The beautiful troparion of the Forefeast of Nativity sums up succinctly the purpose of the incarnation of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. One may say, it contains in full our “theology of redemption”. Jesus Christ became man so that our image, which “fell of old” due to the sin of Adam and Eve, and the subsequent weakening of the human race might be “raised”. He did not come to “purchase” our forgiveness by dying on the cross1 His primary mission was not to obtain forgiveness for us!
If all Christ’s mission accomplished for us was that our sins are forgiven, we are truly to be lamented, because we will never be able to change. We would still be sinners, with our tempestuous passions, even if we be pardoned every day. What good is that?
We were made in the image of God – Who is perfectly holy, perfectly free, perfectly at peace. Our sins obscure this image, and make it less effectual in our lives, just as dirt makes pure water cloudy. The water retains all its properties, even though because of the pollution it is unfit to drink. The “dirt” in our soul that obscures the image of God is our sins, our passions, and in general, our weakened human condition. “Raising up the image that fell of old” is like filtering the water, and removing that which is foreign to it.
Can God’s grace raise up His image in us, obscured by sin and passions, merely by forgiveness? Absolutely not. Forgiveness does not remove sinfulness; it does not strengthen the human condition. Christ “raised up the image” (of God) in us precisely by showing us how to live, and enabling us to live in this way. His ministry was one of knowledge and power. His way of life and teachings shows us the only way to live, and by His power, upon resurrecting His human soul, he gave us the ability. The raising up of the image is performed by each of us, with struggle, always with the grace of God helping us.
If we truly understand what the “Image of God” is then the need to labor to raise up this image will be plainly apparent.
The image of God reflects His nature – God is love, and He is pure, holy, full of knowledge, free. How can these things be understood if they are not lived?
Purity cannot be given to the impure as one might give some sort of material gift. To understand purity, one must become pure – not just be forgiven sins, but by labor and God’s grace obliterate impurity in the soul. To understand love, one must love: not as the world loves, but as God loves. To know God, we must become like God. Only then will the image of God that fell of old within us be raised. Because of the incarnation, teaching and resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ, we have been given everything we need to “raise up the image that fell of old”. Let us then, “get up from our bed and walk!”
Once Mary, pregnant with a seedless pregnancy, / was registered in Bethlehem with the elder Joseph, / as being of the seed of David. / And while they were there, / the days were accomplished that she should be delivered, / but there was no room for them in the inn. / But the cave showed itself to be a beauteous palace for the Queen, / and Christ is born //to raise up the image that fell of old!
Troparion of the Forefeast, sung in the Royal Hours for Nativity.
1this is the so called “substitutionary atonement” taught by most Protestants ans Roman catholics, and alas, believed by some Orthodox who do not understand their own faith. This doctrine states that Jesus appeased His Father’s wrath by offering Himself as a perfect sacrifice. In essence, this doctrine states that God would NOT orgive us unless we killed His son!