The life of our Savior is a pilgrimage; it pauses briefly at Bethlehem, but we must allow it, at last, to lead us to Calvary. St. Augustine reminds us, "His birth would have profited us nothing had we not profited by His Redemption."
St. Thomas Aquinas acknowledges that the very idea of Christís death is beyond our understanding. The crucifixion, he says, is one more example - the supreme example - of Godís love for us, and the magnitude of that love is always beyond our comprehension. But we must understand that the crucifixion put to death only the humanity of Christ. Just as our human soul survives our death, Christís divinity was not wounded by His Cross.
Our Saviorís divinity, which is immeasurably greater than His humanity, was not touched by the crucifixion. However, we may not, on this account, excuse ourselves from responsibility for Jesusí death. St. Thomas argues that an individual who spatters a kingís clothing is as guilty as if he had spattered the king himself. Our sinful nature could not kill God, but by killing the human nature with which God clothed Himself, we are as guilty as if we had done so.
In his sermon on the crucifixion, St. Thomas asks, "but what need was there for the Word of God to suffer for us?" Undoubtedly, Jesus died to show us His love. But this manifestation of Godís love on Calvary is a response to the human need we experience as a result of our sin. St. Thomas identifies five evils we suffer as a result of sin; we shall consider each of them briefly. And because sin weakens our ability to do good, the cross also provides an example of how we ought to live.
The first evil we suffer through sin is the corruption of the soulís beauty. In one of the Old Testament readings for the Easter Vigil, the Prophet Baruch asks, "Why is it, O Israel, why is it that you are in the land of your enemies, that you are growing old in a foreign country, that you are defiled with the dead?" Our ancestors suffered for breaking the Law they received through Moses. How much greater, St. Thomas asks, is our guilt, since we have been cleansed by Christís blood in the sacrament of Baptism? The Letter to the Hebrews describes our guilt in painfully vivid terms: "A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy... How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified?" (Heb 10. 28, 29)
Human beings find beauty in the created world, and especially in other human beings; God finds, and loves, beauty in the soul. When we sin we not only misuse the gifts God has given us, we mar this beauty. God has the right to be angry if we turn away from Him and blur His image in our soul. But Christís passion and death restore us to Godís love because His love for us is greater than our love for sin, and because His obedience is greater than our disobedience.
We may believe that we can sin once and not, perhaps, sin again. However, St. Thomas Aquinas warns us that the opposite is the case. The Angelic Doctor uses a frightening analogy to describe the power of sin. He says, "...by the first sin [the individual] is weakened and is more inclined to sin again; also sin has a greater power over him. Moreover, so far as he is concerned, he puts himself in a state from which there is no escape - like a man who jumps into a well...."
Christís Passion diminishes the power of sin and strengthens us to resist its allure. Sin will always be attractive, but the Sacraments (which derive their power from the power of Christís sacrifice on the cross) reduce its power and enable us to seek and choose healthier alternatives. St. Paul reminds us, "Our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin may be destroyed" (Rom 6.6), and St. Thomas provides a powerfully consoling image of human life strengthened and ennobled by grace. He says, "...before Christís Passion there were few who lived without falling into mortal sin, whereas afterwards, many have lived and are living without mortal sin."
Justice is the virtue by which we give each individual what is due him. In justice, we owe God our worship and holiness of life. If we fail to offer God these gifts, justice demands that we pay a debt for our sins. By suffering and dying for us, the human Jesus delivers us from the punishment due human sin. But His sacrifice accomplishes something more. Sin is an offence against God, and mere human beings cannot atone for this offence. However, by His obedience to the Father, the Son (who is God) pays a debt that we cannot pay.
Lest we fail to grasp the immensity of Christís sacrifice, St. Thomas tells us, "... His Passion was so efficacious that it suffices to atone for all the sins of the whole world, even of a hundred thousand worlds. For this reason when a man is baptized he is released from all his sins; so also it is that a priest forgives sins; and again that the more a man conforms to the Passion of Christ, the more is he pardoned and the more grace he merits."
The words of the prophet Baruch that we considered earlier are a vivid reminder of our fallen state. When our First Parents sinned, the gates of Paradise were closed, and every exile since then is a sign of just how much we turn our backs on when we sin. Our Saviorís death reverses this sentence of banishment, St. Thomas says, "for when Christís side was pierced, the gates of paradise were opened. And by the shedding of His blood, the stain of sin was wiped away, God was appeased, manís weakness was removed, his punishment was expiated, and the exiles were called back to the kingdom."
At any time, this would be good news; it is especially welcome as we approach Ash Wednesday and the days of Lent that invite us to follow Our Savior to Calvary. There we encounter the Good Thief, to whom Christ promises, "This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23.43).
If we seek an example to follow during the holy days of Lent, we need look no further than this man. He was condemned to die for his crimes, but his faith gave him not only the privilege of dying with Godís Son, but of being the first to benefit from the ransom Christ paid on the cross. St. Thomas tells us, "This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise. This had not been said of old - not to Adam, not to Abraham, not to David. But Ďthis dayí (i.e., as soon as the gates were opened) the thief having sought pardon, found it...."
One of the early Church Fathers wrote that Jesus saved us by going through every moment of our lives, teaching us by His example. When our First Parents taught us to sin, through disobedience, Our Savior, through His example of obedience, taught us the ways of virtue. But the lesson is not complete until we allow Jesus to show us how to die.
Christís passion offers a remedy for all the weaknesses and ills we suffer as a result of sin, but it is equally availing as an example of virtue. St. Augustine teaches us that the Passion is a model in every circumstance, and "anyone who wishes to lead a perfect life needs only to despise what Christ despised on the cross, and to desire what He desired. There is no virtue an example of which we do not find on the Cross."
St. John records Jesusí words to His disciples, "Greater love hath no man than that he lays down his life for his friends" (Jn 15.13), and St. Thomas reflects, "...this Christ did on the cross. If He laid down His life for us, we should not deem it a hardship to endure any hardship whatever for His sake."
St. Thomas reminds us that patience may be proven in two ways: when an individual endures great evils, or when he endures something he might legitimately avoid. No one will deny that Jesus suffered greatly on the cross. His agony embodies the pain expressed by all Godís suffering servants in the Old Testament. "O all ye that pass by the way, attend and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow" (Lam 1:12). "He shall be led as a sheep to the slaughter, and shall be dumb as a lamb before His shearer" (Isa 53.7).
At the same time, Jesus surrenders voluntarily to suffering on which He might reasonably have turned His back. He asks Pilate, "do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?" This demonstrates that Jesus is no oneís passive victim. He offers His life for our salvation; no one takes it from Him. At some point, each of us will be called to endure illness, loss, family disappointment and, eventually, the aches, pains, and increasing inconvenience of our advancing age. Each offers us a choice. We can "beweep [our] outcast state," or we can allow the experience of weakness and disappointment to teach us a lesson in the imitation of Christ.
The Church confers its highest honor on martyrs. At the same time, the Church promises no reward to those who risk their lives unnecessarily, or who tempt fate by a reckless disregard for safety. Jesus shows us an example of patience precisely because he did not go out of His way to find the road to Calvary. Individuals and circumstances conspired to act against Him, and Jesus chose not to resist. His example teaches us to discern the difference between what must be accepted because it cannot be avoided, and what may be a shameful exercise in self-glorification.
The Saviorís entire human existence is a lesson in humility. By emptying Himself to take on our human nature, by going through all the stages of our human life, and, finally, by accepting a most shameful form of death, Jesus shows us what it means to abandon ourselves entirely to Godís will. Humility is the virtue by which we acknowledge God as the source of everything we have and everything we are. On the one hand this demands that we take responsibility for what Godís gifts enable us to do; on the other, humility gives us the freedom to abandon ourselves, as Jesus did, entirely to Godís will.
The Letter to the Romans gives a succinct picture of our fallen humanity, and of Christís effort to remedy the imbalance. "As by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners, so also by the obedience of one, many shall be made just" (Rom 5.19). Few of us will be called to make the same sacrifice Christ made on the cross. But each of us, at least occasionally, finds our life choices burdensome. When we are tempted to turn our backs on responsibility, God calls us to find strength and courage in the example of His Son.
In nearly every one of his sermons, St. John Chrysostom calls his listeners to turn aside from the possessions and honors by which worldly success are measured. In his sermon on Jesusí appearance before Pilate he says,
St. Thomas Aquinas is no less direct.
God created the material world for our support, education and delight, but we must never lose sight of the Kingdom of Heaven, where He calls us to find our true home. The everlasting treasures we long for, but cannot see, will often pale in comparison to the goods and distinctions that crown the rich, the famous, and even the true heroes in our midst. Christís Sermon on the Mount reminds us that these things can impede our progress toward heaven, so He encourages a poverty of spirit that allows us to evaluate the worldís goods at their true worth.
St. Augustine adds, "Christ the man despised all earthly things in order to teach us to despise them." These words remind us that Jesus came not just to deliver us from the debt of our sin, but to instruct us, by His example, in the ways of virtue.
All of the evangelists record the presence of women at the death of Jesus; St. John specifically identifies Mary, the Mother of Our Savior, among them. Of the individuals mentioned in the gospel, Mary is the only person present at all the important events in the life of Christ and the early Church. She presents Jesus to us with love at Bethlehem; at Calvary she accepts us - and with the same love - when she embraces Jesusí Beloved Disciple.
Whenever we encounter Mary in the gospel, the evangelists want us to see ourselves, witnesses to the saving deeds of her Son. Like us, she must have found the events of Good Friday baffling. In our liturgy, the Preface for the Mass that honors martyrs reminds us that death reveals Godís love "shining through our human weakness." The Mother of God is aptly named "Queen of Martyrs;" like her, we are called to wait, and to see what blessing God will reveal in human suffering.
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