Jesus hung on the cross, suspended between heaven and earth, dying. To us, a detail that we can perhaps use poetically but incidental among the whole. To the Church Fathers, however, an important point to understand the cross.
When St Athanasius is exploring why God became Man in his famous On the Incarnation, he devotes a section to why Jesus died on the Cross. He gives some of the answers we might give, and hones right in on the question not of why Jesus died but why he died on a Cross.
We would probably answer that question in terms of the incarnate God becoming a spectacle of shame to remove shame and the high made low so the low could be lifted high. We would not be wrong to do so. Athanasius goes in a direction that strikes most of us as downright weird.
He gives three reasons. The first would feel normal to use, drawing on Deuteronomy 21’s declaration that he who dies on a tree is cursed (Galatians 3) to say that Jesus became the curse for us. So far so typical, even if we don’t find the whys and wherefores of that curse that easy to comprehend. A little hint: it’s got something to do with those first trees.
Secondly, he argues that Jesus had to die with his arms outstretched, because his death tears down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2). It was important, Athanasius argued, that Jesus arms be wide to reach both peoples so as to include the Gentile into true Israel—not as a poetic flourish but because that’s what the cross was doing. The symbols are the things.
Thirdly, he argues that Jesus had to die suspended in the air, not on the earth, because his death defeated the Prince of the Air (Ephesians 2), the Devil.
Which if we were speaking poetically, we might get away with, but would lead to a little eye-rolling. Athanasius means what he says. Jesus had to die with his arms outstretched and in the air—it is, in his words, ‘fitting’ that Jesus die this way.
Because you and I have been discipled by a machine-world we find this bemusing. The early church didn’t. This is one of those symptoms of our stories withering under the force of an age that makes them smaller, tamer, and safer.
The Fathers would read Isaiah’s description of the Lord as ‘high and lifted up’ (e.g. Isaiah 6) not as simply a statement that God is beyond us, but since the suffering servant was also ‘high and lifted up’ (Isaiah 52) as a description of Jesus death, ‘lifted up from the earth’ (John 12).
Why is Satan the Prince of the Air? We might expect it to be the sea if we know our Old Testament. The air is the realm in between the earth and the heaven above. Well, that’s why. The Enemy stands between the people and their God. He is prince of the thing that stops the final union between heaven and earth. His realm was conquered when the Lord was raised into it and won by losing—when he lived by dying.
Why does this matter? On one hand it doesn’t at all, except we read the Bible and miss the richness of its textured texts. Every detail is there for a reason and worthy of our careful study.
And it matters because Jesus died to take our curse. And to unite Jew and Gentile into the one people of God—us Gentiles grafted into the tree. And to defeat the machinations of the Enemy in his own domain: in the air, in the place of the dead.
Next time someone cheesily tells you that Jesus died with his arms outstretched to embrace the world and you roll your eyes and scoff—hey, I’ve been there, I have a remarkably low tolerance for this sort of thing. Or, I used to, before I started reading the documents of the early church. Next time you scoff, stop: they may be reading the Bible more closely than you.
In his death, the Lord embraced the world. That isn’t making too much of an incidental detail. Why not? Because there are no incidental details: the Bible is God’s word to you.
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