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