Tragedy happens quickly; restoration takes its time.
The taller and more narrow our pedestal, the greater our chances of falling to the earth in a clamor of dust and ash. Just ask Adam—a 500-year-old sculpture by Renaissance master Tullio Lombardo. The sculpture of Adam was on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City when it mysteriously crashed to the ground, shattering into literally hundreds of pieces. Carol Vogel’s 2014 article in The New York Times was—perhaps appropriately—entitled: “Recreating Adam, From Hundreds of Pieces, After the Fall:”
“What followed was more than a decade of painstaking restoration that was unprecedented in the Met’s history. The project took so long there were rumors that the statue was beyond repair….In decades past, museums would have also restored a damaged work of art in a way that got it back on view as quickly as possible. In the case of a massive marble sculpture like Adam, conservators would have resorted to using iron or steel pins that required drilling many of the sculpture’s joints. But such invasive work can be risky, curators said, potentially harming the marble….Nobody at the Met thought that the process would take 12 years. But [the Met’s director] reiterated in a recent interview, that he wanted Adam ‘brought back to a state where only [art insiders] could tell anything had happened.’”
Vogel reports that experts in the field describe such restoration projects as “the cutting edge of art history.” Restorers speak of “the romance of the fragment,” the re-assembly of damaged pieces to make the artwork whole again.
Yet for us—all of Adam’s true daughters and sons—there can be no “romance of the fragment,” no possible way of assembling our disjointed thoughts into a cohesive whole. In fact, our every medicine seemingly only causes more illness. Even in our best moments we are dimly aware that we are broken, beyond repair. Our attempts to find wholeness through career, through relationships, through sex, through sports, through artistic triumph—even through religious devotion—only magnifies our brokenness, like children gluing pieces of china together in hopes our parents won’t notice the cracks in the dinner plates.
Malcolm Muggeridge—the twentieth century journalist—once remarked that original sin is the doctrine most often denied, yet the one most easily proven. Just turn on your television set, and your living room will flicker with the evidence of a world where Adam’s legacy may be seen and felt. Yet the problem is never simply “out there,” out in the world, someone else’s problem. No; the problem goes deeper. As a Russian writer once put it, “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.”
We’re speaking, of course, of the nature of original sin. When Paul summarized the gospel of the people of Rome, he described it as a glorious exchange. Or—more specifically—a series of exchanges.
THE FIRST EXCHANGE: ADAM TO US
First, Adam’s rebellion in the garden was passed on to us:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because wall sinned—13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Romans 5:12-14)
We are all the products of a fatal, genetic error. The early Church called this “original sin,” a doctrine that states that sin is more than just what we do; sin is something we are. We are “polluted in father and mother,” wrote Origen, a member of the early Church. If this is true, then we can’t possibly defend ourselves as merely being “born this way,” or the products of heredity and environment. No; we are guilty by simple virtue of being born.
But, you might object, surely that’s unfair. In Western societies, we tend to think of responsibility as personal. If my brother, father, sister, etc. commits a crime, I am not guilty—unless I participate. So to be condemned for Adam’s sin seems unfair. But this assumes you haven’t yourself participated in the same kind of rebellion that Adam did—or that even from birth you have a desire for self-indulgence.
Gary Willis says it best:
“We are hostages to each other in a deadly interrelatedness. There is no ‘clean slate’ of nature unscribbled on by all one’s forebears….At one time a woman of unsavory enough experience was delicately but cruelly referred to as ‘having a past.’ The doctrine of original sin states that humankind, in exactly that sense, ‘has a past.’” (Gary Willis, Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home, p. 384)
THE SECOND EXCHANGE: OUR SIN TO CHRIST
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:15-17)
The gospel is a glorious exchange, wherein my wickedness—the same “reputation” I earned from Adam—is given to Jesus. On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for my depravity. And, in return…
THE THIRD EXCHANGE: CHRIST’S RIGHTEOUSNESS TO US
When Christ takes our sin, so too does he impart to us His righteousness:
18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for fall men.19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:18-21)
Christian thinkers have termed this as the doctrine of “imputation,” the process by which each of these exchanges takes place. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness, we might say, is what puts back together the image that was broken.
And that’s why Luke, in writing his biography of Jesus, would extend Christ’s genealogy all the way back to “Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). For Luke, both Adam and Jesus were “sons of God”—though each in their own unique way. But while the first Adam would result in ruin, the second Adam would bring about restoration. For the first Adam, what began in a garden resulted in a graveyard. But for the second Adam, what began in the graveyard would result in a garden.
“The deformity of Christ forms you,” wrote Saint Augustine. And he was right. If Jesus was broken so that I could be made whole, it liberates me from trying to reassemble the pieces on my own. I am set free from the “romance of the fragment,” a romance that leads only to codependency and grief. Instead, I may begin each day with joy, knowing my identity no longer comes from Adam, no longer comes from my career, no longer comes from a shameful past, no longer comes from my need for relationship, for sex, for sports victories—no longer comes externally at all. Instead, my identity comes from Jesus, whose once-for-all sacrifice undoes the years of grief, and fills in my broken cracks with grace. And life. And joy.