Saturday, October 15, 2005

Paradise

“Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” So spoke Christ to the good thief on the Cross. Perhaps God spoke similar words to Adam when He first created him. The rather rare icon pictured here is entitled: “The Word Introduces Adam into Paradise.” That was the original earthly Paradise: walking with the Lord in naked innocence through a garden of delights, free from suffering, sorrow, and death. It is perhaps an ironic testimony to how far man has fallen that what was once Eden is now war-torn Iraq, wherein flow the Tigris and the Euphrates mentioned in Genesis (2:10-14), though now polluted with human blood. The mark of Cain reappears in our fratricidal madness.

The theme of Paradise is abundant in literature, and I think it dwells in man at a deep and practically inaccessible level, where it is experienced perhaps only as an occasional whisper, a haunting reminder of the original nobility and beauty of the human being in a pristinely pure relationship to God. Elusive and ineffable though it may be, it won’t let us alone. Paradise—exile and return—seems to be one of the great themes of my own life, something that hovers around my consciousness and smites my soul with a yearning for the complete and peaceful communion with God that humanity has all but lost: walking with Him in the cool of the day in unhindered freedom, and in joyful, childlike gratitude for the abundance of his love and goodness. I feel deeply both the sense of exile and the longing for home.

We have lost the pure and holy naivete of the newly-created Adam and Eve. They could walk naked through God's garden with neither lust nor self-consciousness. It was only after the "fall" that the human form became associated with shame instead of innocence (except in little babies). This distortion has been utilized by pornographers and other advertisers to stimulate passion (as well as the economy), while most other people simply continue to harvest fig leaves and hide from God.

We know well the story of the fall; we feel it in our bones, in our wounded and waylaid souls. We may despair of ever recovering what has been lost, for the congenital curse has ravaged our very nature. Perhaps we dream of being re-created, starting all over in a new paradise, getting it right this time. This is essentially not an idle fantasy, for “if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself…” (2Cor. 5:17-18). There is an astonishing exchange that is at the source of this re-creation: God allowed us to exchange our sins for his righteousness (v. 21), by accepting the reconciling sacrifice of his only-begotten Son on the altar of the Cross. Christ, the new Adam, “trampled death by death” and recalled the fiery swordsman from the gate of Paradise. The icon venerated at Easter depicts Christ descending to the netherworld, raising up Adam and Eve by the hand. There is also a legend that the place where Jesus was crucified is the burial place of Adam, and hence it was called the Place of the Skull. Most icons of the crucifixion depict a skull beneath the Cross, sometimes with the redeeming Blood pouring over it.

All these references to Adam bring our thoughts back to Paradise. In both the icon of the original Paradise and the regained Paradise of the resurrection, Christ takes Adam by the hand. (Perhaps this icon ought to be called "The Word Re-intoduces Adam into Paradise.") Adam lost and regained Paradise; we’ve lost it, too, but can also regain it by reaching for the hand of the risen Christ, who lifts us “out of the depths” to seat us with Him next to the Father.

Our nature is still wounded but has been infused with the potential for transfiguration. Christ retained the wounds of his sacrifice, and they serve not to diminish but to enhance his glory. Our problem may simply be that we don’t really believe that Christ can make (or already has made, through baptism) a new creation out of us. We become resigned to our intransigent defects and make dutiful but discouraging trips to the confessional. We should rather (while not foregoing the confessional) put our faith in the word of God which reveals the great things He has accomplished for us—and not rest until we have learned to plunge into the bracing current of the River of Life that flows in twin streams from the divine Eden of the pierced Heart of Christ.

We cannot literally return to the original Paradise, but “we await a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells” (2Peter 3:13). We can still walk in renewed innocence through the grace of Christ, while the new creation which He has made out of the wreckage of our former beauty begins to manifest within us. We may be in exile, but we are still citizens of heaven, and “in our hearts are the roads to [the heavenly] Zion” (Psalm 83/84).

Perhaps Paradise still seems like a dream. But when we at length hear the voice of the Son of God calling us unto Himself, it is the present life that will seem like a dream from which we have finally awakened, and we will find ourselves clothed not in the skins of shame but in the garment of glory.