, whereas what the Savior did was truly divine and worthy of His Godhead for several reasons. The first is this. The death of men under ordinary circumstances is the result of their natural weakness. They are essentially impermanent, so after a time they fall ill and when worn out they die. But the Lord is not like that. He is not weak, He is the Power of God and Word of God and Very Life Itself. If He had died quietly in His bed like other men it would have looked as if He did so in accordance with His nature, and as though He was indeed no more than other men. But because He was Himself Word and Life and Power His body was made strong, and because the death had to be accomplished, He took the occasion of perfecting His sacrifice not from Himself, but from others. How could He fall sick, Who had healed others? Or how could that body weaken and fail by means of which others are made strong? Here, again, you may say, "Why did He not prevent death, as He did sickness?" Because it was precisely in order to be able to die that He had taken a body, and to prevent the death would have been to impede the resurrection. And as to the unsuitability of sickness for His body, as arguing weakness, you may say, "Did He then not hunger?" Yes, He hungered, because that was the property of His body, but He did not die of hunger because He Whose body hungered was the Lord. Similarly, though He died to ransom all, He did not see corruption. His body rose in perfect soundness, for it was the body of none other than the Life Himself.
Let me ask: at what point does Jesus' passion begin? I am of the opinion that it began at the moment of Incarnation...the conception of God. Certainly St. Paul reminds us in his epistle to the Phillipians that Jesus' humility is fundamentally expressed in this event. And in the incarnation, did not our Lord take upon Himself human nature - even in its weakness? If His body was subject to the scourging of Roman whips, or the piercing of iron spikes...would He not also be subject to the infection of viruses and bacteria? Would this not be apart of the lifelong passion? I guess I don't see the disconnect between death and sickness that St. Athanasios seems to be making here, on the contrary I perceive them to be inherently linked. And yes, He demonstrated His power over both and we know for certain that He allowed Himself (for a time) to be subject to death...why not sickness? He condescended to be subject to many things in Incarnating Himself: cold, heat, fatigue, the need for His mother's breastmilk, gravity...and yet paradoxically we recognize that He could in an instant reveal His mastership over all of these. But He didn't...just as He didn't call upon those legion of Angels which could have rescued Him from the aftermath of Judas' kiss.
What do you think?
UPDATE: Basil is tackling the issue in a couple of posts.
...offered by Dn. fdj, a sinner at 8:31 AM [+]