Thoughts for our Day

The A n a p h o r a of St. Basil is read in the Divine Liturgies of the Great Fast and also on the Great Feasts of Christmas, Theophany and Pascha. The reason for this is that it is the most sublime statement of faith in our Liturgy. In it the whole story of our salvation in Christ is told, and, hearing it, we learn the basic message of the gospel. I’ve entitled these articles “our catechesis,” but they are more properly what is called “mystagogy,” the proclamation of faith by baptized, committed Christians. In the most holy times of our liturgical year, we tell how God has brought us salvation. It is more than instruction, it is our worship and confession of life in Christ. In the next few articles, I want to show how this story is told.

After we sing the Hymn of Victory (“Holy, holy, holy …”), the celebrant prays in our name, “Taking clay from the earth, you formed man and honored him with your own image, O God. You placed him in a delightful paradise and promised him immortal life and the enjoyment of eternal blessings through the observance of your commandments. But man disobeyed you, the true God who created him; he was led astray by the deceit of the Serpent, and by his own transgressions was subjected to death. In your righteous judgment, O God, you banished him from paradise into this world and returned him to the earth from which he had been taken, but provided for him the salvation of rebirth
in your Christ.”

The story of Adam and Eve in Eden as told in the Book of Genesis is often called the “proto-gospel,” that is, it is the story of how it all began. This is not history in the ordinary sense of the word, but it is a parable illustrating a profound truth: that God made us in his image and likeness, but that we erred and rejected his plan for life, “led astray by the deceit of the serpent.”

Genesis tells us that there were two trees in Eden: “Out of the ground the Lord God made grow every tree that was delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9). The tree that Eve ate from in disobedience to God’s commandment was not an apple tree or a fig tree but the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This might puzzle us, is it wrong to know good and evil ? Most of the time, when I asked parents why they want their children to learn catechism, they say,” I want my child to know the difference between good and evil.” But that is not what the Hebrew means: the tree is symbolic, and “to know good and evil,” meant that Adam and Eve wanted to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil, and not listen to God, who in his loving-kindness tells us what is good for our lives and what is dangerous to our souls. That is why the serpent tempts Eve with the biggest lie ever told, “your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil. (Genesis 3:5)” We see here how evil lies can be. The two trees were bound together, and so eating in disobedience to God of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were deprived also of the tree of life, and death entered the world, God telling Adam those terrible words, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

We are no longer innocent. Every time we sin, we make the decision to decide for ourselves what is good for us, and to ignore God’s warnings. Sometimes we identify sin with impurity, but there are other sins: anger, envy, injustice to others, lying, cheating, stealing, and St. Basil even notes, “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.” All of these sins bring death, all these are “eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

The Anaphora, however, continues, “provided for him (Adam, the human being) the salvation of rebirth in your Christ.” We see this liturgically in the Great Fast. The exile of Adam and Eve from the tree of life because of their sin is now reversed. Jesus did not do this by bringing us back to paradise, but by bringing paradise to us.
The Kontakion of the Sunday of the Holy Cross speaks of the tree of life: “No longer does the flaming sword guard the gates of Eden, for the tree of the cross has come to quench it wondrously. The sting of death (which St. Paul calls “sin,” in 1 Corinthians 15:56) and the victory of Hades have been driven out. For you, O my Savior, stood and called out to those in Hades: Enter again into paradise.” Adam and Eve were turned away from the Tree of Life, but Christ has opened up the Tree of Life for us again. The tree of life is the wood of the cross.

This is reaffirmed frequently in the Liturgy of the Cross, especially in the Divine Praises. On Friday in Tone 2, we sing, “On the tree of the Cross, you become the second Adam, you have come to find your flock that was lost and to give life to the world.” On Friday in Tone 3, we sing,”On the pine, the cypress and the cedar, you are lifted up, O Lamb of God to save those who in faith venerate your voluntary crucifixion.” This is from the tradition that our Lord’s cross was made up of wood from three different trees. Finally, on Friday in Tone 8, we sing: “In the middle of Eden, a tree brought forth death, in the middle of the earth (referring here to Jerusalem) a tree brought forth life. By tasting the former, we fell into corruption, from the latter, we received the joy of immortality.”