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Casting away the ancestral curse

6 February 2011

This post is based on a sermon I preached this morning, the Sunday of Zacchaeus, at the Church of St Nicholas of Japan in Brixton, Johannesburg. Some members of the congregation asked me to post a written version of it, so I’ve tried to write it down here.

Six or seven times a year we sing the Resurrectional Troparion of the Fourth Tone:

When the women disciples of the Lord
learned from the angel the joyous message of Thy Resurrection;
They cast away the ancestral curse
and elatedly told the apostles:
Death is overthrown!
Christ God is risen,
granting the world great mercy.

In the Orthodox Church we sing our theology, and several times during the service the deacon says “Let us attend”, and that means standing to attention like a soldier awaiting orders. If we pay attention to what we sing, we can learn a lot about the theology of the church, and that Troparion is a summary of the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus Christ. You would have noticed, if you were paying attention, that the hymn is based on the gospel reading at Matins, which describes the Myrrhbearing Women coming to the tomb of Jesus, and then running to tell the apostles, who dismissed it as an idle tale, but Peter went to check up on it, found the tomb empty, and didn’t know what to make of it.

There is one line in the hymn that doesn’t appear in the gospel story, however, though it is added to show the extraordinary and world-changing nature of this event. “They cast away the ancestral curse”.

What is the ancestral curse, and how and why did they cast it away?

The ancestral curse is sometimes called ancestral sin, and sometimes original sin.

This is a rather tricky subject, because there are different understandings of original sin, and especially between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. At the risk of oversimplifying it, I will use an analogy. In the last couple of centuries social scientists (sociologists, psychologists etc) have sometimes argued about whether heredity or environment play the most important part in making us what we are. Are we what we are because of our genes, our DNA, or because of our environment and upbringing — whether our parents are rich or poor, go to good schools, bad schools or none at all? Some have made studies of identical twins (who share the same DNA) who have been brought up separately, to try to find answers to the question.

It could be said, very roughly, that Roman Catholic theology leans to the hereditary explanation, while Orthodox theology leans to the environmental explanation of original sin. This can be seen in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which holds that God intervened to miraculously remove the stain (macula) of original sin from the Virgin Mary at the moment of her conception. To the Orthodox, this looks like an exercise in genetic modification. And to the Orthodox it looks quite unnecessary. The problem with the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception from an Orthodox point of view is not with the immaculate conception of the Theotokos, but with the idea of the maculate conception of the rest of us. Orthodox theologians question the notion of a stain of sin that is passed on genetically from generation to generation, and needed to be miraculously removed in one particular case.

Orthodox theology tends to lean more to the “environmental” explanation. Original sin, the ancestral curse, is caused by our being born in a world that has gone away from God, and fallen into the hands of the Evil One (I John 5:19). Jesus spoke of the devil as “the ruler of this world”. We are born in a world that lies in the power of the devil. If we are born in the Republic of South Africa, we are automatically South African citizens. So, when we are born in this world we are born as citizens of the Kingdom of Satan. We are literally born possessed by the devil. In society in which slave owning was lawful (as it was in the Cape Colony in the 18th century) a child born to slaves becomes the property, the slave, of the slave owner. One of my wife’s ancestors was the daughter of a slave woman and a free man, and her father manumitted her — the legal documents are in the Cape archives. He bought her freedom, and the technical word for that is redemption, which is also a theological word that describes what Christ has done for us, redeeming us from slavery to sin, death and the devil. So we are born possessed by Satan, which is why the Orthodox baptism service begins with not one, but four exorcisms.

Different approaches to baptism can also show the different understandings or original sin. In the Roman Catholic Church, until recently, it was regarded as important to baptise babies lest, having been born in sin, they should die in sin. There was a special place for unbaptised babies who died, called “limbo”, though I believe that that is no longer taught. But it is certainly the idea of original sin that was stressed in the Roman Catholic understanding of the importance of infant baptism.

Some Protestant Christians in the West developed a different undertanding of baptism. Instead of seeing it as God’s act, they saw it as a purely human act. We were baptised as an act of obedience, because Jesus commanded it, and as a witness to our faith. This differs from the Roman Catholic understanding, but there is the same undercurrent of legalism that is found in the Roman Catholic understanding, of the necessity of obeying something seen as a command of God. They therefore believe that young children should not be baptised, because they are “too young to understand it”.

The Orthodox understanding of the need for infant baptism is somewhat different. It’s usually not expressed directly in contrast to the Western views, because it was always accepted. But it comes out when we sing our theology, and especially on Holy Saturday, when we sing about the people of Israel fleeing from slavery in Egypt and crossing the Red Sea. This is seen as a type of baptism, and a type of our salvation. The people of Israel, escaping from slavery in Egypt, and pursued by Pharaoh’s army, come to the barrier of the Red Sea. They can go forward and drown, or stay where they are and be taken back into slavery. Then God suddenly opens a way of escape through the sea. Did they carry their infant children across with them, or did they leave them on the Egyptian shore because “they were too young to understand it”? You can bet they didn’t leave their kids behind to the tender mercies of Pharaoh’s army.

In the Orthodox Church the baptism service in some ways resembles a secular naturalisation ceremony. After the exorcisms we face the West and renounce our citizenship of the kingdom of Satan, and then we turn to the East and accept Christ as our king and our God. One American translation of the baptismal liturgy even borrows the wording of a secular naturalisation ceremony, and the candidates say “I pledge allegiance to Christ”. And so we are transferred, as St Paul puts it, “from the authority of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13), not by the transmutation of our DNA, as the Western doctrine of original sin implies, but by a change of orientation.

This is also seen in the gospel reading at the Divine Liturgy, because today is the Sunday of Zacchaeus, and that points us to Pascha, and the preparation for Pascha, Great Lent, which is now approaching. One of the things that Great Lent reminds us of is how far we have strayed from God. We may, by baptism, have become citizens of Christ’s kingdom, but all too often we don’t behave like it. And the story of Zaccheus shows us that there is no sin that is so great that it cannot be forgiven. People muttered about Jesus going to dinner with Zacchaeus because he was such a bad man. And the change in Zaccheus begins because he wanted to see Jesus. That is where it begins. As we approach Great Lent and Pascha, we must want to see Jesus, and then salvation will come to our house, as it did to the house of Zacchaeus.

We also see a change in Zacchaeus. He promises to put right the wrong he had done, and in doing so, he too casts away the ancestral curse.

So what is the ancestral curse? We can read it in Genesis chapter 3, but one of the significant parts of it is this:

Gen 3:17  And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

The ancestral curse is not merely that we are cursed, but that we become a curse. The very ground is cursed because of us. As we were travelling to church there was a programme on the radio that talked about the problem of acid water in abandoned mines, that is killing the fish in the rivers and causing the vegetation alongside the rivers to die. Man’s sin affects not ourselves alone, but we become a curse to the whole creation.

But what happened when Zaccheus cast away the ancestral curse? It meant that instead of being a curse, he became a blessing. He gave away half his goods to the poor, and thus he became a blessing to the poor instead of being a curse to them.

And that is one of the consequences of switching allegiance from the kingdom of Satan to the Kingdom of God. We cast away the ancestral curse, and instead of being a curse, we become a blessing.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 February 2011 8:46 pm

    Thanks for this – what an excellent explanation, both of baptism and the role of sin in Western and Eastern churches. I love the sociology analogy.

    Now this is going to sound really flippant, but I promise you it isn’t – it’s an honest question. I always struggle with language like “the curse is taken away”, because it very clearly is not. How can we tell? Ask a Christian woman who’s been through childbirth if she thinks the curse of Genesis 3 has been taken away. I’m pretty sure she’ll give you an unambiguous answer. So reality seems to be at variance with theology on this score. (If I were going to be flippant, I’d say that since Orthodox theology is almost exclusively written by men, they probably haven’t noticed this particular exception.)

    The only explanations I’ve heard are, frankly, attempts to have cake and eat it – “yes, the curse is taken away, but in a sort of now-but-not-yet sense.” That doesn’t say anything new, it’s just a restatement of the problem that the curse is objectively not taken away, but in spite of that we believe that it is.

    If the curse is not taken away in an objective sense, then it isn’t taken away, and I would have difficulty singing that it is. I would be interested to hear any thoughts you had on this.

    • 7 February 2011 4:13 am

      I wrote a reply at some length, but WordPress seems to have vanished it. Will try to recompose it later. But for now will just say that we do not sing about having a curse “taken away”, but rather “casting it away”. There is a difference.

  2. 7 February 2011 11:36 am

    Thanks for this brilliant explanation for a church mongrel like me.

  3. Daniel Nichols permalink
    7 February 2011 9:18 pm

    Very fine summation of the different understandings of baptism. Excellent and insightful.
    My three youngest were baptised in the Byzantine Catholic rite, the same ritual used in the Orthodox Church, and I love the competeness of the sacrament; as usual, the Orthodox really know how to do everything with great exuberence!

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