From Mud to Light – the Saving Work of Christ

Man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.
St. Gregory of Nyssa

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How do you create a God? How do you create a being that has true freedom, true love and thus, true existence?

This is obviously not an entirely rational question – but it is a serious question for Christian thought. For, as St. Gregory of Nyssa notes, the creation of man is more than the story in early Genesis. The creation stories of Genesis are only a prelude to the greater story fulfilled in Christ. In Christ, the mud has become light.

Freedom and love are necessary to true existence – at least true existence as made known in Jesus Christ. For things do not have existence in themselves – everything that exists does so because it is brought into being and sustained in its being by the good God who created it.  But to human beings a greater existence is gifted. In the Genesis account that gift is to exist “in the image and likeness of God.”

To exist as God exists – requires freedom. For if our existence is a requirement (if we must exist), then we are not free. We are simply here by someone else’s will and not our own. This is not the image and likeness of God. To exist in the image and likeness of God, we must be given the power to freely exist (or not exist).

Not only must we be able to exist freely – but true existence (such as God Himself has) – is not a purely self-referential matter. God exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The God Who freely exists, does so in love. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and so on. Met. John Zizioulas, following the thought of St. Basil the Great, notes that God “constitutes” His existence in the free act of love that is the very meaning of personhood.

To exist in the image and likeness of God, is to exist as person. We do this in a free act of love in which we give ourselves to the other, even as we accept the existence of the other.

This is much more thought than we usually give to words such as “exist,” and it gives shape to the phrase “image and likeness of God,” in such a manner as to rescue it from the dustbin of banality.

The Christian faith is the story of this creation – in the fullness of its telling.

St. Irenaeus (2nd century) described Adam and Eve as “adolescents.” They were not “perfect” in the sense of “complete.” They represent a beginning and an intention – but something that not only remained unfulfilled – but even something that had deviated from its intended path. From “mud commanded to become Gods,” they became beings unable to be truly human. Death and corruption mark their existence. The stories in Genesis include fratricide among their children. The early chapters of Genesis are not the record of a promising start – they are the record of the start of promises.

That promise begins with Eve, who is told that her “seed” will someday “bruise the head of the serpent.” On the most primitive level, the statement can mean as little as, “your offspring will hate snakes.” But in the ears of Christians it is a promise of the One to come who will destroy the bondage of death and the distorted path.

The story of man’s salvation, on the lips of Orthodox Christians, is not a tale of abstract theology. There is no offended justice and original sin, no theories of predetermined schemes and imputed goodness. There is the story of a movement from a rejected possibility to a realized divinity. God’s own entrance into the story is that of God become man so that man could become God. Christ, according to St. Paul, is the “second Adam.” He, in both His humanity and divinity, is both the promise and the fulfillment of the promise. And so, St. Paul describes the path of salvation as being “conformed to the image of Christ,” who is the “image of the invisible God.” This is the fulfillment of man created in the image and likeness of God. In the words of St. John Chrysostom:

It was [God] Who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away [He] raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until [He] had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with [His] kingdom which is to come.

This is the direct line of the work of God, the saving work of Christ. It is our “re-creation” in the image of God. But it is a story that requires our freedom and our love. For we cannot exist in His image, except we do so freely and with love. Our re-creation requires our cooperation.

Why didn’t God just create us the way He wanted without all of the suffering and death that continue to occur? Isn’t this a cruel creation?

Our suffering and death are the story of Adam lived in each of us. “In the day you eat of it you will surely die”…and we do. But our suffering and death are also the path of our freedom and love. The true Image of God takes up the same path of suffering and death and transforms what would otherwise be tragedy into the victory of Pascha. This is the true story of Adam. God became man so that man could become God.

The harshest judgment of this story comes from the lips of Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s greatest novel.

And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price….  They have put too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.

Ivan’s poignant description of suffering children is perhaps the most effective argument ever offered against the love of God. Is the journey from mud to God worth the suffering of children? Can true existence in freedom and love be worth such a price?

I’m not certain that any rational answer is sufficient. I do understand that Christ has made the suffering of children (and of us all) His own. “In the day you eat of it you will surely die,” can also be stated, “In the day you eat of it innocent children will suffer.” And the most innocent of children takes His place on the Cross precisely in the midst of that suffering. “Let the little children come to me,” He says – for He has come for them.

Like Ivan, we can refuse the ticket. We can declare that the innocent suffering of even a single child is not worth all the journeys from mud to deification. But we are told in the larger Christian story that the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth.” The suffering of that single child, and of every child (and us all), is clearly foreseen in God’s creation. Our path towards suffering and death comes as no surprise. Apparently there can be no freedom and love in creation that does not embrace that path. And yet God says, “Let there be light.” It is not only the proclamation of the beginning of creation, but a declaration of its end – for the mud becomes light.

But how can we weigh the price? God has weighed it and found it worth the price (a price He Himself has paid). The great Russian saint, Seraphim Sarovsky, once said:

Oh, if you only knew what joy, what sweetness awaits a righteous soul in Heaven! You would decide in this mortal life to bear any sorrows, persecutions and slander with gratitude. If this very cell of ours was filled with worms, and these worms were to eat our flesh for our entire life on earth, we should agree to it with total desire, in order not to lose, by any chance, that heavenly joy which God has prepared for those who love Him.

I accept his witness and hold it in wonder. What must it mean, to exist truly, in freedom and in love, as God Himself exists? For what possible joy would a good God create us, though the path to that joy be marked both by our own and His own great suffering? We are told that Christ went to the Cross “for the joy set before Him.”

I cannot imagine. But I accept the ticket.