Imagine that you have been shackled with chains on your ankles. The chains are heavy, make a lot of noise, and make it impossible for you to run. You cannot successfully climb over anything or dance. The chains are heavy enough that you quickly become exhausted and are limited in the things you can do and for how long you can do them. Imagine that not only are you shackled, but so is everyone around you. Some only have light handcuffs, while others are almost immobile with the chains they bear. Some have these terrible devices on their heads that make it impossible for them to turn their heads. This, of course, makes for very great problems in the culture you live in. For one, bicycles are not very popular. Sports are extremely limited. Clothes are primarily zippered things. There are laws about the chains and devices. Recently, it has even become illegal to discuss the chains, so that no one is embarrassed. There are even discussions and academic papers about the chains. There are fads in which the chains are painted various colors, or even have bells attached to them. There are clubs.
This is an analogy for sin. We did not invent the chains. They get there in various ways. Some are even born with them. Others have more chains added by parents and neighbors, etc. Over the years, we do add some chains ourselves. Our behavior adapts to the chains – over that we have very little choice. But, please note, we are not our chains. The chains may affect us, but we do not become the chains. They may affect us so deeply that we completely organize our lives around the limitations they impose. But the limitations and the chains are still not us.
Many people like to discuss the origin of the chains. Who were the first to have them? Was it their fault? Is it our fault? In truth, it’s largely a moot point. We have the chains and many of them are clearly not our fault. It’s true that my chains slow me down and I trip over them a lot. Perhaps if I were more careful…
I wrote earlier that “you are not your sin.” Neither are you your chains. Are you responsible? Sure, in some way. Are you free? There is still mobility, but nothing like complete freedom. Try riding a bike or swimming with leg irons. Responsibility means staying off the bike and out of the water. But that’s not really the same thing as freedom, is it?
The New Testament not infrequently uses the term “bondage” to describe our sinful condition. The chains are a picture of what bondage looks like. Many people speak of sin as though it were something else, as though we were a group of people who willingly chose to act as though they had chains but are, in fact, actually free. So, all of the chain-driven behavior is really only a choice. It’s your fault…entirely.
Jesus sets us free from our bondage. That is the clear teaching and meaning of His Pascha. He descends into the origin of our bondage, the bondage capital of the universe (Hades), and binds the “strongman.” And He sets at liberty those who were in bondage:
He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended “– what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) (Eph. 4:8-10)
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Heb 2:14-15)
For the creation was subjected to frustration, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Rom 8:20-21)
I am not trying to develop some complete scenario of judgment, heaven and hell. However, sin as bondage and Christ as the destroyer of bonds is an essential NT image and at the very heart of the Church’s understanding of His Pascha. For those working within the metaphors and images of the legal/forensic world, Pascha is about a payment or an appeasement (propitiation) offered to the Father, freeing us from the righteous penalties of sin (which is understood as breaking the bonds of sin-debt).
Hidden within the legal/forensic image, however, is a false notion of human beings and their freedom of choice and action. The “bondage” in that imagery is a self-imposed burden that we deserve because we have broken the Law and owe a debt. We deserve it because we could have done differently. Our “chains” of entirely of our own making. It is argued, as well, that this concept of freedom and responsibility are absolutely essential to what it means to be a person.
What I think has taken place in the thoughts of many, is a transfer of the legal/forensic version of what it means to be human into the more Orthodox narrative of Pascha. It creates a very confused account that does not really make sense.
What does it mean to be a person? Most moderns assume that “personhood” is the correct way to describe the state of any individual. Each individual is a person, created in the image of God. Inherent to personhood, in this understanding, is freedom. If there is no freedom, then there is no true personhood. But, again, the modern consciousness has a false understanding of persons and presumes many things that are simply not true.
Human beings are not the utterly free agents imagined by modernity. The Tradition does not describe us as existing in a fullness of personhood. The language and understanding of what it means to be a person is rooted in the discussion and doctrine of the persons of the Holy Trinity, and the person of Christ as the God/Man. It is not rooted in what we experience and know to be the present case for human beings.
Indeed, the patristic consensus is that human beings are created according to the “image” of God, but that we fail to fulfill the “likeness.” Expressed in a variety of ways, it is understood in the Orthodox Church, that human beings, created to be fully personal in the image and likeness of Christ, are not yet fully personal and in the image and likeness. Personhood is the end for which we are created, not the place from which we all begin. And personhood is not properly defined as merely a mode of existence that entails freedom. The image according to which we were created is the Crucified Christ (the Lamb was slain “from the foundation of the world”). The Crucified Christ is the image revealed to us of the Person of Christ as self-emptying love. True Personhood does not merely exist as freedom, it is freedom as self-emptying love. It is always freedom-for-the-Other.
We live a shackled existence. Some are far more bound than others. This is not to say that we have no freedom, or that we are not responsible for what we do with the freedom we have. But our “range of motion” is greatly restricted. We are hampered such that we frequently fall and take missteps. What is shackled in our existence?
St. John of Damascus notes: For either man is an irrational being, or, if he is rational, he is master of his acts and endowed with free-will. (Exact Exposition, XXVII).
The Fathers are quite clear, however, that our nous is darkened. We do not see clearly and our reason is impaired. We do not see God or perceive Him as we ought, nor do we see the good clearly as we ought. Our reason is shackled.
In the same manner, our will is shackled. We do not hold an insane person to be responsible if they commit suicide. The daily suicide of us all is frequently just as much a matter of something beyond our responsibility. Again, we are certainly responsible, but we are also insane. There are very good reasons that we ask for forgiveness for things we have done, “both voluntary and involuntary.” That is simply the state of our present condition.
And it is this shackled existence of bondage that Christ destroys in His Pascha. It is His deliverance that forms the bulk of our hymnography within the Paschal Triduum. Of course, it is reasonable to ask why it is we still behave as we do if Christ has set us free from bondage.
The answer is simple: that victory has not yet been made manifest in its fullness. We are not yet as we shall be. We are not yet as fully free as we shall be, nor are we yet the persons that we shall be. And though the victory has begun within our lives, we “do not yet see all things under Jesus’ feet.” But for those who see Christ’s victory, the celebration has already begun, for they see the assurance of the promise that has been made to us:
“We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”