St. Irenaeus was perhaps the first to suggest that the creation of man was a “project.” “Let us make man in our own image,” is strikingly different from “Let there be man!” And the project goes wrong from the beginning. Rather than becoming fully what he is created to be, man breaks communion with God and brings death upon himself. The first time we hear, “It is not good,” is spoken of God in reference to man. This describes the most fundamental existential experience of human beings: something is wrong.
The answer to what is wrong (including “it’s all in your imagination”) lies at the heart of every religious effort. Christ reveals that what is wrong is death. He shows death to be an enemy and not just the natural end to a natural life. He reveals that sin is simply the outworking of death in human life. But most importantly, by His voluntary suffering and death and through His resurrection, He transforms death. That which is rightly named the “Last Enemy,” becomes the means of redemption and life.
In Christian teaching, death is changed into a positive, the very image of redemption.
I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. (1Cor. 15:31 NKJ)
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24-25 NKJ)
From the lives of the martyrs, to the lives of the great ascetics, the image of the Christian life is death. We sign ourselves with the Cross and wear it as jewelry. It is the image of death – death that has been transformed into the means of life.
Understanding this lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. We are blessed to have a new volume that richly explores this theme, Fr. John Behr’s, Becoming Human. It is a small book, whose text is interrupted frequently with poetry, sayings and art. Fr. John explained to me last year before its publication that his intention was to break the flow of text and invite the reader to different engagements with what is being said.
The book drives relentlessly and creatively towards the goal of our full humanity. It is Christ’s Pascha that reveals the meaning of our creation “in the image and likeness of God,” and it is Christ Himself who fulfills what the First Adam was unable to do. Christ’s words, “It is finished,” mark the true completion of the “human project” (Fr. John’s words), His resting in death, the true Sabbath.
On the personal level, Fr. John’s writing represent a beautiful presentation of something I already knew, but like every true presentation of the gospel, made it new and fresh. It also carries the gospel to the very point of death itself, and reminds me that my own death, if lived every day, is the opportunity not for the Last Enemy to destroy me, but for my own humanity to be truly fulfilled.
For it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.