The Wisdom of the Cross: Developing the Catholic Tradition
Editorial FAITH Magazine May – June 2011
“He emptied himself...being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death”. [Philippians 2:7-8]
In our January-February issue we republished an article by Fr Edward Holloway about the problem of evil. Responding to feedback from one of our younger readers (see our March-April letters page) we continue the theme here, looking more closely at how we are saved by the death and resurrection of Christ, and the place of suffering in the economy of redemption.
New Atheists and the Problem of Evil
One classic atheist objection runs as follows: if God cannot prevent evil then He is not omnipotent, and if He can prevent it and does not, then he is not good. The problem here is that our notion of omnipotence and, even more so, our notion of goodness is defective. Our idea of omnipotence is often subsumed into childish dreams of merely magical power. Our grasp of goodness generally stops at the horizon of intra-mundane and creaturely comforts.
God is not constrained by our categories of rationality, nor by some higher cosmic law which predefines what goodness means, but neither is God arbitrary and despotic. God is constrained by Himself, so to speak, which really means that God is perfectly Self-consistent and always true to Himself as Wisdom and Charity. The more we grasp and contemplate who God is, the more we realise that this is no "constraint" at all but in fact perfect freedom and perfect goodness.
Since God creates the spiritual creature for union with Himself in freedom, which is the highest good, the possibility of sin, and hence suffering, comes from the realities of creaturely contingency. Protection against this is what we call "grace", the Self-giving of God to the creature as wisdom and increase in being, or Light and Life in the language of Scripture. Grace prompts communion in love that terminates in the gift of perfect union, which we call the Beatific Vision. However, unlike the environment of purely material creatures, this relationship of growth to fulfilment is based on freedom of response, because that is the condition of existence as spiritual personality, and it is the very nature of God who is Love.
Wishing it could be otherwise is really wanting to "have our cake and eat it". We want to be like God but on our own terms. We want freedom but freedom from consequences. The original lie told to Eve by the tempter was that humans could "be like gods" if they asserted their free will in defiance of God's word. The ironic tragedy is that God willed us precisely to become co-sharers of the Divine Nature through the Word made flesh. Human self-adoration and self-assertion as the measure of our own truth and goodness is actually the negation of that destiny, the rejection of the One in whom it is given.
The book of Job tells us that we will never get our heads round the unfathomable mystery of God, but the seer also foresaw that the answer to evil lies in a Divine initiative of Love which will restore beyond measure whatever was lost. That initiative is precisely the mystery of the Word made Flesh though Our Lady's freely given obedience. In spite of all, "I know that my Redeemer lives" (Job 19:25).
The Cross at the Heart of Christian Faith
Contemporary atheist objections to Christianity are often posed with an intellectual smugness which implies that religious belief is based on naive and even delusional optimism. It is worth pointing out in response that anyone who thinks Christians have never grappled with the problem of evil can never have noticed that the crucifix is the central symbol of Christian faith. The crucifixion, viewed simply as an historical event, is the ultimate evil: the betrayal, denial, unjust and cowardly condemnation, blaspheming and brutalising, flogging, public humiliation and torturing to death of the Son of God himself. How could a good God allow such a thing? Could he not have prevented it?
Christians do not sidestep the problem of evil. If anything Christianity confronts it head on. However, the mystery of the Cross tells us that in God's Wisdom, which is the ultimate wisdom, evil and suffering are conquered in a way that goes against our natural instincts and expectations - not by miraculous intervention, but by humble acceptance; or at least, that the miraculous triumph follows on from sacrifice rather than preceding it.
Could God have prevented the crucifixion? In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed that that might be permissible. Yet he accepted with a perfect resignation of his human will that a greater good, indeed the greatest good willed by The Father lay in His enduring the cross.
Christ and the Battle for Souls
Our Lord was aware that he could withdraw and escape from death by the force of His own Divine power. When Peter lashed out against those who came to arrest his master, Jesus reminded him sharply that he had only to appeal to the rights of His own eternal Sonship and the Father would immediately send a legion of angels to confront those who were coming against Him with swords and clubs. At any time He could overwhelm his attackers with the highest Power of all, but this could not be the way that humanity was to be redeemed from the power of evil that held it in thrall. The battle for human souls had to be fought with human weapons, with the weapons of mind and heart, obedience and charity. If man was to be redeemed, human nature must be changed from within, by the total offering of aninnocent mind and will for the sake of goodness and for the good of others.
Pious speculation has sometimes argued that God could have redeemed us with "just one drop of Jesus' blood". We do not find the thought helpful nor - subject to correction - do we think it true. Redemption is not a reprieve from the Father's wrath granted in return for the Son's vicarious acceptance of punishment. It is the efficacious pledge and promise of a real reformation of humanity by the Son of Man who gives Himself as the antidote to the lethal poison that has infected us.
He gives Himself to meet the measure of "buying back" to perfection of His own brethren. The terrible personal cost is not something demanded by the Father; it is the consequence of what sin has done to human beings in destroying the image and glory of God within our nature. His total giving of self is the antithesis of sin, which is the rejection of God through the adoration of self.
The details of his suffering are also something imposed by the conspiracy of evil that He confronts when rescuing us from the power of the Devil - who is not an imaginary personification of human weakness, but a spiritual and personal power of corruption and malice. If a parent rushed into a burning house to rescue their children, they may themselves be horribly burnt in the process. We may speak of this as the "cost" of saving them. If the fire was started by arson we may see the "price" as being paid to the evil-doers in order to undo the damage they intended. And if the criminals resisted the rescue attempt with sabotage and violence, then the sufferings caused by their malice would be multiplied.
Paying the Ransom for Fallen Humanity
The language of "cost" and "price" and sacrifice would describe something very real, but we would not think that Love was therefore something cold and punitive in demanding such a high price to be true to itself. Neither then does the Father demand a "blood price" in order to absolve humanity from sin. But in order to be true to Himself and also true to what we are, the confrontation with evil and all its consequences must be played out in the terrible drama of Calvary by God the Son who is also the Son of Man.
This last point is important. The key to understanding Redemption is not just that Christ's is the perfect martyrdom - although it is - it is Who He is that is crucial.
"The existence in Christ of the Divine Person of the Son, who surpasses and embraces all human persons, and constitutes himself as the head of all mankind, makes possible his redemptive sacrifice" (CCC 616)
As Son of God and Son of Man, He is the One who speaks and acts directly into the Father's heart, and He is also the exemplar and root of human nature.
The Koran says "No one can bear another's burden" (Sura 35: 18), which is often taken as a specific denial of the Christian idea of Christ's redemptive sacrifice. This moral individualism ignores the profound solidarity of humanity, not just physically but morally and spiritually too. We are affected by each other's lives. We do take responsibility for each other - parents for children, for example - and we feel the pain of a loved one's failure, the desolation of a loved one's moral destruction and the damage they do to others.
With extreme sin - think perhaps of the blasphemous horrors and murderous corruption of children perpetrated by the so-called Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda - we feel that the fabric of the universe, the order that underpins the cosmos, has been ruptured. And we are right. The outrage affects us all, drags down the whole of humanity. Actually every sin is a derogation from God's glory manifested in his creatures.
The order of creation and the glory of God needs to be re-established by some monumental act of human nature, not just of "kindness" but of absolute innocence, goodness and selflessness.
"A Second Adam to the Fight and to the Rescue Came"
The solidarity of humanity has its origin in our common descent according to the flesh. We are one family, almost one literal body, budding off from one another through genetic inheritance. But this solidarity is now a damaged inheritance, a solidarity in corruption through the sin of our first parents. However, human identity is not just framed through our origins, but through our destiny. Our origin in the first Adam is from the earth, but our fulfilment and our final identity comes from the second Adam who is a living Spirit (cf. 1Cor 15:45). As creatures of spirit as well as flesh, our identity and destiny, our environment and fulfilment lies in God. He alone can grant it. Human nature is built upon the plenary gift of God to his creatures in the Incarnation. Our destiny lies inChrist in whom we are chosen before the world began to share all the blessings of Heaven (cf. Eph 1,1). "The masters of this age did not understand this or they would not have crucified the Lord of glory" (1 Cor 2:8).
The Word made flesh alone can restore the lost dignity of Man and make satisfaction to the glory of God in his own humanity for His corrupted brothers and sisters. The Incarnational (or "Scotist") vision of Creation therefore increases our understanding of the cross, helping to avoid a purely punitive and juridical view of the Redemption. For as St. Paul observes in the middle of the classic statement of Christian redemption: "Adam ... is a type of the One who is to come" (Rom 5:14). So we belong to Christ more fundamentally than we do to our first parents. We are His by right of His own title and nature. He is the Bridegroom who has come to win back and purify his fallen Bride. He is the Heir of the vineyard of Creation who reclaims His ruined inheritance from murderous usurpers. In thisperspective we can see more clearly that it is the Person of the Son of Man suffering in perfect charity, not the pain as such, that constitutes the redemptive value.
The crucifixion, awful though it was, is not, arguably, the most physically excruciating martyrdom in history. The tortures endured by some of the Japanese and Korean martyrs or by St. Jean de Brebeuf, for example, were yet more terrible and prolonged. However, we cannot begin to fathom the spiritual pain that afflicted our Lord, who suffered for and within every living soul and for every human sin. Our own horror and grief at scandals in the Church may perhaps give us a glimpse of the agony of Jesus that caused Him literally to sweat blood in Gethsemane as He contemplated the outrage and the consequences of sin in countless souls, each of whom are more dear to Him than children to their parents. And that awful cry that was wrung from His lips on the cross can only make us bow our headsin awe and sorrow. But that was not His last word, and neither does sin have the last word.
The Sacrifice of Christ
It is His innocence and His charity, maintained and offered continually throughout His suffering that constitutes His sacrificial offering. The redeeming merit comes from Himself as God the Son in Person and also The Son of Man. As God the Son He acts within the communion of the Blessed Trinity Itself, and the Father loves us unto perfection again for the sake of His beloved Son. As Son of Man He is the exemplar and root of our humanity, the Head and identity of every man who sets Himself to be a living apology for the blasphemy of our fallen state and medicine for our wounded lives.
His sacrifice is unique and His death, vindicated by His resurrection, is the definitive transforming fact from which every martyrdom for the sake of truth and goodness derives its meaning and its reward. All other martyrs have Him to turn to for strength and consolation in their sufferings, for the grace to endure and the hope of triumph. As the sufferings of Christ overflow in us, so too do His consolations (cf. 2Cor 1:5). But He trod the wine press alone (Is 63:3), as a pure gift for others.
The merit in the suffering of other martyrs, or indeed in our own little sacrifices that we offer up each day, does not come from ourselves. All redemptive merit comes from Christ. Yet our lives and our actions are given real merit in God's eyes if we are joined to His Son through the sacramental bonds of the Church, which is, through these same bonds which we traditionally call "mystical", the fuller Body of His Incarnation. This is why St. Paul can say in a remarkable statement that we "fill up in turn what is outstanding in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of his Body which is the Church" (Col 1:24). The implications of this one sentence of Scripture alone, pondered deeply and honestly, should be enough to convert a sincere Protestant to the Catholic view of salvation.
Suffering in itself has no value, indeed it is destructive. But Jesus' sacrificial death has given value to all suffering if it is accepted and offered in union with Him out of love for the Father, sincere sorrow for sins - our own and those of the whole world - and charity towards those who have caused it. In this sense we are all "co-redeemers" with Christ, becoming one great offering of atonement in and through Him, as we form one Body and one Spirit in the Lord.
Mary's Predestination and Preservation in Christ
Whether the Church will deem it wise or opportune to define Our Lady as Co-Redemptrix we do not know. The title would invite many misunderstandings, not least ecumenically, but it is certainly capable of orthodox comprehension. It does not mean that she is her Son's co-equal, but she is without doubt the greatest, most perfect and uniquely essential collaborator with her Son throughout her life. She shared his sufferings and she entered into the charity of His Sacred Heart and His prayer for the world, not just as only a mother could, but as only a sinless soul can. The prophecy about the sword that would pierce her heart was given in the same breath as the recognition of Jesus as The One destined "for the rise and fall of many" (Luke 2:34). She is bound to Him by both natural andspiritual bonds with a closeness we can barely comprehend. And she now shares His glory and His heavenly ministry with an honour that is above all the saints and angels.
Yet, of course, the Sacrifice of Christ remains unique and incomparable. All other offerings participate in His and derive their worth from Him. As God He is the author of our Being, our Life and our eternal Joy; as Man He is the means by which we receive that Life to the full. He is the Way and the Truth of all humanity, and so He is also the primordial source of that Life restored. For His Mother, too, He is the source of her holiness and the reason for her preservation from Original Sin.
Indeed Jesus and Mary are predestined by God "in one and the same decree"; the phrase is used in both Ineffabilis Deus, defining the Immaculate Conception, and Munificentissimus Deus, defining the dogma of the Assumption. So her vocation and her privileges are primordial to creation, you might say. As Jesus is superior to Adam, although born later in time, Mary is superior to Eve, although born a descendent in the flesh. Therefore in view of the Fall, which in the historical order of inheritance threatened to infect Our Lady with corruption, the theologically secondary decree of Redemption forbids that she should be touched by evil in any way, even for a moment, because she takes her identity and her vocation directly from the theologically primary decree of theIncarnation.
She was created for His sake, and her preservation from the effects of the Fall is guaranteed by her Son's faithfulness to his original historical mission, even unto death. As her protector from the sin of Adam in this way He is her Redeemer, therefore, "through the merits of the cross foreseen", as the Church puts it. That total redemptive work which encompasses Our Lady's preservation and our own restoration from sin is paid for in the coinage of His own flesh and blood, which He inherits from His Mother and which is now stamped with the sign of the cross, the wounds of suffering love. So she is both the first beneficiary and also the unique vessel of God's redeeming grace.
The rest of us are not primordial to the plan of God in Christ in this way. We are known and created as children of Adam and Eve, then chosen and called in Jesus through Mary within the network of sacramental relationships and pastoral vocations that form the Church. So the merits of Christ and his redeeming grace are applied to us by the Church to rescue us from both Original and personal sin.
Redemption "In" Christ, Not Just 'By' Christ
We are redeemed not just by Christ but in Christ. Redemption is not just an action in the past, nor a judicial enactment by God which we either accept or reject. It is a relationship within which we are restored and grow to perfection as children of God with the eternal Son.
It is important for us to emphasise in our teaching and our preaching that the death of Jesus was neither desired nor demanded by the Father, otherwise we make an ogre of our God. Christ's sufferings were imposed by the conspiracy of demonic malice and human weakness. But it was the Father's will to redeem humanity from slavery to evil and eternal corruption, and precisely for the sake of His Son in whom humankind was created and called to become co-sharers of the Divine Nature.
The human vocation of the Word made Flesh unavoidably leads Him to confront the full force and fury of the enemy. Of his own free will He walks naked and alone into the heart of the storm as broken and twisted creatures wreak upon his innocent humanity the damage that mirrors the broken image of God in their own souls. From the heart of the darkness He cries out in a plea for forgiveness for those who crucify Him. This is what the Father wills. It is, it seems, the only way. Only the Son could ask it, and the Father can only grant it to the Son who has embraced and endured the worst that sinful humanity can do.
"It is love to the end that confers on Christ's sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation, as atonement and satisfaction". (CCC616)
The Blood that Cries To Heaven For Forgiveness
When He sees the blood of Christ, the Father is not blinded by it, as Luther would have it. Rather He sees its life-giving efficacy for human nature. He sees the shining integrity of the Son of Man, His holiness, his humility, his obedience tested and proven through the most bitter suffering unto death; He sees His superabundant charity towards even the worst of sinners, and His endless thirst for the salvation of souls. All of which is offered through the infinite glory of His Divinity as God the Son. This is the currency of atonement.
The blood of Christ does not cover us over like a cloak. It is like a transfusion, truly healing from within. "He made the sinless one into sin that we might become the goodness of God" (2Cor 5:21) Jesus makes good the damage done by sin by literally making good again those who have done the damage to God's glory and to themselves. As in Adam all men die so in Christ are all men made alive (1 Cor 20:22), and that life is a real, active regeneration and growth into perfection, not just an imputed holiness.
This is why redemption is not an event but a relationship. For redemption is not a simple legal acquittal, it is the organic work of rebuilding the desecrated temple of the Spirit. Our Lord dies once and for all; He is risen, His victory is assured, but His work continues through time and space even until the Parousia through the Church, above all in the Mass.
We often forget that the Easter Triduum begins with the institution of the Eucharist. So we do not need to tie ourselves in mental knots trying to connect the Mass with Calvary, for it is the Eucharist that went to the Cross. It is the one same Sacrifice because it is the one same Christ. The Word who is Life (cf. I Jn 1:4), who tabernacles among us in the flesh (cf. Jn 1:14), this same Jesus is The Lamb who was sacrificed on Calvary. And He is for all time our active and present reconciliation and healing for sin and its effects in the here and now, on earth, through the hands of His priests as it is in Heaven through his unveiled presence before the Father. His living Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist are the whole of our Pardon and Peace, personally andcommunally, and also The Bread of Life and the foretaste of the unending joys of heaven.