“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
C. S. Lewis.
In this article we encircle the cross with a few of the church fathers. We follow the wise counsel of Lewis by giving ear to the past. We stand between Justin Martyr and Cyril of Jerusalem. Listen for a few moments to Augustine and Irenaeus and Gregory.
These fathers tell us how Good Friday was foreshadowed long before. They speak of the mystery of the cross.
Why, Justin Martyr, is Jesus nailed to wood?
“Elisha threw a piece of wood into the stream of the Jordan. By this means, he retrieved from the water the iron of the axe with which the sons of the prophets wished to cut the wood to build their house. So our Christ has ransomed us at Baptism from our heaviest sins by His crucifixion on the wood and Baptism in the water,” Dialogue with Trypho.
In this article we encircle the cross with a few of the church fathers.
Why, Irenaeus, is Jesus dying on a Friday, the 6th day?
“It is plain then that the Lord, in obedience to the Father, endured death on the same day in which Adam died, disobeying God. This day accordingly our Lord would go over again with the rest in his own person, and so came to his Passion on the day before the Sabbath, which is the sixth day of creation, on which man was formed: by his Passion conferring on man a second formation, that which is out of death.” Against the Heretics.
Tell us, Cyril of Jerusalem, is this the Tree of Life?
“Although to Adam it was said, ‘For the day you eat of it, you must die,’ today you have been faithful. Today will bring you salvation. The tree brought ruin to Adam; the tree [of life] shall bring you into paradise. Fear not the serpent; he shall not cast you out, for he has fallen from heaven. I say not to you, ‘This day you shall depart,’ but ‘This day you shall be with Me.’” Catechetical Lectures.
How is this cross, Gregory of Nyssa, prefigured in Isaac?
“The whole mystery of faith can be seen in the story of Isaac. The lamb is fixed to the tree, suspended by its horns: the first-born carried upon him the wood for the sacrifice. He, then, who upholds the universe by the word of his power, is the same who bears the burden of our wood, and is hung up on the wood, upholding as God, and carried as the lamb, the Holy Spirit having in figure divided the mystery between the two, the only son and the lamb who appears at his side. In the lamb is revealed the mystery of death and in the only son the life which will never be cut short.” Homilies on the Resurrection.
How, Gregory of Elvira, is his blood foreshadowed by Rahab’s scarlet thread?
“Rahab, who is a type of the Church, suspended the scarlet thread from her window as a sign of salvation, to show that the nations would be saved through the Lord’s Passion. Just as the house of Rahab and all those with her were saved through the scarlet sign when Jericho was destroyed and burnt and its king, a type of the devil, slain, so when this world is destroyed by fire and the devil who now has dominion over the world is overthrown, no one will be preserved for eternal salvation if he is not found inside the house of the Church which is marked with the scarlet sign, that is, with the blood of Christ.” Tractatus 139.
What, Augustine, is the mystery of the blood and water that flow from his side?
“For at the beginning of the human race the woman was made of a rib taken from the side of man while he slept; for it seemed fit that even then Christ and his Church should be foreshadowed in this event. For that sleep of the man was the death of Christ, whose side, as he hung lifeless upon the cross, was pierced with a spear, and there flowed from it blood and water, and these we know to be the sacraments by which the Church is ‘built up.’” City of God.
Tell us, Melito of Sardis, how is Jesus the Passover?
“Come here all you families of men, weighed down by your sins, and receive pardon for your misdeeds.
For I am your pardon.
I am the Passover which brings salvation.
I am the Lamb slain for you.
I am your lustral bath.
I am your life.
I am your resurrection.
I am your light, I am your salvation, I am your King.
It is I who brings you up to the heights of heaven.
It is I who will give you the resurrection there.
I will show you the Eternal Father.
I will raise you up with my own right hand.”
Homily on the Pascha.
What do these drops of blood do for us, Gregory of Nazianzus?
“Many indeed are the wondrous happenings of that time: God hanging from a Cross, the sun made dark, and again flaming out; for it was fitting that creation should mourn with its Creator. The temple veil rent, blood and water flowing from his side: the one as from a man, the other as from what was above man; the earth was shaken, the rocks shattered because of the Rock; the dead risen to bear witness of the final and universal resurrection of the dead. The happenings at the sepulchre, and after the sepulchre, who can fittingly recount them? Yet not one of them can be compared to the miracle of my salvation. A few drops of blood renew the whole world, and do for all men what the rennet does for milk: joining us and binding us together." On the Holy Pascha II.
Finally, Ephrem, how could this man be both divine and human?
If he was not flesh, whom did the Jews arrest? And if he was not God, who gave an order to the earth and threw them onto their faces.
If he was not flesh, who was struck with a blow? And if he was not God, who cured the ear that had been cut off by Peter and restored it to its place?
If he was not flesh, who received spitting on his face? And if he was not God, who breathed the Holy Spirit into the faces of his Apostles?
If he was not flesh, who stood before Pilate at the judgement seat? And if he was not God, who made Pilate’s wife afraid by a dream?
If he was not flesh, whose garments did the soldiers strip off and divide? And if he was not God, how was the sun darkened at the cross?
If he was not flesh, who was hung on the cross? And if he was not God, who shook the earth from its foundations?
If he was not flesh, whose hands and feet were transfixed by nails? And if he was not God, how was the veil of the temple rent, the rocks broken and the graves opened?
If he was not flesh, who cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me”? And if he was not God, who said “Father, forgive them”?
If he was not flesh, who was hung on a cross with the thieves? And if he was not God, how did he say to the thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”?
If he was not flesh, to whom did they offer vinegar and gall? And if he was not God, on hearing whose voice did Hades tremble?
If he was not flesh, whose side did the lance pierce, and blood and water came out? And if he was not God, who smashed to gates of Hades and tear apart it bonds? And at whose command did the imprisoned dead come out?
If he was not flesh, whom did the Apostles see in the upper room? And if he was not God, how did he enter when the doors were shut?
If he was not flesh, the marks of the nails and the lance in whose hands and side did Thomas handle? And if he was not God, to whom did he cry out, “My Lord and my God”?
Sermon on the Transfiguration