Feed Your Faith, the weekly discussion on Catholic topics is now taking place virtually on-line. We were on Facebook Live, last Thursday, April 23, discussing what Eucharistic Miracles are and what their relationship to the regular, public revelation of the Church, as well as six of the better known miracles. Below is a slightly condensed version of the presentation that I posted to YouTube. Please let me know if you have any questions or any suggestions for other presentations.
Every Good Friday, the question is raised again, “Why did Jesus have to die?”
A common answer, though not really the Catholic answer, says that Jesus is a substitute victim, an innocent, and infinitely holy person, the Son of God, who suffers the punishment which sinners deserve in their place, and thereby frees them from this just punishment they, deserve. He thus allows them to receive a reward of eternal life they do not deserve. God the Father, being infinitely just, demands a sacrifice for sin, but also being infinitely merciful, sends His Son, Jesus, to offer the only sacrifice that could pay that infinite debt.
To many people skeptical of the Christian gospel, this makes no sense, and seems to show that God is cruel and arbitrary in dealing with offenses against himself, and abusive toward His Son. It is reasonably asked, could not God just forgive the offense? As anyone might, in mercy, turn the other cheek, or cancel a debt, God could simply not be offended by an offensive act. And if God cannot simply cancel and forgive the damage to his infinite dignity, but satisfaction must be made for it, it is not clear how a third-party might provide the satisfaction for an offence committed by someone else. For, while one might justly pay for damage caused by another’s actions (as when my father, when I was a boy, paid for a car window I shot out with a bb gun), or a kind benefactor could pay a traffic fine or gambling debt for another. Judicial sentences imposed on the person of wrongdoers are not transferable. A good and just God cannot just declare the punishment imposed as a personal sentence on one or all people as having been served by substituting one prisoner for another, just as nobody’s father can go to prison or be executed in the place of his son. To many a skeptic, it is unfathomable how it is supposed to be an act of justice for the innocent Son of God to bear the punishment of death in the place of disobedient human beings.
The Catholic position contends that the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross was not strictly necessary. God could have forgiven and redeemed us in some other way unknown to us. But, the cross of Christ is how God did choose to do it, and there are good reasons for it.
To be sure, Catholics believe that Jesus did suffer for our sins, and by his suffering, we are redeemed. But the cross of Christ does this as manifesting God’s love for us, as showing forth in a profound and supremely appropriate way the forgiveness God does wish to give freely. And further, his suffering and death redeems and sanctifies humanity, for by it he realizes in his own human nature perfect love and obedience to the Father, and he becomes the means by which all who have faith in him can share in this perfect love and obedience.
In order to see how the cross is redemptive in a way that is not a substitutionary punishment, one needs to consider what we need redemption from. In his original plan for us, God made us for love, and not in just a human way, but as he loves, to share in his life in the Trinity of Love. That is heaven: loving God in the way God loves, and loving everything else God loves in the manner that He does: in total self-giving will of good for the other. But we, the human race, are not capable of this kind of love on our own.
Moreover, we failed at the love we are capable of. This was the first sin, and from it, all of us have been infected so that none of us loves humanly as we should. So, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (as St. Paul says). Humanity, then, was (and left to itself, is) an enemy of God. As enemies, none of us can do anything to make peace with God since the offence against God, who is infinitely good and holy, is infinite. God is willing to forgive every sin committed, but human beings (prior to being redeemed) are not capable being friends with God, of acting in obedience to him. The only one who could make peace would be a man already at peace with God, who would do it on behalf of other humans.
Left to ourselves, there is an infinite gulf between humanity and God, and it is a kind of debt and punishment, but it is made up for, not by an innocent third-party being punished in our place, but by God himself, as a man, acting with the loving obedience all people ought to give to God. Jesus, the Eternal Son of the Father, and God made man, by his perfect obedience to the Father (an obedience unto death, death on a cross) restores humanity to friendship with God. And being God, he rightfully inherits a place in the Kingdom of his Father (i.e. heaven). Or put in terms of love, Jesus perfectly loves the Father and atones for the lovelessness of mankind, and being God, is able to fulfill the purpose for which God made humanity: Jesus is able to love as God loves forever in heaven.
Jesus’ loving obedience in accepting the cross is an act of love, the most dramatic and revelatory act of the love that is God, which transforms the very sin which inflicts that cruelty and violence on him. The Jewish leaders, the people of Jerusalem who reject him, the Roman authorities who cynically use him, the soldiers who beat and ridiculed him, his disciples who deserted him, all are manifestation of human sin, your sins, my sins. But Jesus accepted this rejection, abuse, isolation, betrayal, brutal violence and made out of this our sin, his loving act. He, as it were, absorbs hate and sin with his infinite love and obedience, and thereby changes it. He makes of a cross of torture and execution, a means of loving those who are torturing and executing him, a means of displaying for all the world and for all time how completely and profoundly God loves those whom he created. And without such terrible sin, God could not have manifested the depth of his forgiving love. He could and does forgive, but there is no forgiveness without sin to forgive, and the horror of the sin which nailed Jesus to the cross is fitting (if not strictly necessary) to manifest the sublimity of God’s love and his wish for mankind to share in a life of that love forever (which is what heaven is).
Further, the manner of manifesting God’s love also redeems humanity. The cross of Jesus reconciles sinners to God, for those who accept what Jesus does on their behalf, in faith, are incorporated into him and participate in his saving act. As he shares in our humanity, we share in his divinity, and are empowered by grace to love our enemies with supernatural love, and bear our crosses as his cross. In this way, the whole of Jesus’s incarnation, but as culminated on the cross, is precisely how we come to be sharers is his divine life (2 Peter 1:4). Through the cross, through our sin and hate and selfishness and pride, God, in Jesus, loves us sinners into becoming his beloved children, brothers of the Eternal Son of God.
Today, the Church celebrates Holy Thursday, the beginning of the Paschal Triduum which the long season of Lent has been preparing us for.
The three-day long celebration of our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection begins today with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper which commemorates the Last Supper where Jesus models loving service by washing the feet of the Apostles and instituting the sacramental priesthood and his continuing presence in the Holy Eucharist. Much attention is rightly given to the institution of the Eucharist and of the priesthood, but integral to both is Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet. For in this act of loving service, Jesus again shows in a concrete and visible sense what he means when he says,
“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14)
It is in his disciple’s faith in him and in their conformity with him in serving others that he sanctifies them and brings them into communion with himself and his Heavenly Father.
“Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13: 15)
We rightly focus on his sacrifice on the cross on Good Friday which was pre-presented in the Eucharist of the Last Supper and re-presented at every Mass. We rightly focus on how this is the definitive sacrifice toward which the whole mystery of the Incarnation of the Eternal Son of God points and in which it is fulfilled. But at Calvary, it is easy for us to think of ourselves as passive onlookers and recipients of the salvation he wins for us there. We are called to follow him to Calvary, and to lay down our lives for others, but few of us will do that in a literal or physical way as the martyrs did and do. Yet we all can lay down our lives for others in humble service as Jesus did in washing the feet of those who were his followers and disciples.
Here, again, Jesus shows that good works of service, done in faith, are not optional for his followers. In order to “take on Christ,” to be saved by his sacrifice, we need to be conformed to “him through a death like his, [so that] we shall also be united with him in the resurrection” (Romans 6: 5)
“If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we persevere, we shall also reign with him.” (2 Tim 2: 11-12)
So, even if today, because of our social distancing, we cannot receive communion with Jesus at the Mass of his Last Supper, we can yet be in communion with him in performing acts of loving service to those with whom we are in contact. We can make that effort to help with cooking or cleaning, the act of patience toward those we have been cooped up with for far too long, we can send a text or call or message to one who feels alone and forgotten, or any number of other ways we can follow and be conformed to the love Jesus modeled for us in washing the feet of his disciples. “If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it.” (John 13:17)
The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston has online resources for participating virtually in the Paschal Triduum at https://www.archgh.org/holyweek
Today’s Gospel has the shortest, or at least one of the shortest, verses in the Bible: Jesus wept. It is one of the most poignant, and at several moments in the Gospel, there are other poignant moments, when Jesus, seeing the grief of others, becomes greatly perturbed or troubled. Throughout the story of Lazarus’ dying and being raised to life again, Jesus reveals profound emotion.
It reminds me of a meme that said something to the effect that Jesus wept even though he already knew Lazarus had died. Jesus wept even though he knew Lazarus would live again. Even though you know the end of the story, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cry at the sad parts.
Right now, in the midst of this time of uncertainty, of fear of sickness and death, fear of financial loss and grief at actual loss, we are in a sad part of our story.
But this Gospel has a couple of things to teach us:
First, it’s OK to be greatly perturbed or deeply troubled by what is going on. These are troubling times. Scary times.
Jesus, even though He has conquered the world, sin and death, even though the end of the story is the resurrection and a new heavens and a new earth, in the present moment, he cares about what people are going through. He was deeply moved when he saw Mary’s grief and the others grieving with her. He grieved with her, even though he was planning to restore Lazarus to life. He grieved because anyone dying, and anyone grieving that death, is sad. And it’s OK to cry at the sad parts of life.
But then, Jesus calls us beyond this grief, and fear and uncertainty. And this call is itself unsettling. Jesus’ words and actions in this Gospel, while consoling, also seem very confusing:
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea. Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.”
He loved Lazarus and his sisters, but he remained two days? Wouldn’t he be in a rush? As the people will say later, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”
Also, Jesus says he was glad he was not there to prevent Lazarus from dying. What’s going on Jesus?
Why does he do this? Because there is something more important than our physical life and death. It is our faith in Jesus.
In everything Jesus did and said, even in the miracles and healings he performs, he is calling people to himself. The miracles aren’t about the results, eliminating disease and death. If his life was just about curing people, he failed; he did not cure all who were sick even in his own time, much less though all the ages since then. The miracles are meant to reveal to us who he is, the Only Begotten Son of God, God with us, and to call us to have faith in him and to trust him.
As Pope Francis prayed in his Urbi et Orbi address:
Lord, you are calling to us, calling us to faith. Which is not so much believing that you exist, but coming to you and trusting in you. This Lent your call reverberates urgently: “Be converted!”, “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.
Jesus does not promise to take away all suffering in this life. Eventually, yes, as the Book of Revelation says, in the coming Kingdom, every tear will be wiped away, there will be no sickness or suffering or death. But until then, Jesus is with us, and the trials and difficulties in this life are calls to be with those who mourn and who are scared, as Jesus is with them and with us. And to trust in Jesus – pray for healing, for an end to infections, for strength of healthcare workers and wisdom and compassion of leaders, but also for ourselves who might just be lonely and bored. Ultimately, though, he calls us to make use of this time of choosing what really matters in the light of Jesus and his call to discipleship, and to choose to follow him.
The three traditional practices for the observance of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. And since the purpose of Lent is to prepare for the celebration of Easter by strengthening our relationship with God, it makes sense to spend more time with Him in prayer and conversation, as well as imitating the God who is love by performing acts of love and charity. But young adults often ask why fasting or sacrifice is part of the traditional observance of Lent. Obviously, Jesus set an example of fasting with His forty days of temptation in the desert, and made the ultimate sacrifice of Himself on the cross for our sins. Jesus gave up comforts of life, and His very life itself, to show us the way to the Father, the way of love which he shares with the Father. But even Jesus’ example invites us to reflect why sacrifice is a necessary part of love.
Ultimately, every truly great human undertaking requires commitment and every commitment requires sacrifice. This is especially true of the Christian life where true faith and true love are impossible without sacrifice. You do not really have faith in God and his revelation if you only believe what makes sense to you; that’s just having an opinion. Real faith means accepting what God reveals because He is trustworthy, and His Word, i.e., Jesus, His Son, is Truth. More than just accepting God’s Word as true, true faith is placing your trust in God and His promises, sacrificing a trust one’s own power, in order to accept and carry out God’s will.
Likewise, you cannot really love another person if you care for them only when you feel like it. That would just be following your own whims and emotions. True love requires giving up your own desires for the sake of another, caring for them even when you don’t feel like it. True love is a commitment of total self-giving of one’s self to another, but this requires one to sacrifice holding one’s self back. It is in giving of yourself that you find the true meaning of freedom, and through it, of fulfillment.
So, Jesus models a life of commitment to God, the God who is love and who gives Himself totally and completely in Jesus (Emmanuel, God with us). Jesus models the sacrifice that love requires, and which is the ultimate expression of human freedom in His total gift of Himself for our sake.
But since most of us fall far short of being able to give of ourselves totally, Lent is a time for a spiritual work-out. Most of us are familiar with the idea of a physical work-out: we go to the gym to increase our ability to perform feats of strength by performing those feats with less strength. So, by doing small acts of sacrifice we strengthen our spiritual muscles to be more able to perform greater acts of sacrifice. The goal is ultimately to sacrifice ourselves, as Christ did, by dying to ourselves to live for Christ, to live no longer for ourselves, but for Christ to live in us.
So, fasting, like prayer and almsgiving, strengthens our relationship with God for we imitate the love Christ showed in Himself when He revealed Himself as the Way to the Father. And it further strengthens our relationship with God by increasing our ability to die to ourselves and live for and in Him.