Friedrich Nietzsche famously once said that God is dead. Today, we remember the one day in history when he was right.
Yesterday, Good Friday, we commemorated the day when humanity unknowingly put God to death for the unthinkable crime of claiming to be God. St. Augustine identifies pride as the root of all sin, defining pride as essentially putting oneself in the place of God. These two aspects flow together in a confluence so tragic and beautiful as to be poetic: as humanity sins by putting itself in the place of God and puts God to death, God puts Himself in the place of humanity and suffers death for their sins.
God Became Human? God Died?
This story is so familiar to us, we have became numb to the utter absurdity of it. God became human? God died? These are not things that God does. These are category mistakes, foolishness to the learning of the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23). Yet far from foolish, this is actually rather fitting. And while fittingness is not a strictly logical argument, it is a sign that your thought is headed in the right direction. St. Thomas Aquinas gives us several reasons why it was fitting that Christ should die (all found in ST III, 50, 1 ,c.).
First, since Christ suffered for our sins, it is fitting that He take on the punishment for our sins. Death came into the world through sin, as St. Paul reminds us: “Through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Christ defeats death by suffering death, like a vaccination for a disease that He then passes on to us as a cure.
St. Thomas also says that Christ’s death demonstrates the reality of His Incarnation. The Word of God didn’t merely appear to be human (Docetism), nor was He tag-teamed with a human person (Nestorianism), but truly took on a human nature, and really became human. The humanity of Christ was not an optical illusion or a temporary mask that God wore, but was truly His. As St. Paul puts it, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being” (1 Corinthians 15:21).
This Is a Sign For Us
The fact that Christ’s body lays dead in the grave for a day is a testament both to the true humanity of Christ. There is a physical continuity, as St. Athanasius reminds us when he writes, “In that body which was circumcised and carried, which ate, and toiled, and was nailed on the tree, there was the impassible and incorporeal Word of God: the same was laid in the tomb” (Epistle to Epictetus). And it will be the same body that will rise from the dead and be glorified. This is a sign for us. This is to show us that when we are made anew spiritually in Christ, the old self is not annihilated, it is refreshed, “washed clean in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). We do not lose ourselves; we find ourselves. Grace does not destroy nature, it perfects nature.
Our Own Promised Resurrection
And this likewise applies to our own promised resurrection. All men have a natural fear of their inevitable death. For us, death is shrouded by fear and doubt: will it mean our permanent dissolution? Is there some other state beyond our physical life? If so, is it desirable? Sin has clouded our minds and hidden the truth from us, but faith and revelation console us with the knowledge that death is not the end. (St. Thomas has a good philosophical argument for the immortality of the soul—perhaps another time.) By undergoing death and lying in a tomb, Christ accompanies man to the very end of us life, and thus strengthens man’s assurance that what is to come belongs to his destiny, too. When Christ is raised, it is not as an exception or as a singular miracle, but as the “firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18). When Christ is raised, it is to conquer death definitively, not for Himself, but for all men. As the Second Vatican Council teaches us, “Christ fully reveals man to himself,” (Gaudium et Spes 22). This means that whatever man is supposed to be, whatever man is meant to be, Christ is an exemplar of it, an icon of the perfected humanity to which we are all called—perfected in Christ, participating in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
But before Christ can be raised from the dead, He has to be dead. Before the sun can rise, it must set. Before the grain of wheat can sprout, it must fall to the ground and die. Today we remember that darkness before the dawn, before the Son rises.