As we have celebrated another joyous feast of The Ascension of our Lord and Pentecost, let us contemplate what The Ascension of The Lord means for us. In doing so we must contemplate some of the words we pray and say, but perhaps without having fully gleaned what it might mean for us. Here let us contemplate what it means for Christ to be the first fruits of humanity. St. Paul writes about the resurrection,
“But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.” 1 Corinthians 15. 20-23
So Christ is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, about which we also sing in the much beloved hymn “All you heavenly Multitudes” (Ya Kol el Sefoof):
“All you heavenly orders, Sing to our God with the melody of praise, Rejoice with us today with gladness, In the Resurrection of the Lord Christ. Today the prophecies are fulfilled, And the sayings of the forefathers are realized, By the Resurrection of the Lord from among the dead, He is the first-fruit of those who have fallen asleep.”
In a related set of passages we read of Christ being the “Firstborn among many brethren”. St. Paul writes for examples,
“For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” Romans 8.29
This language of firstfruit is not one we commonly use or speak of today so it may be hard to unpack. For the Church fathers it is intimately related to our understanding of Christ’s resurrection, but also His Ascension.
First-fruit – Potential and Promise
When we contemplate a firstfruit we must imagine what this meant to the ears of an early Christian familiar with various farming practices and for whom a first fruit was a sign of many things. If you or I are farming and we see the first budding of grapes (or other fruit) during harvest season, there is a deep significance to it. The cold winter season brings about a death of all things, a time of relative quiet with regard to the tending of the fields. Spring, however, brings with it new promise. After all of one’s labour in tilling the earth, planting the seeds, watering the budding plants, keeping away all predatory or parasitic influence, then comes the hopeful harvest. For many a farmer the harvest season is one of great anticipation; will the crop grow and my family have their necessary food? Or will harvest bring forth only more suffering?
The firstfruit then represents new potential. If the crop has started to grow then this points to a capacity for the whole crop to follow suit. That first cluster of grapes is the first indication of life showing that this yield may bring forth much fruit. It bears the potential that new life will sprout from previously dead branches. Just as this first plant has sprouted fruit, so too the rest of the field may bring forth more fruit.
In another sense, the first fruit is also a promise. If these are plants of the same sort and are under, relatively speaking, the same condition then a first budding holds the promise of much more fruit. We would be shocked if only one apple or only one cluster of grapes sprouted and the rest of its kind remained in its wintery death. If one tree comes to life then those of its kind are also to be partakers of springtime resurrection. This sort of imagery applies to human beings also. If a couple is struggling with issues of infertility, often the first question asked by their doctor is “Have either of you fathered or mothered previous children?” Rather than being a simple social exchange, this is an important medical question. For, if both have previously had children of their own (brought forth fruit) then there should be no hindrance to having a child once more (barring an intervening process meaning that either person has now become infertile). Thus one’s firstborn reveals potential for new life but also the promise of it.
Therefore, when we speak of Christ as the first fruit we mean far more than that He was the first to rise from the dead. Of course, there have been others who have risen from the dead as recorded in both Old and New Testament. Christ, however, is the first fruits in that He is our new potential for life, an ever-existent spring, and the promise of our being raised up to eternal Life. We see this understanding of firstfruits come out in the understanding of the Church fathers. Take for examples the feast of the firstfruits where we read:
“Speak to the children of Israel, and thou shalt say to them, When you shall enter into the land which I give you, and reap the harvest of it, then you shall bring a sheaf, the first-fruits of your harvest, to the priest; and he shall lift up the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted for you.” Leviticus 23.10-11.
St. Cyril of Alexandria will say about this passage:
“There was, then, a sheaf serving as the first fruits of the crops and a symbol of new productivity. A loaf of bread was also made from grain that had been harvested, heaped up, and also perhaps laid up in storehouses. So an offering was dedicated to God by those who would then be inhabiting the promised land. It commanded these things to be done so that both might be understood as indicating Christ. He is indeed the life-giving bread from Heaven, and also the first fruits of the dough for those being restored to newness of life in Him. Now Adam was the first fruits of the older lump of dough, but as he disregarded the commandment that was given, he fell into transgression. And in Him the human race was immediately placed under a curse, and sentenced to death and corruption. Christ, however, was the first fruits of the second lump of dough. He was free of the curse evidently through becoming a curse for us Himself. And He overcame the power of corruption through Himself being ‘left along among the dead (Ps 87.5).’ For having trodden down death, he came back to life again. He was, in effect, both a wonderful dedicatory offering and a bringer of gifts, and was in a kind of way the first fruits of humanity, since having been made new with regard to incorruption he ascended to the Father. So in the bringing of the bread into the sacred tabernacle and in the dedication of it to God in the holy of holies, it quite appropriately indicates Emmanuel’s return into Heaven.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyra 12 on Numbers, page 192 of CUA press translation
Thus we see that Christ is the first fruits in the fullest sense of both potential for new life for all of us but also the promise of life eternal. The sheaf as first fruits points us to Christ Who is the first fruits of a renewed humanity. A little later in the commentary St. Cyril teaches:
“Surely then, as I just said, the produce in the field is very much like people upon the earth. And Christ became one of us, springing forth from the holy Virgin like an ear of grain. Also note that He described Himself to us as a grain of wheat, saying, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12.24).’ So he was an offering dedicated to the Father for us, a kind of sheaf, like the firstfruits from the earth, which is attested as being fruitful through the things that it brings forth… For Jesus Christ is indeed one, yet He is also to be understood in the form of an abundant sheaf, and he is so because He possesses all believers within Himself as regards their spiritual union. Otherwise, how could the blessed Paul write, ‘We have been raised up together with Him and seated with Him in the heavenly places (Eph 2.6).’? Since Christ is one of us, we have become fellow members of HIs body and we have been richly blessed in our union with Him through His body. Therefore, we say that we are all in Him. And so he Himself non a certain place says to God the Father in Heaven, ‘I wish that, as you and I are one, so too they may be one in us (John 17.11),’ just as ‘Whoever is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him (1 Cor 6.17).’ Christ, then, Is like a sheaf, containing us all within Himself, as it were, and dedicating himself on behalf of us all, being the first fruits of a humanity made perfect by faith and destined to be brought as treasure into Heaven above.” Ibid pg 194.
Christ our Lord has entered into wintery death and shone forth spring-time Life upon us by His resurrection. He is of our stock and like His brethren in all things (cf. Heb 2) and His resurrection from the dead, as one of us, shows our capacity for resurrection and Life eternal if only we are grafted onto the True Vine (Cf. John 15). His ascension, which we have just celebrated, is the new capacity for our own sitting at the Right Hand of The Father.
Christ, our Firstfruit, Ascends
The Church of Alexandria continues to celebrate this feast as a Major Feast (of which there are 7) pointing to its integral place in the economy of our salvation. This was evident for the Church Fathers who viewed Salvation not as merely ‘becoming good enough’ or ‘covering our deficits or sins’ but rather as re-union with God. In his commentary on the Gospel of St. John, St Cyril of Alexandria says,
“It was necessary, then, to lead human nature up to the summit of all good, and not only to set it free from death and sin, but to raise it already even to the heavens themselves, and to display man a sharer and fellow worshipper with the angels. And just as by his own resurrection he opened a new way for us to be able to escape from corruption, so it was necessary to open for us the passage heavenwards too, and to set in the presence of the Father the one who had been expelled from his countenance because of Adam’s transgression… He places us in the presence of the Father, having departed into heaven as the firstfruits of humanity. For just as, being himself Life by nature, he is said to have died and risen again for our sake, so too, ever beholding his own Father, and in turn also being seen by his own Father, he is said to be manifested now (that is, when he became man, not for his own sake but for us) as man. And therefore this one thing was seen to be lacking in his dispensation towards us, our ascension into heaven itself, as in Christ, the firstfruits and the first [of all].” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 16. 7
The Lord does not ascend simply because His work is done but rather to bring the work of salvation to its climax. Christ, the firstfruits, ascends into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of The Father. He seats us with Him in that He bears our humanity. In this sense again He is the first fruit, leading the way but also opening it for so many after Him who will be called to be with Him. This is the height of the feast, that we too might be at the right hand of The Father in that Christ bears all of us within Himself because He is our brother according to the flesh. The Son of The Father places all of us at the right hand of The Father and soon hereafter we shall receive adoption as sons and daughters of The Father (Cf. Rom 8) by receiving the Spirit of His Son (Cf. Gal 4). This is what St. John teaches in His Gospel as he records the Lord telling St. Mary Magdalene,
“Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’” John 20.17
St. Gregory of Nyssa explains that the work of Christ becomes the common good of humanity,
“For that which has taken place in Christ’s humanity is a common good He has bestowed on humankind generally. For as when we see in Him the weight of the body that naturally gravitates to earth ascending through the air into the heavens, we believe according to the words of the apostle that we also ‘shall be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.’ Even so, when we hear that the true God and Father has become the God and Father of our Firstfruits, we no longer doubt that the same God has become our God and Father too, inasmuch as we have learned that we shall come to the same place where Christ has entered for us as our forerunner.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius 12.1
Thus we see that this term, firstfruit (or firstborn) is so loaded with meaning that we may not have appreciated it before. With the firstfruit we see the guarantee of things to come and the potential that lies in them. Christ, being both God and man in one, is able to overcome death and corruption and then ascends to the right hand of the Father. As the first fruits of humanity, He shows that we too no longer have to be subject to death and be held in bondage through the fear of death (Cf. Heb 2). We now have the capacity for Life eternal if only we follow the first-fruit, the prototype. In that we put on Christ in the sacramental life and by our ascetical practice, we too attain to a life that is stronger than death and seek that union with God for which we were made.