Feast of the Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian
IN SEPARATION from God human nature becomes unsettled, goes out of tune, as it were, is decomposed. The very structure of man becomes unstable. The unity of the soul and the body becomes insecure. The soul loses its vital power, is no more able to quicken the body. The body is turned into the tomb and prison of the soul. And physical death becomes inevitable. The body and the soul are no longer, as it were, secured or adjusted to each other. The transgression of the commandment ‘reinstated man in the state of nature,’ says St. Athanasius, ‘that as he was made out of nothing, so also in his very existence he suffered in due time corruption according to all justice.’ For, being made out of nothing, the creature also exists over an abyss of nothingness, ever ready to fall into it. The created nature, St. Athanasius says, is mortal and firm, ‘flowing and liable to decomposition.’ And it is only saved from this ‘natural corruption’ by the power of heavenly Grace, ‘by the indwelling of the Word.’ Thus separation from God leads the creature to decomposition and disintegration.’ ‘For we must needs die, and are as water spilt on the ground which cannot be gathered up again’ (2 Sam. 14.14).
In Christian experience death is first revealed as a deep tragedy, as a painful metaphysical catastrophe, as a mysterious failure of human destiny. For death is not a normal end of human existence. Just the contrary. Man’s death is abnormal, is a failure. God did not create death; He created man for incorruption and true being, that we ‘might have being’ (cf. Wisdom 6.18 and 2.23). The death of man is the ‘wages of sin’ (Rom. 6.23). It is a loss and corruption. And since the Fall the mystery of life is displaced by the mystery of death. What does it mean for a man to die? What is actually dying is obviously the body, for only the body is mortal and we speak of the ‘immortal’ soul. In current philosophies nowadays, the ‘immortality of the soul’ is emphasized to such an extent that the ‘mortality of man’ is almost overlooked. In death this external, visible, and earthly bodily existence ceases. But yet, by some prophetic instinct, we say that it is ‘the man’ who dies. For death surely breaks up human existence, although, admittedly, the human soul is ‘immortal,’ and personality is indestructible. Thus the question of death is first the question of the human body, of the corporeality of man. And Christianity proclaims not only the after-life of the immortal soul, but also the resurrection of the body. Man became mortal in the Fall, and actually dies. And the death of man becomes a cosmic catastrophe. For in the dying man, nature loses its immortal center, and itself, as it were, dies in man. Man was taken from nature, being made of the dust of the earth. But in a way he was taken out of nature because God breathed into him the breath of life. St. Gregory of Nyssa comments on the narrative of Genesis in this way. ‘For God, it says, taking dust from the earth, fashioned man and by His own breath planted life in the creature which He formed, in order that the earthly element might be raised by union with the Divine, and so the Divine grace in one even course might uniformly extend through all creation, the lower nature being mingled with that which is above the world.’ . . . . Man is a sort of ‘microcosm,’ every kind of life is combined in him, and in him only the whole world comes into contact with God. Consequently man’s apostasy estranges the whole creation from God, devastates it, and, as it were, deprives it of God. The Fall of man shatters the cosmic harmony. Sin is disorder, discord, lawlessness. [. . .] With the fall of man, mortality, even in nature, assumes an evil and tragic significance. Nature itself, as it were, is poisoned by the fatal venom of human decomposition. With dumb animals, death is but the discontinuation of individual existence. In the human world, death strikes at personality, and personality is much greater than mere individuality. It is the body that becomes corruptible and liable to death through sin. Only the body can disintegrate. Yet it is not the body that dies, but the whole man. For man is organically composed of body and soul. Neither soul nor body separately represents man. A body without a soul is but a corpse, and a soul without a body is a ghost. Man is not a ghost sans-corpse, and corpse is not a part of man. Man is not a ‘bodiless demon,’ simply confined in the prison of the body. Mysterious as the union of soul and body indeed is, the immediate consciousness of man witnesses to the organic wholeness of his psycho-physical structure. This organic wholeness of human composition was from the very beginning strongly emphasized by all Christian teachers. That is why the separation of soul and body is the death of the man himself, the discontinuation of his existence, of wholeness, i.e. of his existence as a man. Consequently death and the corruption of the body are a sort of fading away of the ‘image of God’ in man. St. John Damascene, in one of his glorious anthems in the Burial Service, says of this: ‘I weep and I lament, when I contemplate death, and see our beauty, fashioned after the image of God, lying in the tomb disfigured, dishonored, bereft of form.’ St. John speaks not of man’s body, but of man himself. ‘Our beauty in the image of God,’ this is not the body, but man. He is indeed an ‘image of the unfathomable glory’ of God, even when wounded by sin. And in death it is disclosed that man, this ‘reasonable statue’ fashioned by God, to use the phrase of St. Methodius, is but a corpse. ‘Man is but dry bones, a stench and the food of worms.’ This is the riddle and the mystery of death. ‘Death is a mystery indeed: for the soul by violence is severed from the body, is separated, by the Divine will, from the natural connection and composition. . . . O marvel! Why have we been given over unto corruption, and why have we been wedded unto death?’ In the fear of death, often so petty and faint-hearted, there is revealed a profound metaphysical alarm, not merely a sinful attachment to the earthly flesh. In the fear of death the pathos of human wholeness is manifested. The Fathers used to see in the unity of soul and body in man an analogy of the indivisible unity of two natures in the unique hypostasis of Christ. Analogy may be misleading. But still by analogy one may speak of man as being just ‘one hypostasis in two natures,’ and not only of, but precisely in two natures. And in death this one human hypostasis is broken up. Hence the justification for the mourning and weeping. The terror of death is only warded off by the hope of the resurrection and life eternal.
~Fr. Georges Florovsky, Redemption