Christ became a curse – St Severus of Antioch

How was Christ said to become a curse for us?

Of the three thousand or more letters which we know that St Severus wrote during his very active ministry, we have several hundred persevered to our own times. Letter LXV, has the title: From the Letter of the same Holy Severus to Eupraxius the Chamberlain on the questions which he addressed to him. Eupraxius was a minister of the Emperor, a Eunuch of the Bedchamber, and he was known as a supporter of the non-Chalcedonian movement. The church historian, Zachariah of Mitylene, had dedicated the Third Book of his History to Eupraxius, and he is mentioned in the Life of Severus as one of those Orthodox individuals in the Imperial Court who had arranged the visit of St Severus to the Emperor in the capital.

Eupraxius had asked him a series of questions by letter, and in Letter LXV St Severus responds. One of the questions was how it was that Christ could be said to have become a curse for us. St Severus writes in some detail, and in the course of this article his argument will be presented in a comprehensive manner, and the explanation which St Severus provides will be considered in depth. It brings together a variety of soteriological concepts which are typical of the teaching and understanding of St Severus. The text of the fifth question in Letter LXV will be edited into modern English to assist in comprehension.

It is absolutely necessary that the texts of the Fathers are not made subject to a proof text approach, where there is no attempt to wrestle with an understanding of a complete argument or explanation. This does not lead to a proper Patristics. But makes the texts of the Fathers subject to our own preconceptions and theological opinions. On the contrary we must take time and listen in depth to the words of the Fathers, so that we are ourselves moulded by their exposition of Christian truth as we seek to gain an insight into complete arguments through comprehensive study in depth and breadth. Nowhere is this more important than in reflection on issues of controversy. In such cases simple listing of proof texts taken out of their context is worse than useless and produces a simplistic and pseudo-Patristic justification of our own views rather than a solid description of the real teaching of the Fathers.

In this study, the text of St Severus’ response to Eupraxius is listed with passage numbers and in italics. The reflection on this text is in normal font.

Letter LXV

  1. We will now go on to give you an answer with regard to the fifth question, how the Only one, who is a life-giving blessing, was said to be a curse.

This was the question which Eupraxius had asked. How was it possible that the one who was called the life-giving blessing was also said to be a curse? St Cyril had spoken about Christ being a life-giving blessing. In his commentary on the Gospel of St Luke he had written…

He is also in us in another way by means of our partaking in the oblation of bloodless offering which we celebrate in the churches… It was fitting, therefore, for Him to be in us divinely by the Holy Spirit, and also so to speak, to be mingled with our bodies by his holy flesh and precious blood, which things also we possess as a life-giving blessing, in the form of bread and wine.

How was it possible that Christ who gave himself as a life-giving blessing in the Eucharist could also be called a curse? In Galatians 3:13, St Paul had said…

Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”.

These two understandings of Christ seemed to be at odds with one another, and Eupraxius asked for the insights of St Severus in this difficulty of understanding. St Severus gives himself to the task and turns to the Scriptures for his extensive and comprehensive answer. He begins…

2. If he became man to set our race free from the bonds of former crimes, and took upon himself the seed of Abraham, and the flesh of our nature, and united a human soul to himself hypostatically, then he made all the debts of our race to which we were liable his own.

What has Christ done? He has taken flesh of our own human nature, and this humanity is not without a soul, it is not just a body animated like a mechanical tool, but he has become truly human according to the human family of Abraham, so that he is human as we are. In having taken this real humanity, our own humanity, he has chosen to subject himself to the debts of our race to which we are liable, and he has done this to set us free from all bondage due to sin.

3. For we are accursed, and we came under, the penalty of the curse, and heard the words, «Dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return», and, «Cursed is the earth in the work of thine hands», and, «In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread»; and he became the first-fruits of our nature.

He then goes on to describe the condition into which Christ, the Son and Word of God, has entered in taking our own humanity for himself. We are cursed and the curse under which mankind finds itself has consequences. It has a cost. There are three aspects to the curse, and St Severus lists them all. In the first place, man is cursed by the experience of mortality. He is made from dust and he will return to dust. From the time of Adam, the mortal character of man has been allowed to dominate, and none have escaped the power of death. In the second place, the very earth itself has become fruitless rather than fruitful at the hands of mankind. Instead of producing its fruits easily, man must struggle as if against an enemy. While in the third place, instead of freely enjoying the fruit of the world, man must now experience sweat in producing anything of value, and even in producing what is required for daily life. All of these consequences of the curse have been accepted by Christ when he took on our nature, and made it his own, so that he became the first-fruits, the beginning of a new condition of our humanity.

4. For in that he took upon him the seed of Abraham he is consequently said to have become those things to which our nature was subject. Nor yet was he subject to these things for a moment of time, but rather after they had been vainly applied to Him, he destroyed them. Just as the sun when it shines in a gloomy and dark house, as soon as it puts forth its ray, dispels the darkness, since it itself is not affected by darkness, in the same way also the Only God the Word, the Sun of righteousness, as soon as he approached our nature, also dispelled the curse.

Because Christ took our humanity, he is said to have become cursed, in the manner in which St Severus has explained, describing that the curse means mortality, the fruitlessness of creation, and the effort for daily sustenance. Christ has taken all these upon himself in becoming truly man. In this he is said to be cursed with us. But St Severus insists that having truly taken these things upon himself he is not subject to them, as we are subject against our will. Indeed, in assuming the different aspects of this curse he destroys them in himself by his own divine nature and character. The example which St Severus uses is that of the Sun. As soon as the Sun begins to shine in a dark place the darkness is dispelled, because darkness cannot be present where there is a source of light. Equally, as soon as the Son and Word of God truly took upon himself our own humanity with the experience of the curse, he dispelled this curse by union with our humanity.

5. For the holy Virgin, who conceived with the divine and incorruptible conception, immediately heard from Elizabeth who had been divinely moved, that is the servant of the Baptist, the words, «Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?». If she had not known that it was the Lord who was conceived of the God-bearer Mary, she would not have cried, «Blessed is the fruit of thy womb».

We see that Scripture itself teaches us how this curse which was laid upon mankind has been overcome in each of the three aspects in which it is constituted. St Severus begins with the words of Elizabeth to the Virgin Mary, when she prophetically announces that both the Virgin Mary and the fruit of her womb, the Lord Jesus Christ, are blessed. More than this, Elizabeth announces that it is the Lord God himself who is incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary. This divinely inspired proclamation of blessing is to be understood as the undoing of the ancient curse which Adam and Eve heard pronounced against them, and which lay as a burden upon all mankind. What is this divine and incorruptible conception? It is the conception of the Word of God in the Virgin Mary. This is not the Immaculate Conception of the Roman Catholic Church, which sets apart the conception of the Virgin Mary herself as being unique, rather it refers to the incarnation in a perfect manner of the Word of God, who became truly man of the Virgin Mary while being truly God.

6. In agreement with this our Lord himself also in his words dispelled the curse, so that the earth might no more be ‘cursed in the work of your hands’, saying, «Do not work for the food that perishes, but the food that abides to eternal life, which the Son of man will give you», and not, «In the sweat of your face shall you eat your bread», but, «I am the bread of life which came down from heaven, and if any man eats of this bread he shall live for ever», and no more, «Dust you are and to dust shall you return», but, «This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes on him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day».

But it was not only the words of Elizabeth which expressed this truth that the curse was being dispelled. St Severus shows how the words of Christ himself describe the same reality. He places an aspect of the curse on one hand and shows how Christ lifts it from mankind on the other. On the one hand we have cursed in the work of your hands, while on the other we now have the words, do not work for the food that perishes, but the food that abides to eternal life, which the Son of man will give you. On the one hand everything man turned his hand to was cursed, but now he has a heavenly work which will extend into eternity. On the one hand we have In the sweat of your face shall you eat your bread, while on the other we now have the words, I am the bread of life which came down from heaven, and if any man eats of this bread he shall live for ever. Man was cursed to have to work with sweat even for the provision of daily necessities, but now God himself provides a heavenly bread, which leads those who share in it to eternal life, instead of the mortality that had been his unhappy lot. And mankind had heard the curse, dust you are and to dust shall you return, whichexpressed the natural mortality which overwhelmed mankind. Now it hears from Christ, this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes on him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. There is now an eternal future for mankind, for those who have faith and encounter Christ. Mankind need not return to dust in death. But he will experience a resurrection at the will and word of God.

7. You see that on all points by being himself made a curse he becomes a dispeller of the curse, and this curse he takes up on to the cross, and thence puts it to flight: for it was overcome by the law which said, «Cursed of God is everyone who shall be hanged upon wood». And he himself underwent the accursed death that was for our sake, and thence blessed the whole human race; and the blessed Paul bears witness who writes to the Galatians and says, «Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, and became a curse for our sake, because it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged upon wood’, in order that the blessing of Abraham might be among the nations in Jesus Christ».

Christ has accepted all the aspects of the curse, and St Severus has already described what these aspects are. They are mortality, the fruitlessness of the creation at the hands of man, and the effort which is required by man to provide even for daily life. He accepted all of these aspects in becoming a curse for us and becoming cursed as we have been. In himself this curse is immediately dispelled, but it is this state and condition of mankind which he takes to the cross for us and destroys it for us all. The very fact of his crucifixion is called a curse, it is a cursed way of death, but in accepting it for us he destroys the curse and rather blesses all mankind. The triple aspects of the curse are taken to a cursed death and are all destroyed and made into a blessing. St Severus turns to the words of St Paul and expresses this sense that we were under a curse, and that Christ accepted this curse for us, and died a cursed death, so that we might be blessed in all the ways in which St Severus has described, finding a freedom from mortality, from the fruitlessness of the creation, and from the effort of daily provision and for eternal life.

8. So also he is said to have become sin, because he endured the death that was the due of sinners; for, while he is himself the pure justice of the Father, he was crucified between two robbers; but these were crucified on account of their offences, and in accordance with the passage in the Gospel of Mark who says, «And with him they crucified two robbers, one on the right hand and one on the left, and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘He was numbered with the unjust».

In this important passage we now find St Severus considering how it is that Christ is also said to have become sin. He is not said to have become sin because he has become all the different manners in which we sin, as some Protestants insist. He has not become a murderer, and a thief, and worse. There is no sin in him, nor could there ever be sin in him who is truly God made man without change. But he is said to have become sin because he endured the death that was the due of sinners. We must be very clear. This is what it means to say that Christ became sin. When we say that he became sin we mean that he died the death that was due to us, and he participated in the mortality to which we were bound. It means nothing more nor less. St Severus goes on to insist that he is the pure justice or righteousness of the Father. There is no sin in him. But he was crucified between two robbers, and in this manner, according to the Scriptures, he was numbered with the unjust. It must be insisted upon. He is said to have become sin only in the sense that he bore the death that was the consequence of the sin of Adam upon all of mankind, and is due to us because of our own sins, and also because he was crucified with thieves and robbers, and so was counted among those who were sinners.

9. So, he became sin to remit the sins of others: and so likewise he paid the debt that was incurred for us, and we ourselves became righteousness in him; for those who have been freed from debts are righteous and are not termed liable.

He became sin to remit our sins, but we must remember what this means. It means that he died the death that is our own to remit our sins, and he died as one of us to remit our sins. In the same way, it was by his death, by his experiencing and participating in the death that is our own debt, that he paid it once and for all, being life himself. And so, according to St Severus, once he had paid the death that was our own penalty, and once by this death he had destroyed the power of the curse, he blessed us by becoming our own righteousness. When he had once paid the debt of death for all, he set all free from debt, and we are no longer liable to the curse and to death.

10. And, because during the time of his Humanization he did no sin, therefore also iniquity was not found in him, but he showed himself righteous, that is, he is righteousness; and, when he became flesh, all our nature again was justified in him as in first-fruits; and this is what the wise Paul said to the Corinthians about the Father, «He made him sin for our sake, who knew no sin, that we might be the righteousness of God in him».

What more did Christ do for mankind? St Severus reminds us that in all the time of his incarnation he did not sin. There was no trace of iniquity within him. Indeed, how could there be. And being righteous in himself, and even righteousness itself, he became our righteousness since he made our own nature his own, and in our nature reconciled mankind with God. He is the first-fruits, the guarantee for mankind of what God desires and intends for all. As St Paul says, he was made sin, which means as St Severus has defined for us, that he shared the death which is the consequence of sin. There was no sin in him, so that this was a death which he owed, but he embraced it freely for our sake, and is said to have become sin in this manner. And this was so that having endured our death, he might give us his own righteousness in union with him.

11. This too was carried out in the ritual of the law also; for the two goats on whom lots were laid were a type of Christ our Saviour, who is made up of two elements, the perfect Godhead I mean and the manhood: and the one, on whom the Lord’s lot fell, was slaughtered, while the other was dismissed into the wilderness that is not passed,, who also was named ‘the dismissible’, who gained the appellation also from the fact itself; for he was dismissed, but was not simply dismissed, but in the manner which Scripture mentioned; for it said as follows: «And you shall bring the living goat, and Aaron shall lay his two hands on the head of the living goat, and shall confess over him all the sin of the sons of Israel, and all their wickedness and their iniquity, and shall lay them on the head of the living goat, and shall dismiss him by means of a man who is ready into the wilderness; and the goat shall take upon him all their iniquity». This therefore was thus performed in the case of the two goats also, that the one was slaughtered and the other dismissed.

St Severus then spends some time considering the Old Testament ritual concerned with the forgiveness of the sins of Israel, and how this was a type and representation of Christ. In the Old Testament, according to the Law of Moses which God had revealed to him, two goats were chosen, and these two goats represented the divine and human natures of Christ. One goat was sacrificed, and the other goat was sent out into the impassable wilderness. This second goat was called the Dismissible because it was dismissed, or sent out, into the wilderness. St Severus gives us the reference from the Old Testament which describes how Aaron would lay his hands on this goat and would confess the sins of the people over it, and then it would be taken out into the wilderness. One was sacrificed and one was sent away.

12. We clearly see the hidden meaning which relates to the Cross: for the type denotes that the same one Christ suffered in the flesh but remained without suffering in that he is considered to be true God. For the same person both is separated by lots to the Lord and slaughtered (for ‘he delivered himself for our sake as an offering and a sacrifice to God the Father for a sweet savour’), and goes away without suffering bearing the sins of all Israel, which in the type of Aaron were confessed over the head of the goat: for he clearly displays himself as being himself true God, over whom we confess our sins according to law; for «I will make confession», he saith, «unto thee, Lord, concerning my sins, and you will forgive the wickedness of my heart»; for, though ‘he was led as a lamb to the slaughter’, yet, ‘who shall tell his generation, because his life is taken away from the earth?’, for he is without descent as God, and he is life in his nature, for he was taken away and lifted up from the earth.

How does this relate to the Cross? St Severus explains how these two goats represent the truth that Christ both suffered in the flesh, and also remained without suffering in his divinity because he is God. These two aspects of the two goats are represented in Christ. In his humanity Christ endured death for us, as one goat was sacrificed for the forgiveness of the sins of Israel. But Christ also forgives the sin of mankind, and takes it away, as the second goat had the sins of Israel named over it and was sent out into the far wilderness and did not experience suffering or death. He offers himself as a sweet-smelling savour to God in his humanity, and forgives the sins of mankind in his divinity, overcoming the power of death for mankind because he is himself life.

13. Truly is it said of him in reference to the type that he shall be dismissed into the wilderness that is not passed; for that country is impassable to all outside nature, and is passable to him who became incarnate only, I mean the throne of the kingdom, on which he sits at the Father’s right hand, bearing our sins; for so too John also the loud-voiced preacher and ambassador of the Word himself cried and said, «Behold! the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world». For the same person is termed at one time a goat, at another a lamb; and he shows that he came to suffer not only for the sake of sinners, but also for the sake of the righteous; for death reigned ‘even over those who had not sinned’ also, as Paul also said. Accordingly, the lamb is the type of the righteous, and the goat of sinners; for the righteous stand as lambs on the right hand, and the sinners as goats on the left. Let no one think- that through the symbol of the two goats he shows us two Christs, one passible and the other impassible, but one and the same, passible in the flesh, but impassible in his Godhead.

How deep indeed are the reflections which St Severus produces from the Old Testament. He notes that the impassable wilderness into which the goat was sent is representative of the kingdom of God where none may pass but the divine Son and Word of God who sits at the Father’s right hand bearing our sins. He bears our sins as the goat carried the sins of the people, not so that he becomes sinful, but rather so that he might bear them away from mankind, and so that they are forgiven and forgotten. St Severus comments that at one time and at one time Christ is represented by the analogy of the goat, and then in another place he is represented by the analogy of the lamb. What does St Severus understand of this distinction? It is that in the analogy of the goat he is represented as suffering death for the sake of the salvation of sinners. While in the analogy of the lamb he is shown to have suffered death for the sake of the righteous. But St Severus is insistent. The analogy of two goats does not represent two Christs but shows us the one and the same Christ who is both passible, able to suffer and die, according to the humanity, and impassible, beyond all suffering and death, in his divinity.

14. For indeed one goat only was not sufficient to signify what was signified with two (how was it possible for the same to be slaughtered and not slaughtered?), to show that Christ tasted death in the flesh, and in his Godhead is raised above suffering. Is it not plain therefore that another goat is necessarily taken, in order that the one fact may be perfectly revealed symbolically in the two?

St Severus reflects that the Old Testament rites often express truths in a partial fashion and require multiple aspects to be presented in different ways. It was not possible for a goat to be both sacrificed and not sacrificed. One goat was not enough to present the complete truth. The Law which was given to Moses called for two goats to be used so that the complete picture of Christ could be presented. What is the truth that is to be presented? It is that Christ suffered and tasted death for us in the flesh, while in his divinity he is above all suffering.

15. Just as a painter, when he depicts the story of Abraham, depicts him several times, now hearing God saying to him, «Offer thy son to me as a burnt-sacrifice», now cutting faggots, now again binding Isaac and laying him on the faggots, now with his hand armed with the knife and stretched out to slay and held back by the heavenly voice coming from above, and we do not think the one Abraham to be many because the same person was depicted many times, and indeed one picture was not sufficient to tell the whole story, so also for the shadowy representation of the symbol, for the sake of perfectly setting forth the fact, two goats were taken, and we do not divide the one Christ into two, but we declare him to be one out of two natures, the perfect Godhead and the manhood, according to the faith of the divine Scriptures, and the words of the fathers that are inspired by the Spirit, from which sources we also speak these things.

He extends this explanation of how the Old Testament presents truths in a varied fashion by suggesting that if someone were to paint the story of Abraham and Isaac he would have to paint several pictures, because a single picture would not be sufficient to show all of the different aspects of the account we find in the Scriptures. What is he wanting to insist on? It is that using multiple images does not mean that multiple persons are being represented. Again, this is why two goats were used to represent Christ. It was because one goat could not indicate the human and the divine natures, the humanity and the divinity, but two goats, one representing his humanity and being sacrificed, while the other represented his divinity and carried the sins of Israel away.

16. That the two goats symbolized the one Christ is plain from the allegory of the lots; for the priest Aaron did not select one of the goats at haphazard to be slaughtered, but committed the matter to the uncertainty of lots, that by this he might show the primary unity of God the Word and his flesh. As he is himself God impassible and free, but by reason of the union with a body possessing a rational soul was condemned to death, though in his nature he is immortal, so also the one goat who was to be dismissed to the wilderness symbolized the impassibility of the Godhead of the Only one, and was under the decree of slaughter; for the lot cast over him, whether he was to be slaughtered or dismissed, was uncertain. Accordingly, it is plain that the two goats signify the one Christ, and that the same suffered in the flesh, and, in that he is God, remained raised above sufferings.

The fact that the goat which was to be sacrificed was selected by lot, but was not chosen by Aaron or Moses, or anyone else, has the sense that the goat was chosen by divine providence. He understands that this shows the unity between the Word of God and his own flesh. Indeed, he describes why it is that the Word united himself to humanity. As God, he is impassible and unable to suffer and die the death of mankind and overcome death in his death. But by uniting himself to humanity, which is able to suffer and die he was able to experience death on behalf of humanity and destroy it in himself. What is this humanity which he united to himself? It is a human body, but also a human soul, and more than that, it is a rational soul, which means that his humanity has will, and is lacking nothing which belongs to our humanity. The goat who was sent into the wilderness represents the unity of natures in Christ because the lot which was to be cast over him was uncertain. This goat was, in a sense both the goat that would be sacrificed, representing his humanity, but also the goat that was to be sent away with the sins of Israel, representing his divinity. Until the lot was cast the goat represented both of these in itself. In the same way, the one Christ both suffers and is above suffering in his humanity and in his divinity.

17. Nor yet let anyone, imitating the madness of the heathen, imagine that the dismissed goat was set apart and dismissed to the wilderness for some demon; for this is a departure from the laws of Moses, inasmuch as he said, «Hear, Israel. The Lord your God is one Lord», and again, «You shall fear the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve, and to him shall you draw near, and in his name shall you swear», and, «You shall not go after other gods»; and again in another place, «And you shall not make mention of the name of other gods, and it shall not be heard from your mouth»; and again, «You shall not worship their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their deeds, but shall utterly overturn them and destroy their pillars, and shall serve the Lord your God only». How then should he in the same mind break in pieces and overturn their pillars (and he did not allow the name of other gods to be mentioned at all beside the one Lord God), and on the other hand separate the goat to another beside him as to some evil fiend, and propitiate this fiend in this way?

As an aside, St Severus deals with the argument, still sometimes offered in fact, that the goat being sent out into the wilderness was being offered to another god, to a demon. How could this be? The Septuagint speaks of the goat being sent out into wilderness, and of the goat being the one who is sent away. But in the Hebrew texts this word Azazel is treated as if it were a desert dwelling demonic spirit. St Severus will not allow this reading. He indicates that Moses could not have established the Law in which only the one true God is to be named and worshipped, while also allowing the second goat to be sent out to a demon. In the Septuagint we do not find the name Azazel, nor in the King James translation, but it is found as a translation in some Protestant translations, such the Revised version.

18. But it is plain that the two goats were offered in order to honour one God only, and completed the symbolic allegory which we have already mentioned, and two lots were cast, and one was slaughtered to the Lord, and the other was dismissed after the manner of the separation of the lots, and therefore he was called ‘the dismissible’. If he had said, «One goat to the Lord, and one goat to the dismissible», perhaps their charge would have derived some plausibility from the divine Scripture, because it said, «One lot to the Lord, and one to the dismissible»; for it is plain that the one was separated for the purpose of slaughter, and the other was dismissed to the Lord, not to another different from him; for this is what the divine Scripture said, «And he shall set the living one before the Lord, in order to dismiss him in dismissal».

St Severus does not read the text as supporting any idea that the second goat is being sent to propitiate a demon. On the contrary, following the Septuagint, he understands the second goat to be called the dismissible, or the one who is sent away.

19. But some of the learned Hebrews, that is rather those who are earlier than those who are of the Hebrews, said «One lot to the Lord, and one lot to him that was dismissed», in order that in all points and that even from the very imagination of the heathen, or, to speak fittingly, from their lack of instruction, it might be seen that their charge against the holy laws of Moses is without plausibility. For those who after the Christian religion were lifted up in philosophy, and endeavoured to adorn demon-worship in a reverend fashion, as they themselves say on behalf of others, say of their god who is called ‘mb1khywn, «We should not sacrifice to the gods, but by purity of mind propitiate and honour them»: but men who were fettered in the same chain as they said that men should sedulously offer sacrifices to the evil spirits who delight in blood, not that they may help, but that they may not injure.

Who are these learned Hebrews, those who are earlier than the Hebrews? It seems to me that St Severus is comparing the text of the Septuagint, translated in the centuries before Christ, with the later Hebrew text of his own time. The Septuagint excludes the possibility that there is a demon to whom the goat is sent, since it speaks of the goat as him that was dismissed, rather than him that was sent to Azazel. In more recent times, St Severus suggests, there are those who spiritualise the worship of pagan gods and demons and wish to propose that they are honoured by purity and uprightness of mind. While others, also wishing to avoid the excesses of pagan polytheism, wanted to propose that the sacrifices offered to demons are not positively to seek their help, but negatively to prevent them causing harm. But this was, according to St Severus, merely the same bondage to evil spirits and demons.

20. If then Moses separated and dismissed one of the goats to a demon, according to the madness of those men he ought to have ordered this goat to be slaughtered to the demon, and he who is pleased by blood ought to have rejoiced in his blood. But now the exact contrary is the case: the one who was set apart to God Most High was slaughtered, while the other, the dismissible, or, as they wish to say. the one who was separated to an evil demon, was dismissed into the wilderness without blood and without sacrifice. By all these arguments the ingenious madness of the heathen has been refuted, who wished to stain the divine Scripture with the blame of their cults of many demons, men who did not shrink from calling the usual sacrifices to their idols ‘dismissible’, in order to substantiate their error by a plausible identity of name.

Finally, in discussing the issue of the goat sent into the wilderness, which represents the Word of God taking away the sins of the people, he points out that since the demons are blood thirsty, it makes no sense that the goat which is sacrificed is offered to God, while the one which is supposedly offered to the demon is not sacrificed but is sent out alive into the wilderness. Since St Severus makes so much of this accusation that the Old Testament incorporated and promoted the worship of demons, it is reasonable to conclude that this remained a live issue in the 6th century, and that it was an objection which was still being heard. Indeed, it is still presented today, as a supposed proof that the Israelites remained a pagan people despite their worship of God.

21. These things we have stated shortly in the desire to show how Jesus became sin for us, that we might in him become the righteousness of God. He endured a death that was for our sake, he who for the sins of us all became one that is subject, he who knows not sin, for according to the prophet’s saying, «He came to death for the sins of my people, and for our sake he suffered pain, and was smitten, and he endured sickness for our iniquity». So also Paul wrote to the Hebrews and said, “Christ was offered once, that he might bear the sins of many» , and he says that ‘by his sacrifice he hath been revealed once for all at the last for the doing away of sin’, and ‘he offered one eternal offering for our sins’: and Peter the eminent among the apostles said, «The same carried up our sins in his body on to the cross, that we, being freed from sins, might live in righteousness»

St Severus then concludes his response to the fifth question submitted by Eupraxius. If we remember, the question was how Christ could be considered to have become a curse if he was also the life-giver. He became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God, in so far as we are in him. We must remember that when St Severus speaks of Christ becoming sin, he understands the Scriptures to teach that he becomes sin by accepting the death that was due to us, and also by being counted among those who sin. He endured our death, even though there was no sin in him at all or at any time. It was for our sake, and for our salvation that he endured our death. Everything was for us. Just like the goat sent into the wilderness, he carried the sins of mankind away and did away once and for all with the power of sin. He both offered himself to death for us, our own death, so that he might destroy it for us, and he carried away our sin. Again, we are to understand that when we read of Christ becoming sin, or carrying our sins, this never means that he became sinful, but that, like the goat, our sins were named over him, and he took them away from us.

We do not need to make entirely unexpected discoveries when we turn to the Fathers. But when we make a commitment to study a whole passage and argument in depth we will come to a better understanding of the teaching of the Fathers in a comprehensive manner. In this response to Eupraxius some of the main arguments are that the curse which came upon mankind is found in our experience of mortality, of the resistant and fruitless nature of our engagement with creation, and the sustained effort which is required even for the provision of daily needs. All of these are overcome and dispelled by Christ who accepts these aspects of the curse in becoming truly man. He becomes sin for us, not by allowing any sin to adhere to him, since he is always without sin, but by allowing himself to be counted among sinners, and be crucified alongside criminals, and in accepting the cursed death of the cross. He is just like the two goats, according to St Severus. On the one hand, he dies the death we deserve and in submitting to death he destroys it. While on the other hand, he receives the burden of all our sins laid on him, as Aaron named the sins of the people over the goat, and he takes them away from us, forgiving them as God, and taking away their power.

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