Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why Did Jesus Die?

Do you sense something so far beyond mystery that you almost feel as if you were teetering at the edge of the universe? Last night in Gethsemane God the Son took upon himself my sins and yours—the sins of all the world. He took them on himself and lifted them up, or rather, he was lifted up for them on a cross. He died to atone for them.

Before our eyes this simple wooden cross holds the absolute forgiveness of God for us. Lord, have mercy! Lord, have mercy! A thousand languages repeat it, and he has pity on us because he has been lifted up and from him came pity, compassion, tenderness, understanding. Can we comprehend what has happened? God, the Almighty, the All–Powerful, the One who has no limit to his power, limited it. It is incomprehensible…

Today is the day of an examination of conscience, and yet somewhere deep within us joy rises like the sun. However it is still dark and the darkness is I, looking at myself. The darkness is also sorrow that he had to die for me. The joy is that he did! Now I am whole and healed and all is well! My separation from God, the original one, is wiped off.

Now I walk in the mercy of God; we live in his mercy. Now the moment of guilt is gone. Man must not feel any guilt anymore, only a terrible sadness when he once again breaks his alliance with God, the alliance of love. Whenever you feel that you have broken it, pray, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!” and it is forgiven!”
Catherine Doherty

Reflection – Happy Palm Sunday to you all, and a blessed Holy Week. This excerpt from a talk by Catherine Doherty on Good Friday 1973 seemed a fitting way to begin our week of the Lord’s Passion and love this year. The talk itself is part of my book Going Home.

I have been trying to do a bit of catechesis on Sundays here and there. This Sunday, let’s talk about the catechetical matter that is perhaps the one above all others, namely the death of Jesus Christ and its saving power in our lives.

For those who have simple faith, this matter poses no problem, and perhaps that is the best way to be. We know Jesus died; we know He died because He loves us; we know His loving death has saved us, won us forgiveness of our sins, opened heaven’s doors, reconciled us to the Father. For many people, that is all we need to know—we don’t get troubled by questions of how and why and what is the meaning of all this.

There are those who are so troubled, though, and it is good to have some kind of answer worked out for them. We cannot precisely ‘explain’ our faith—it is a divine revelation and ultimately transcends the powers of human comprehension—but we can talk about it, clarify it, make it a bit more understandable even if we cannot (and should not) eliminate the mysterious aspect of it.

And so many theologians over the millennia have given some account or other of ‘how’ Jesus’ death saved us. The Church has never adopted any one of those explanations as its own dogma. The dogma of the Church is precisely what I laid out two paragraphs ago, that this death happened and that this death has had these effects for all who are saved, and that the salvific fruits of this death are offered to all men and women.

In the Western Church, the most influential theory has been that of St. Anselm of Canterbury, the ‘substitutionary’ theory of salvation. Humanity, in committing sin against God, ran up a debt that was infinite, since our offense was against an infinite majesty. Being finite we could not pay that debt; but since it was a human debt, a human being had to pay it; but only an infinite being could make the infinite satisfaction of the debt; so only a God-man could pay that debt, and the wages of sin are in fact death, and so Jesus paid the debt for all of us.

With all due respect to St. Anselm and the many holy men and women who have accepted and taught this theory, I have never cared for it. It is too much rooted in categories of law for me—yes, this is an aspect of life and of our relationship with God (Scripture would collapse into incoherence if all notions of law were eliminated from it)—but law is not the heart and the whole of our life with God. And since this matter of Jesus’ death is at the heart of our faith and our life with God, it seems to me that casting it in wholly legal terms impoverishes our faith.

This is the theory I prefer (I offer this bearing in mind that this too is merely a theory, and that our Catholic faith is the simple faith that Jesus saved us by dying for us, period): Sin is fundamentally death, the undoing of creation. Creation in its deep heart is being flowing from Being, being ordered and shaped and given life from Being. This is the deep meaning of obedience, that our whole existence is from Another, the Uncreated One.

Sin rejects being, life, creation, and so sin is death. Jesus, being God the Creator, enters the reality of sin without sinning (which is metaphysically impossible for God) by entering the reality of death in his sacred humanity. His motivation is love—love of His Father, love and mercy to us poor sinners.

And so, in the very place of sin, the place where sin does what it does—kills us—the Creator God establishes a new creation. That which had been the great monument of destruction and uncreation—the tomb—becomes the place of personal encounter with Life. That which had been the fruit of our tragic and terrible disobedience and selfishness becomes transformed by obedience and selfless love.

It is not on the level of law and debts, but on the level of personal encounter, personal love, personal communion—a communion of love that is forged at the very place where all relationships are destroyed and sundered. And so—sin is forgiven, heaven opened, we are reconciled and saved.

Ultimately all we need to know is that God loves us so much that He died for us, and simple faith is satisfied by that answer. But it is good to meditate on just what Love does, and just how much Love has shown itself to be stronger than death, isn’t it? Happy Passion Sunday, and may we all enter into the victory of Christ and know his joy this Easter.

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