Before and after the fall
Although the sacred texts of the Bible do not provide us with many details about the life of the first humans in Paradise, there are a few characteristics that stand out. For example, we immediately notice their ability to see God. They speak with the almighty Creator in a simple and direct manner. They receive from Him the divine command not to touch the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16), and then Adam is invited to name the creatures (Genesis 2:19-20). Everything indicates that their eyes had the capacity to see God. It is important to add that this vision was not the “beatific vision” – accessible only to those who attain perfection. Adam and Eve still had to do spiritual things (like contemplating and discovering the divine reasons of the creatures) to reach perfection.
The most important thing that people lost as a result of original sin is precisely this privilege, the ability to speak to God at any time.
The description of the knowledge of God that Adam possessed before the fall is provided to us by Saint Hildegard of Bingen (c. 1098 – 1179):
“Adam, who had been created wise and perfect by God, was filled with knowledge and wisdom above all people, but he never looked upon God in God’s own divinity, as God is. When Adam saw the brightness coming forth from God’s face with his exterior eyes, Adam knew by that brightness that God was the true God.”[i]
In her answer to a question regarding the way the dialogue between Adam and God occurred, Saint Hildegard explains how Adam knew God before and after the fall:
“The Lord appeared to him with inestimable brightness, unlike that in which any creature appears, and appeared to him again after his sin, walking about in Paradise in the guise of a fiery flame.”[ii]
After the Fall, the way in which God appeared to Adam reminds us of the famous burning bush from which the Almighty spoke to Moses (Exodus 3:2). The most important thing that people lost as a result of original sin is precisely this privilege, the ability to speak to God at any time – which, in Paradise, was accessible in that “inestimable brightness” mentioned by Saint Hildegard.
If we were to somehow imagine the state before the Fall, this could be done by recalling the ancient stories: before the exile, people had direct access to the throne room of the Great King of Creation. After the Fall, they were excluded from the kingdom’s territory – thus direct access to the King of Kings was forbidden.
Humanity before the Fall was characterized by its most important attribute: immortality. The Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church show that immortality, due to the grace of original justice, implied a series of other attributes.
In addition to the paradisiacal knowledge of God, the state of humanity before the Fall was characterized by its most important attribute: immortality. Reflecting on the sacred treasure of Revelation, the Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church show that immortality, due to the grace of original justice, implied a series of other attributes. Among these, one of the most notable was the impassibility of bodies, meaning the absence of fatigue, illness, and fragility. Also, the appetitive part of the soul was fully subject to reason. This explains the statement in the Genesis text that tells us Adam and Eve “were both naked (…) and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). Full of sanctifying grace, their minds had the capacity to control both the appetitive part of their souls and their spiritualized bodies.
The image we must hold as essentially characteristic of Paradise is that of a hierarchy assumed in genuine freedom: God, the King, rules over creation and man, subject to the Creator, rules over both his own being and the creatures entrusted to him. If I insist on the concept of “hierarchy,” it is because the modern chaotic and anarchic world systematically ignores this crucial value of the world created by God.
Regarding the bodies of humans before the Fall, the most appropriate metaphor that can be applied to their state is that of transparency. The light of grace could pass through them, clothing them in radiance that served as their attire. They had no shadows. Perhaps the simplest way to recall this is to think of the vision of the children at Fatima in May 1917, among whom Lucia dos Santos described the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of the Universe, as “a Lady dressed all in white, more brilliant than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal glass filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun.”
In one of her fascinating visions from Scivias, Saint Hildegard describes Eve, on the edge of imagination, as “a white cloud, which had come forth from a beautiful human form and contained within itself many and many stars (…) – the whole multitude of the human race.” [iii]
Both in the vision of the children at Fatima and in that of the Teutonic mystic, we encounter the same image of the prelapsarian bodies, transparent before the Fall. With the commission of the first sin, this quality, along with all the others, and above all, immortality, was lost. In one word, human nature was corrupted, affecting both the souls and the bodies of the first humans, Adam and Eve, in a terrible way.
Holy Baptism. This is the Sacrament through which man is recreated, restored to his original dignity, and even elevated beyond the state of our first parents, Adam and Eve in Paradise.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa and the corruption of human nature: the symbol of the vessel
Saint Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) discusses the way this corruption of human nature occurred as a result of the devil's temptation and the parents' consent to sin in his treatise Oratio Catechetica. Here, he presents three symbolic images that, although different, convey the same idea. The first image is that of the unique nature of man with his two components, soul and body, expressed through the symbol of the lamp:
"And as in the case of a lamp, when the flame has caught the wick, if any one, being unable to blow out the flame, mixes water with the oil, he will by this device render the flame dull.”[iv]
Upon seeing the light of humanity in its state of original grace, the devil mixed water into the oil to extinguish the flame. Water represents the “evil” that entered human nature out of the devil's envy. Another significant image is that of poison mixed into the blood. How could a person swallow poison? Saint Gregory answers: it was mixed with honey. Thus, deceived by sweetness (which is a reference to the forbidden fruit, “good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold” – Genesis 3:6), man consumed it, leading to his fall. Finally, the last image, used more extensively by the Cappadocian Father, is that of a vessel filled with molten lead. As it solidifies, it renders the vessel unusable. The image of the vessel filled with molten lead is also used to illustrate how the restoration of man occurs, beginning with Holy Baptism:
“We supposed that some vessel has been composed of clay, and then, for some mischief or other, filled with melted lead, which lead hardens and remains in a non-liquid state; then that the owner of the vessel recovers it, and, as he possesses the potter’s art, pounds to bits the ware which held the lead, and then remolds the vessel after its former pattern for his own special use, emptied now of the material which had been mixed with it: by a like process the maker of our vessel, now that wickedness has intermingled with our sentient part, I mean that connected with the body, will dissolve the material which has received the evil, and, re-molding it again by the Resurrection without any admixture of the contrary matter, will recombine the elements into the vessel in its original beauty.”
Created to receive and retain sanctifying grace within his being, man was deceived, thereby expelling the good and embracing the evil – the molten lead. According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, this opaque metal symbolizes the evanescent matter of the mortal world, which, when filling the soul, weighs it down by fatally binding it to earthly things. For, although he is endowed with an earthly body, man is destined to carry the divine light in his soul, which can support him in the spiritual world. What will the Divine Potter do? Wanting to recover the vessel, he will first crush it to extract the hardened lead within. Ultimately, he will rebuild the entire vessel, which will be able to carry the divine content once again.
Starting from such images, we can begin to understand the importance of baptism. The fall of the first parents led to a certain darkening of the powers of the mind, and therefore of the soul itself. Turning from the Creator to the creatures, the inferior part of the soul was ignited with a desire for earthly things. Because of the chains of matter, the body became opaque, closed off from the divine sanctifying grace.
If man, through a sin of thought and will, has lost his “likeness” to God, what could be done? An incredible thing: his reconstruction. Only the Divine Potter could accomplish this.
If we look at our own bodily condition, we can see how everything in our bodies is dark, non-transparent, exuding unpleasant substances. On the other hand, if we look at the Savior Jesus after His resurrection or at the saints of the Church, we see how their luminous-spiritualized bodies are light and ethereal. They can fly (the miracle of levitation), pass through doors and walls (the miracles of bilocation and translocation), just as when the Savior came to the apostles after His resurrection, even though the doors were closed (John 20:26). What kind of body did the Savior have? The Apostle Paul teaches us this when he says that one is the body of the earthly, and another is the body of the heavenly (1 Corinthians 15:40-41). But if man, through a sin of thought and will, has lost his “likeness” to God, what could be done? An incredible thing: his reconstruction. Only the Divine Potter could accomplish this.
Back to Paradise: the effects of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism
Let’s return to the effects of the Holy Baptism. This is the Sacrament through which man is recreated, restored to his original dignity, and even elevated beyond the state of our first parents, Adam and Eve in Paradise. The definition proposed by the Roman Catechism conveys the essence of Baptism: “The Sacrament of regeneration by water in the word.”[v] The reference is to one of the extraordinary encounters described in the New Testament.
It’s about that unforgettable night when the Savior, Jesus Christ, told Nicodemus that “unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Astonished, Nicodemus asked, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born again? (John 3:4).” The answer reveals the heart of the matter:
“Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
First of all, we learn that through Holy Baptism, we are literally reborn. Or – as Saint Gregory of Nyssa would put it, with the image of a broken vessel being restored in mind – we are re-created. This rebirth has effects on the entire human nature, both soul and body. According to the Roman Catechism, the wrath of God is removed: “By nature, we are born from Adam, children of wrath; but by baptism we are regenerated in Christ, children of mercy.”
In the second place, due to the illumination of the intellect through the supernatural light of the revealed teachings of faith, the powers of the soul are restored. Let us not forget that, at the same time, baptism also symbolizes the three-day death of the Savior Christ. In a mysterious way, we, the baptized, are buried together with Christ to rise again with Him. Thus, original sin is “drowned” in the baptismal water, and man becomes an entirely free and new creature. In concrete terms, we are ready to re-enter Paradise, as the teaching of the Council of Trent (1545–1563) states:
“In those who are born again, God hates nothing, because ‘there is no condemnation, to those who are truly buried together with Christ by baptism unto death’ (Romans 8:1), who do not ‘walk according to the flesh’ (Romans 8:1), but putting off ‘the old man’ and putting on the ‘new, who is created according to God’ (Ephesians 4:22 ff.; Colossians 3:9 ff.), are made innocent, immaculate, pure, guiltless and beloved sons of God, ‘heirs indeed of God, but co-heirs with Christ’ (Romans 8:17), so that there is nothing whatever to retard their entrance into heaven” (Denzinger 792).
Falling to the temptation in Paradise, man became both the slave of sin and the fallen angel. Holy Baptism is the sacrament that brings us liberation from the powers of darkness and our release from the kingdom of sin and death.
At the same time, the Council warns us that, although potentially we are already citizens of Paradise, as long as we are still in this earthly life, we are subject to certain evils. The first of these is the disorderly manifestation of the appetitive part of the soul, which inclines towards evil, concupiscence, and against which we must resist “with manliness.” Furthermore, we see in our bodies the persistence of suffering, weakness, illness, and ultimately, death. In the case of the baptized, however, none of these have the character of punishment. They are merely “penalties” (Lat. poenalitates) that should prompt us, as taught by Saint Apostle Paul, to fight – by practicing virtues – against vices.
Another extremely important effect, clearly indicated by the exorcisms to which both the water and salt used in the Baptismal rite and the baptized themselves are subjected, indicates our liberation from the power of the devil. Slavery to sin and the devil is taught by Saint Apostle Peter, who shows that “by whom a man is overcome, of the same also he is the slave” (2 Peter 2:19). Falling to the temptation in Paradise, man became both the slave of sin and the fallen angel. Holy Baptism is the sacrament that brings us liberation from the powers of darkness and our release from the kingdom of sin and death. Exorcisms, almost completely minimized in today’s “reformed” rituals and prayers, clearly indicate this.
The essence of the Christian gospel is summarized by the message as short as it is full of profound meaning: “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 12:17). Repentance, asceticism, the actions and the state of the soul by which we show that we are separating ourselves from the evils of a sinful life are all that we must do to obtain what God proposes to us: the Kingdom of Heaven (i.e., Paradise). The purified and blessed water of Holy Baptism cleanses us from original sin and personal sins (when baptism is offered to adults), opening wide the gates of heaven – the Church where our souls can be abundantly nourished by the graces of the Holy Sacraments. Of course, we must learn how to do this, constantly striving to be in the right state so as not to lose them. A quote from Saint Cyprian (c. 210–258), Bishop of Carthage, will conclude this second mystagogical catechesis dedicated to Holy Baptism, a meditation through which we deepen all these mysteries:
“The Church, setting forth the likeness of paradise, includes within her walls fruit-bearing trees, where of that which does not bring forth good fruit is cut off and is cast into the fire. These trees she waters with four rivers, that is, with the four Gospels, wherewith, by a celestial inundation, she bestows the grace of saving baptism.”[vi]
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[i] Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Solutions to Thirty-Eight Questions, Translated by Beverly Mayne Kienzle with Jenny C. Bledsoe and Stephen H. Behnke, Cistercian Publications, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2014, p. 43.
[ii] Op. cit., p. 44.
[iii] Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, Translated from Latin by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, New York, Paulist Press, 1990, p. 77.
[iv] The Catechetical Oration, Edited by James Herbert Srawley, Cambridge, University Press, 1903, p. 36.
[v] Roman Catechism 2, 114. This article of the Roman Catechism can be read online here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Catechism_of_the_Council_of_Trent/Part_2:_Baptism