The idea that God allowed the forgiveness of guilt, the healing of man from within, to cost him the death of his Son has come to seem quite alien to us… [It] no longer seems plausible to us today. Militating against this, on one side, is the trivialization of evil in which we take refuge, despite the fact that at the very same time we treat the horrors of human history, especially of the most recent human history, as an irrefutable pretext for denying the existence of a good God and slandering his creature man.
But the understanding of the great mystery of expiation is also blocked by our individualistic image of man. We can no longer grasp substitution because we think that every man is ensconced in himself alone. The fact that all individual beings are deeply interwoven and that all are encompassed in turn by the being of the One, the Incarnate Son, is something we are no longer capable of seeing.
1, 159-60 Nazareth
Reflection – Well, we’re on a bit of a roll here at LWAGS, spending the past few days taking a good hard look at the reality of baptism and what it really means to die and rise with Jesus in those waters, and now taking a good hard look at the substitutionary death of Jesus and what that means for us.
Jesus died for us. This is, actually, a really hard concept to grasp. At times it is parodied into a terrible distortion of what it really is. People will say that God the Father was really really mad at the human race and had to take out his anger on someone, and so put his Son to a horrible death as a sort of safety valve or whipping boy or something.
This is not the God we worship, of course—the abusive father of the universe. What is lost in this understanding is the utter unity of the Father and Son in the One Godhead of the Trinity. Jesus is not God’s Son in the sense that I am Raymond Lemieux’s son. The Father and the Son are one, and so the death of Christ is not something happening outside of the one God.
God died for our sins. This alone, if we take it at all seriously, means that our sins are a really big deal, don’t you think? We can trivialize sin and evil all we like; we can assure ourselves that at any rate we’re not such great sinners. Surely Jesus could have saved us just by stubbing his toe!
Well, apparently not. Each of us has the capacity within us—call it original sin, call it what you will—to extinguish the divine life and light within us. Each of us has the ability, awesome and fearful, to cut ourselves off from God. And this is utter and complete death—spiritual, physical, total.
Now I don’t understand all the deep realities of God and how exactly Jesus becoming man and dying on a cross changes that reality in its essential configuration. I don’t think anyone does understand it, and I don’t think we really will understand it until we are in heaven and God explains it to us. The various theories theologians have propounded over the centuries are just that: theories. The Church has blessed and encouraged such theologizing without ever endorsing any particular theology.
What I know is that the very place of death—sin, rebellion, disobedience, the failure and refusal of love—is now a place where we are met, continually, constantly, always, by Life. The place where everything fails in us is now the place where mercy succeeds for us. The place of the greatest evil—and the human person willingly choosing self-destruction is the greatest evil we can attain—is now a place where the Divine Goodness is poured out.
How exactly, and all the mechanisms and underlying spiritual realities whereby this happens, we just don’t know. But we know it happens, because it happens to us, more and more fully, more and more deeply, more and more certainly and joyously, as we place all our hope and trust in the Lord. And this is the salvation God offers us from the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus.