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Friday, January 19, 2007

The "Immortality" of the soul (Part 4 & Final)

"And Life Everlasting."

There is an inevitable tension in the Christian conception between "the given" and "the expected." Christians look "for the Life of the world to come," but they are no less aware of the, Life that had already come: "for the Life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal Life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us" (1 John 1:2). This is not only a tension in time, — between the past, and the present, and the future. It is a tension between destiny and decision. Or perhaps one may say: Life Eternal is offered to Man, but he has to receive it. For individuals, fulfillment of "destiny" depends upon the "decision of faith," which is not an "acknowledgment" only, but a willing "participation." The Christian life is initiated with a new birth, by water and the Spirit. And first, "repentance" is required, i metania, an inner change, intimate and resolute.

The Mystery of Baptism.

The symbolism of Holy Baptism is complex and manifold. But above all it is a symbolism of death and resurrection, of Christ's death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4). It is a sacramental resurrection with Christ, by the participation in His death, a rising up with Him and in Him to a new and eternal life (Col. 2:12; Phil. 3:10). Christians are corresurrected with Christ precisely through burial: "for if we be dead with Him, we shall also live with Him" (2 Tim. 2:11). Christ is the Second Adam, but men must be born anew and be incorporated into Him, in order to partake of that new life which is His. St. Paul spoke of a "likeness" unto the death of Christ (Rom. 6:5, simfyti … to omiomati tu thanatu avtu). But-this "likeness" means much more than a resemblance. It is more than a mere sign or recollection. The meaning of this likeness for St. Paul himself was that in each of us Christ can and must be "formed" (Gal. 4:19). Christ is the Head, all believers are His members, and His life is actualized in them. This is the mystery of the Whole Christ, — totus Christus, Caput et Corpus. All are called and every one is capable of believing, and of being quickened by faith and baptism so as to live in Him. Baptism is therefore a "regeneration," an anagenesis, a new, spiritual and charismatic birth. As Cabasilas says, Baptism is the cause of a beatific life in Christ, not merely of life (De vita in Christo II, 95).

St. Cyril of Jerusalem in a lucid manner explains the true reality of all baptismal symbolism. It is true, he says, that in the baptismal font we die (and are buried) only "in imitation," only, as it were, "symbolically," dia symvolu, and we do not rise from a real grave. And yet, "if the imitation is in an image, the salvation is in very truth." For Christ was really crucified and buried, and actually rose from the grave. The Greek word is ondos. It is even stronger than simply alithos, "in very truth." It emphasizes the ultimate meaning of Christ's death and resurrection. It was a new achievement. Hence He gave us the chance, by "imitative" sharing of His Passion (ti mimisi … kinonisandes), to acquire salvation "in reality." It is not only an "imitation," but a "similitude," to omioma. "Christ was crucified and buried in reality, but to you it is given to be crucified, buried, and raised with Him in similitude." In other words, in baptism man descends "sacramentally" into the darkness of death, and yet with the Risen Lord he rises again and crosses over from death to life. "And the image is completed all upon you, for you are an image of Christ," concludes St. Cyril. In other words, all are held together by and in Christ; hence the very possibility of a sacramental "resemblance" (Mystag. 2.4-5, 7; 3.1).

St. Gregory of Nyssa dwells on the same point. There are two aspects in baptism. Baptism is a birth and a death. Natural birth is the beginning of a mortal existence, which begins and ends in corruption. Another, a new birth, had to be discovered, which would initiate into everlasting life. In baptism "the presence of a Divine power transforms what is born with a corruptible nature into a state of incorruption" (Orat. cat., 33). It is transformed through following and imitating; and thus what was foreshown by the Lord is realized. Only by following after Christ can one pass through the labyrinth of life and come out of it. "For I call the inescapable guard of death, in which sorrowing mankind is imprisoned, a labyrinth." Christ escaped from this after the three days of death. In the baptismal font "the imitation of all that He has done is accomplished." Death is "represented" in the element of water. And as Christ rose again to life, so also the newly-baptized, united with Him in bodily nature," does "imitate the resurrection on the third day." This is just an "imitation," mimisis, and not "identity." In baptism man is not actually raised, but only freed from natural evil and the inescapability of death. In him the "continuity of vice" is cut off. He is not resurrected for he does not die, but remains still in this life. Baptism only foreshadows the resurrection; in baptism one anticipates the grace of the final resurrection. Baptism is the start, arhi, and the resurrection is the end and consummation, peras; and all that takes place in the great Resurrection already has its beginnings and causes in baptism. One may say, baptism is an "Homiomatic resurrection" (Orat. cat., 35). It must be pointed out that St. Gregory specially emphasized the need of keeping and holding fast the baptismal grace. For in baptism it is not nature only, but the will as well, that is transformed and transfigured, remaining free throughout. And if the soul is not cleansed and purified in the free exercise of will, baptism proves to be fruitless. The transfiguration is not actualized, the new life is not yet consummated. This does not subordinate baptismal grace to human license; Grace does indeed descend.

Yet it can never be forced upon any one who is free and made in the image of God: it must be responded to and corroborated by the synergism of love and will. Grace does not quicken and enliven the closed and obstinate souls, the really "dead souls." Response and co6peration are required (c. 40). That is just because baptism is a sacramental dying with Christ, a participation in His voluntary death, in His sacrificial love; and this can be accomplished only in freedom. Thus in baptism the death of Christ on the Cross is reflected or portrayed as in a living and sacramental image. Baptism is at once a death and a birth, a burial and a "bath of regeneration," lutron tis palingenesias: "a time of death and a time of birth," to quote St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Mystag. II, 4).

The Mystery of Communion.

The same is true of all sacraments. All sacraments are instituted just in order to enable the faithful "to participate" in Christ's redeeming death and to gain thereby the grace of His resurrection. In sacraments the uniqueness and universality of Christ's victory and sacrifice are brought forward and emphasized. This was the main idea of Nicolas Cabasilas in his treatise On the Life in Christ, in which the whole sacramental doctrine of the Eastern Church was admirably summarized. "We are baptized just in order to die by His death and to rise by His resurrection. We are anointed with the chrism that we may partake of His kingly anointment of deification (theosis). And when we are fed with the most sacred Bread and do drink the most Divine Cup, we do partake of the same flesh and the same blood our Lord has assumed, and so we are united with Him, Who was for us incarnate, and died, and rose again ... Baptism is a birth, and Chrism is the cause of acts and movements, and the Bread of life and the Cup of thanksgivings, are the true food and the true drink" (De vita II, 3,4,6, etc.).

In the whole sacramental life of the Church the Cross and the Resurrection are "imitated" and reflected in manifold symbols. All that symbolism is realistic. The symbols do not merely remind us of something in the past, something which has passed away. That which took place "in the past" was a beginning of "the Everlasting." Under all these sacred "symbols," and in them, the ultimate Reality is in very truth disclosed and conveyed. This hieratic symbolism culminates in the august Mystery of the Holy Altar. The Eucharist is the heart of the Church, the Sacrament of Redemption in an eminent sense. It is more than an "imitation," or mere "commemoration. It is Reality itself, at once veiled and disclosed in the Sacrament. It is "the perfect and ultimate Sacrament" (to televteon mystirion), as Cabasilas says, "and one cannot go further, and there is nothing to be added." It is the "limit of life," zois to peras. "After the Eucharist there is nothing more to long for, but we have to stay here and learn how we can preserve this treasure up to the end" (De vita IV, i,4,15). The Eucharist is the Last Supper itself, enacted, as it were, again and again, and yet not repeated. For every new celebration does not only "represent," but truly is the same "Mystical Supper" which was celebrated for the first time (and for ever) by the Divine High Priest Himself, as a voluntary anticipation and initiation of the Sacrifice of the Cross. And the true Celebrant of each Eucharist is always Christ Himself.

St. John Chrysostom was quite emphatic on this point. "Believe, therefore, that even now, it is that Supper, at which He Himself sat down. For this one is in no respect different from that one" (In Matt., hom. 50,3). "He that then did these things at that Supper, this same now also works them. We hold the rank of ministers. He who sanctifieth and changeth them is the Same. This table is the same as that, and hath nothing less. For it is not that Christ wrought that, and man this, but He doth this too. This is that Upper Chamber, where they were then" (Ibid., hom. 82,5). All this is of primary importance. The Last Supper was an offering of the sacrifice, of the sacrifice of the Cross. The offering is still continued. Christ is still acting as the High Priest in His Church. The Mystery is all the same, and the Priest is the same, and the Table is one. To quote Cabasilas once more: "In offering and sacrificing Himself once for all, He did not cease from His Priesthood, but He exercises this perpetual ministry for us, in which He is our advocate with God for ever" (Explan. div. liturg., c. 23). And the resurrecting power and significance of Christ's death are in the Eucharist made manifest in full.

It is "the medicine of immortality and an antidote that we should not die but live for ever in Jesus Christ," to quote the famous phrase of St. Ignatius (Ephes., 20.2: farmakon athanasias, antidotos tu mi apothanin, alla zin en Iisu Hristo). It is "the heavenly Bread and the Cup of life." This tremendous Sacrament is for the faithful the very "Betrothal of the Life Eternal," just because Christ's death itself was the Victory and the Resurrection. In the Eucharist the beginning and the end are linked together: the memories of the Gospel and the prophecies of the Revelation. It is a sacramentum futuri because it is an anamnesis of the Cross. The Eucharist is a sacramental anticipation, a foretaste of the Resurrection, an "image of the Resurrection" (o typos tis anastaseos, — the phrase is from the consecration prayer of St. Basil). It is but an "image," not because it is a mere sign, but because the history of Salvation is still going on, and one has to look forward, "to look for the life of the age to come."


Christians, as Christians, are not committed to any philosophical doctrine of immortality. But they are committed to the belief in the General Resurrection. Man is a creature. His very existence is the grant of God. His very existence is contingent. He exists by the grace of God. But God created Man for existence, i.e., for an eternal destiny. This destiny can be achieved and consummated only in communion with God. A broken communion frustrates human existence, and yet Man does not cease to exist. Man's death and mortality is the sign of the broken communion, the sign of Man's isolation, of his estrangement from the source and the goal of his existence. And yet the creative fiat continues to operate. In the Incarnation communion is restored. Life is manifested afresh in the shadow of death. The Incarnate is the Life and the Resurrection. The Incarnate is the Conqueror of death and Hades. And He is the First-fruit of the New Creation, the First-fruit of all those who slept. The physical death of men is not just an irrelevant "natural phenomenon," but rather an ominous sign of the original tragedy. An "immortality" of disembodied "souls" would not solve the human problem. And "immortality" in a Godless world, an "immortality" without God or "outside God," would be an eternal doom. Christians, as Christians, aspire to something greater than a "natural" immortality. They aspire to an everlasting communion with God, or, to use the startling phrase of the early Fathers, to a theosis.

There is nothing "naturalistic" or pantheistic about the term. Theosis means no more than an intimate communion of human persons with the Living God. To be with God means to dwell in Him and to share His perfection. "Then the Son of God became the son of man, that man also might become the son of God" (St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. III, 10.2). In Him man is forever united with God. In Him we have Life Eternal. "But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Cor. 3:18). And, at the close, for the whole creation the "Blessed Sabbath," the very "Day of rest," the mysterious "Seventh day of creation," will be inaugurated, in the General Resurrection and in "the World to come."

-Archpriest G. Florovsky


Anonymous said...

Interesting that he chose the seventh day, the sabbath tomb of Holy Saturday, when others speak of the eighth, the sabbath of sabbaths.

Ben said...

Thanks for posting the Florovsky!!

Are there any recently published reprints of his works? I would love to find a copy.

Lots of good Florovsky articles mixed in here.

Ben said...

Here is a nice printable PDF of "Immortality of the Soul".

Ben said...

Oh... and one last thing, for an interesing Western perspective, see Ratzinger's book on the question of immortality and eschatology, Eschatology, Death and Eternal Life: Dogmatic Theology vol 9.