On the Incarnation of the Word 21 – Why Death on the Cross?

I like the way Athanasius describes the way we no longer die the death as we once did in the opening of this section.

For like the seeds which are cast into the earth, we do not perish by dissolution, but sown in the earth, shall rise again, death having been brought to nought by the grace of the Saviour.

I think many of us are sufficiently culturally removed, though, that we miss the critical import of the primary question he is addressing here.

Why, then, one might say, if it were necessary for Him to yield up His body to death in the stead of all, did He not lay it aside as man privately, instead of going as far as even to be crucified? For it were more fitting for Him to have laid His body aside honourably, than ignominiously to endure a death like this.

The cross was the most painful and shameful means of execution in that part of the ancient world. Our modern American culture is also not at its core an honor/shame society. The cross stripped those on it of all honor and rendered them almost subhuman, at least as it was generally perceived. Athanasius had to address not just why the union of natures in the Incarnation was essential and that Christ had to die to defeat death, he had to explain why that death, the death on the Cross.

Athanasius addresses that question rather like an onion as he peels back the layers. Christ could not simply die from age or disease or other weakness. For example, he could be hungry and weak from hunger, but he couldn’t die from hunger. Moreover, if he had simply died on his own, he would have appeared no different from other men in his death. He had to die at the hands of other men and his confrontation of the Powers and their abuse, failure to love, and failure to fulfill their function as ordained by God made such an end all but inevitable.

Why, then, did He not prevent death, as He did sickness? Because it was for this that He had the body, and it was unfitting to prevent it, lest the Resurrection also should be hindered, while yet it was equally unfitting for sickness to precede His death, lest it should be thought weakness on the part of Him that was in the body. Did He not then hunger? Yes; He hungered, agreeably to the properties of His body. But He did not perish of hunger, because of the Lord that wore it. Hence, even if He died to ransom all, yet He saw not corruption. For [His body] rose again in perfect soundness, since the body belonged to none other, but to the very Life.

Even so, Jesus could have prevented his death on the Cross. Nobody could take his life from him. He relinquished it voluntarily. Scripture, of course, is clear about that. Athanasius re-emphasizes it.

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