Alexander I of Alexandria’s Epistle On the Soul and Body and the Passion of the Lord
Translated by B.P. Pratten. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.)
Epistle On the Soul and Body and the Passion of the Lord
1. The Word which is ungrudgingly sent down from heaven, is fitted for the irrigation of our hearts, if we have been prepared for His power, not by speaking only, but by listening. For as the rain without the ground does not produce fruit, so neither does the Word fructify without hearing, nor hearing without the Word. Moreover, the Word then becomes fruitful when we pronounce it, and in the same way hearing, when we listen. Therefore since the Word draws forth its power, do you also ungrudgingly lend your ears, and when you come to hear, cleanse yourselves from all ill-will and unbelief. Two very bad things are ill-will and unbelief, both of which are contrary to righteousness; for ill-will is opposed to charity, and unbelief to faith; just in the same way as bitterness is opposed to sweetness, darkness to light, evil to good, death to life, falsehood to truth. Those, therefore, who abound in these vices that are repugnant to virtue, are in a manner dead; for the malignant and the unbelieving hate charity and faith, and they who do this are the enemies of God.
2. Since therefore you know, brethren beloved, that the malignant and the unbelieving are the enemies of righteousness, beware of these, embrace faith and charity, by which all the holy men who have existed from the beginning of the world to this day have attained unto salvation. And show forth the fruit of charity, not in words only, but also in deeds, that is, in all godly patience for God’s sake. For, see! The Lord Himself has shown His charity towards us, not only in words but also in deeds, since He has given Himself up as the price of our salvation. Besides, we were not created, like the rest of the world, by word alone, but also by deed. For God made the world to exist by the power of a single word, but us He produced by the efficacy alike of His word and working. For it was not enough for God to say, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, Genesis 1:26 but deed followed word; for, taking the dust from the ground, He formed man out of it, conformable to His image and similitude, and into him He breathed the breath of life, so that Adam became a living soul.
3. But when man afterwards by his fall had inclined to death, it was necessary that that form should be recreated anew to salvation by the same Artificer. For the form indeed lay rotting in the ground; but that inspiration which had been as the breath of life, was detained separate from the body in a dark place, which is called Hades. There was, therefore, a division of the soul from the body; it was banished ad inferos, while the latter was resolved into dust; and there was a great interval of separation between them; for the body, by the dissolution of the flesh, becomes corrupt; the soul being loosened from it, its action ceases. For as when the king is thrown into chains, the city falls to ruin; or as when the general is taken captive, the army is scattered abroad; or as when the helmsman is shaken off, the vessel is submerged; so when the soul is bound in chains, its body goes to pieces; as the city without its king, so its members are dissolved; as is the case with an army when its general is lost, they are drowned in death, even as happens to a vessel when deprived of its helmsman. The soul, therefore, governed the man, as long as the body survived; even as the king governs the city, the general the army, the helmsman the ship. But it was powerless to rule it, from the time when it was immoveably tied to it, and became immersed in error; therefore it was that it declined from the straight path, and followed tempters, giving heed to fornication, idolatry, and shedding of blood; by which evil deeds it has destroyed the proper manhood. Nay, but itself also being carried at length to the lower regions, it was there detained by the wicked tempter. Else was it wont, as the king restores the ruined city, the general collects the dispersed army, the sailor repairs the broken ship, even so, I say, the soul used to minister supplies to the body before that the body was dissolved in the dust, being not as yet itself bound fast with fetters. But after that the soul became bound, not with material fetters but with sins, and thus was rendered impotent to act, then it left its body in the ground, and being cast down to the lower regions, it was made the footstool of death, and despicable to all.
4. Man went forth from paradise to a region which was the sink of unrighteousness, fornication, adultery, and cruel murder. And there he found his destruction; for all things conspired to his death, and worked the ruin of him who had hardly entered there. Meanwhile man wanted some consolation and assistance and rest. For when was it well with man? In his mother’s womb? But when he was shut up there, he differed but little from the dead. When he was nourished with milk from the breast? Not even then, indeed, did he feel any joy. Was it rather while he was coming to maturity? But then, especially, danger’s impended over him from his youthful lusts. Was it, lastly, when he grew old? Nay, but then does he begin to groan, being pressed down by the weight of old age, and the expectation of death. For what else is old age but the expectation of death? Verily all the inhabitants of earth do die, young men and old, little children and adults, for no age or bodily stature is exempt from death. Why, then, is man tormented by this exceeding grief? Doubtless the very aspect of death begets sadness; for we behold in a dead man the face changed, the figure dead, the body shrunk up with emaciation, the mouth silent, the skin cold, the carcass prostrate on the ground, the eyes sunken, the limbs immoveable, the flesh wasted away, the veins congealed, the bones whitened, the joints dissolved, all parts of him reduced to dust, and the man no longer existing. What, then, is man? A flower, I say, that is but for a little time, which in his mother’s womb is not apparent, in youth flourishes, but which in old age withers and departs in death.
5. But now, after all this bondage to death and corruption of the manhood, God has visited His creature, which He formed after His own image and similitude; and this He has done that it might not for ever be the sport of death. Therefore God sent down from heaven His incorporeal Son to take flesh upon Him in the Virgin’s womb; and thus, equally as you, was He made man; to save lost man, and collect all His scattered members. For Christ, when He joined the manhood to His person, united that which death by the separation of the body had dispersed. Christ suffered that we should live forever.
For else why should Christ have died? Had He committed anything worthy of death? Why did He clothe Himself in flesh who was invested with glory? And since He was God, why did He become man? And since He reigned in heaven, why did He come down to earth, and become incarnate in the virgin’s womb? What necessity, I ask, impelled God to come down to earth, to assume flesh, to be wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger-cradle, to be nourished with the milk from the breast, to receive baptism from a servant, to be lifted up upon the cross, to be interred in an earthly sepulchre, to rise again the third day from the dead? What necessity, I say, impelled Him to this? It is sufficiently discovered that He suffered shame for man’s sake, to set him free from death; and that He exclaimed, as in the words of the prophet, I have endured as a travailing woman. Isaiah 42:14 In very deed did He endure for our sakes sorrow, ignominy, torment, even death itself, and burial. For thus He says Himself by the prophet: I went down into the deep. Jonah 2:4 Who made Him thus to go down? The impious people. Behold, you sons of men, behold what recompense Israel made unto Him! She slew her Benefactor, returning evil for good, affliction for joy, death for life. They slew by nailing to the tree Him who had brought to life their dead, had healed their maimed, had made their lepers clean, had given light to their blind. Behold, you sons of men! Behold, all you people, these new wonders! They suspended Him on the tree, who stretches out the earth; they transfixed Him with nails who laid firm the foundation of the world; they circumscribed Him who circumscribed the heavens; they bound Him who absolves sinners; they gave Him vinegar to drink who has made them to drink of righteousness; they fed Him with gall who has offered to them the Bread of Life; they caused corruption to come upon His hands, and feet who healed their hands and feet; they violently closed His eyes who restored sight to them; they gave Him over to the tomb, who raised their dead to life both in the time before His Passion and also while He was hanging on the tree.
6. For when our Lord was suffering upon the cross, the tombs were burst open, the infernal region was disclosed, the souls leapt forth, the dead returned to life, and many of them were seen in Jerusalem, while the mystery of the cross was being perfected; what time our Lord trampled upon death, dissolved the enmity, bound the strong man, and raised the trophy of the cross, His body being lifted up upon it, that the body might appear on high, and death to be depressed under the foot of flesh. Then the heavenly powers wondered, the angels were astonished, the elements trembled, every creature was shaken while they looked on this new mystery, and the terrific spectacle which was being enacted in the universe. Yet the entire people, as unconscious of the mystery, exulted over Christ in derision; although the earth was rocking, the mountains, the valleys, and the sea were shaken, and every creature of God was smitten with confusion. The lights of heaven were afraid, the sun fled away, the moon disappeared, the stars withdrew their shining, the day came to end; the angel in astonishment departed from the temple after the rending of the veil, and darkness covered the earth on which its Lord had closed His eyes. Meanwhile hell was with light resplendent, for there had the star descended. The Lord, indeed, did not descend into hell in His body but in His Spirit. He forsooth is working everywhere, for while He raised the dead by His body, by His spirit was He liberating their souls. For when the body of the Lord was hung upon the cross, the tombs, as we have said, were opened; hell was unbarred. the dead received their life, the souls were sent back again into the world, and that because the Lord had conquered hell, had trodden down death, had covered the enemy with shame; therefore was it that the souls came forth from Hades, and the dead appeared upon the earth.
7. You see, therefore, how great was the effect of the death of Christ, for no creature endured His fall with equal mind, nor did the elements His Passion, neither did the earth retain His body, nor hell His Spirit. All things were in the Passion of Christ disturbed and convulsed. The Lord exclaimed, as once before to Lazarus, Come forth, you dead, from your tombs and your secret places; for I, the Christ, give unto you resurrection. For then the earth could not long hold the body of our Lord that in it was buried; but it exclaimed, O my Lord, pardon mine iniquities, save me from Your wrath, absolve me from the curse, for I have received the blood of the righteous, and yet I have not covered the bodies of men or Your own body! What is at length this wonderful mystery? Why, O Lord, did You come down to earth, unless it was for man’s sake, who has been scattered everywhere: for in every place has Your, fair image been disseminated? Nay! But if you should give but one little word, at the instant all bodies would stand before You. Now, since You have come to earth, and have sought for the members of Your fashioning, undertake for man who is Your own, receive that which is committed to You, recover Your image, Your Adam. Then the Lord, the third day after His death, rose again, thus bringing man to a knowledge of the Trinity. Then all the nations of the human race were saved by Christ. One submitted to the judgment, and many thousands were absolved. Moreover, He being made like to man whom He had saved, ascended to the height of heaven, to offer before His Father, not gold or silver, or precious stones, but the man whom He had formed after His own image and similitude; and the Father, raising Him to His right hand, has seated Him upon a throne on high, and has made Him to be judge of the peoples, the leader of the angelic host, the charioteer of the cherubim, the Son of the true Jerusalem, the Virgin’s spouse, and King for ever and ever. Amen.