Fall Reflects the Fall

Dear Friends in Christ,

Four years ago this month, Bishop Christodoulos came to Raleigh and served the first liturgy at the Chapel of St. Mark the Evangelist. A half a year later, I was ordained a priest, and our parish here in Greenville was also established.

At the liturgy, the bishop gave a sermon which certainly was not designed to remain in the confines of our comfort zones. Looking out the window of the chapel at the trees whose leaves were changing colors, whose green leaves were being replaced by gold, red, and orange hues, he remarked that we would not see the leaves change colors if Adam had not brought death into the world. Every time we see the leaves changing colors, we are seeing death and are confronted with the fall of man, he remarked.

While some remarked afterward (somewhat exaggeratedly!) that they would no longer be able to enjoy Autumn the same way again, the sermon impacted me in a profound way. I realized that something that many consider to be a great thing of beauty is actually tied to the greatest tragedy of man: bodily death. The Orthodox Church teaches that death was not established by God and is not a punishment afflicted on man, but rather is the direct consequence of man’s sinful nature and fall. Death reigned supreme through the ages, as we can see in the Old Testament, where everyone, whether righteous or evil, went to Hades (Sheol), a land of shadows and separation from life. To deliver us from this condition, Christ became incarnate, and after suffering on the Cross, he descended into Hades to liberate the captives and deliver them into the Heavens. The icon of the Resurrection depicts Christ pulling Adam and Eve out of their tombs, and death personified is crushed under his feet.

Yet this event took place 2000 years ago—how do we participate in it now? The Bible tells us:

Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection (Romans 6:3-5).

Just as all of us are born into this fallen world and are subject to death because of the actions of our forefather, so likewise though the actions of Christ can the effects of death be undone in us. To participate then, we must be born again; we cannot save ourselves by good works, since our nature is fundamentally damaged. The only remedy is a new birth: “Except a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Notice here that no distinction is made between belief and action, between spiritual and physical; one must place his faith in Christ, and he must be baptized in water, in order to be born again.

Baptism then is not a symbol as some non-Orthodox Churches teach, but an actual participation in the saving events of 2000 years ago. To see it as a mere symbol is to intellectualize it, to fundamentally shift the meaning of faith from participation in God’s very life to an internalized, mental acceptance of factual data. The important aspect becomes the acceptance of Christ, and all the events that follow such as baptism are seen as symbolic rituals that manifest a salvation already present. Baptism becomes an ordinance instead of a sacrament, something done out of obedience because Scripture says to do it, but which does not have any real intrinsic value.

In this latter model, salvation moves from being a process of restoration of the original nature of man and his transformation into a bearer of Divine Grace through participation in the Divine Mysteries of baptism, the Eucharist, marriage, anointing, etc. to the acceptance of Christ’s saving act as an internal, mental act, a surrender of the will, which then accounts the person “covered” by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross in an act reminiscent of a bank transaction. Such a man is still intrinsically a sinful being, ontologically the same, but now God the Father sees him through a different lens, as it were. Martin Luther once remarked rather crassly that man is like a pile of dung, only in Christ now this pile is covered by white snow. The Orthodox Church rejects this dim view of the effects of salvation and proclaims that through baptism and the other Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), we actually participate in God’s Grace and are transformed, not just accredited as being righteous while fundamentally remaining the same—getting off the hook for the consequences of our sins, but nothing more. (Of course, Western Christians believe in a sanctification process that happens after one is saved, but a contrast between this and the Orthodox view is outside the scope of this message).

Yet we still die physically, even after being baptized. How then should we view the fact that we are no longer under death’s hold? The answer is that now when we die, if we die in Christ, we enter a state of blessedness, awaiting the Last Judgment and the restoration of our bodies, at which point we will be able to enter the Heavenly glory fully. Having this hope in us, we no longer fear death, because it is a mere temporary separation, and we have the ability to live our lives boldly. The early Christians gladly accepted martyrdom, understanding that they would go to be with Christ, and not to the gloom of Hades. Those who die in Christ are still part of the Church, which as the Body of Christ exists in Heaven and on Earth. We are all one body, all are aware of each other and our prayers affect one another.

In this new reality, the changing leaves are no longer just a symbol of death, but point to the renewal that will come in Spring, when the green will return. Each spring is a mini-Resurrection, a restoration of life. The Fall and Winter no longer symbolize a descent into Hades, but rather a temporary rest. We can thus find beauty in something that was formerly horrific. We can see the aging process and reflect on the cycle of life without fear, knowing that all things will be restored.

If you are reading this message and have not placed your faith in Christ, or perhaps once believed but have fallen away, now is the time for you to return, so that when Spring arrives and we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, you can celebrate as well this new life. In my ministry, I have seen how conversion and baptism changes people’s lives, having performed numerous baptisms in my three years as a priest. Faith in Christ and the ensuing life of participation in the Grace-bearing sacraments of the Church can work the same transformation in you.

In Christ,
Fr. Anastasios