How Does Jesus Save Us?

Crucifix by Charles I'Anson in bronze & fibreglass (1971) Courtesy of Greg Daly.

Easter has long been a confusing time for me. Growing up, as I did, in the catechetical desert which has been the legacy of the "Spirit of Vatican II", I was taught that Easter was about Jesus of Nazareth, who was convicted as a criminal and nailed to a wooden cross, and this saved us.

I mean what? Saved us from what? How could that save us? Why did He have to be nailed to a cross to save us? Surely lots of people were nailed to crosses in those days, why was it this one who saved us? Answers were not forthcoming. And with hindsight, I'm not surprised. It turns out it is a multi-faceted question and one which is well worth asking. Still, I'm not sure that we are getting many answers, even today. 

Last week I attended a very well done and moving Stations of the Cross liturgy at our local junior school, where my third son John attends. It was beautiful and the children were brilliant. The Head Teacher is very good and really 'gets it', but again it struck me how well the children understand what Easter, the biggest and most important Christian festival of the year, actually means? I'm not suggesting I know how to explain soteriology to junior school children, I just wondered how they internalised the message.

Then, during an email conversation a good friend, who is a genius and a really educated & devout Catholic, said to me 
"I've tended to steer clear of discussion on how atonement or salvation work, as I simply haven't done the reading and find them too big for me."
That was it. I decided to write something to try and explain a bit about what we are remembering at Easter, because it is incredible, beautiful, powerful, and ESSENTIAL! 

There is a lot to the way in which Jesus' salvation actually works, much more than can be explained in simple platitudes. I offer this theological perspective which I have tempered with my own experience of how Jesus Passion and Death provide practical help that enables us to cope with tragedy in our own lives, it allows us to bear incredible burdens, picking up our cross with Christ, and following Him in love and hope.

So what is Jesus' Sacrifice all about?

Scripturally, ‘sacrifice’ denotes the attitude of man before God, both as an expression of man’s duty of complete dedication to God and as a visible sign of man’s relationship to God, which excludes any one-sided humanisation or secularisation of the notion of God. In this way, we can follow St. Thomas Aquinas in understanding sacrifice as something interior we can all be a part of in our daily lives, through fasting, giving up our time to help others, but most especially through the Eucharist. It is through the Eucharist that we understand how the power of Christ’s Sacrifice is applied to us.

When we read Scripture, we can see that there is clearly an element of danger in sacrifice; a danger that in the giving of material gifts to God, man can become confused, thinking he can some how manipulate God through his offering. This manipulation was the subject of intense prophetic criticism in the Old Testament. It is clear then from Scripture that there is an essential internal component, matching the external rite of the act of cult, which must be present in sacrificial rites in order for them to be acceptable to God.

Since God instituted the Old Testament rituals they prophesy and promise what would ultimately be accomplished by Jesus Passion and Death. CCC 606 teaches us that Jesus’ sacrifice expresses His loving communion with the Father, and we can learn much from unpacking this basic truth. CCC 608 adds to this that John the Baptist reveals Jesus as the Paschal Lamb, which is the symbol of Israel’s redemption at the first Passover; another clear pointer to the future.

Jesus’ death is an antidote to the pride and arrogance of Adam. Where Adam reached for divinity, Jesus Christ demonstrates obedience to the Father’s will (Rom 5:12-21). For Joseph Ratzinger, the “pre-Pauline hymn” of Philippians 2:5-9 sums up the New Testament’s response to the dilemma of the Fall and thus has been rightly placed by the Church, at the centre of the Easter Triduum. It explains how Jesus walks Adam’s path, but in reverse. One who is truly like God, yet does not hold, graspingly, to His autonomy; “to the limitlessness of his ability and His willing”.(See Ratzinger, J., In the Beginning, (Eerdmans, Michagan, 1995), p. 75.) (you can read more about this passage in Scripture here).

It is through His acceptance of the Father’s will Jesus shows us how to find perfection in our humanity; He shows us that we are unable to control our destiny and so must accept what comes, whether we want to or not. The way in which we accept these things and stay true to what we believe is what matures the vintage of our faith. The story of Adam and Eve teaches us that Adam chose trust in self rather than trust in God and that resulted in death because there is nothing, no life, outside of God—there is only death. Therefore, the way in which we defeat death is through fidelity to God, through faith; simply because it is in this that all our false pretensions to 'immortality' are unmasked. Faith presents us with the truth about ourselves and we can recognize how we are truly held in existence by nothing more than God’s will. This is how I interpret the Wisdom literature’s call to Tabin Adonai (fear of the Lord) as the beginning of all wisdom (cf. For example, Prov 1:7). In order to attain communion with God again, it becomes necessary for One to cross the threshold of death, One who is utterly pure and therefore has nothing to fear from death's confrontation with reality. Jesus is the One who trusts God this way, He trusts God to death, He can truly obey his Father with all his heart and soul and therefore this is why he is the perfect 'trailblazer'; he is the one who successfully goes through death into everlasting life and thus becomes the way for us. (Cf. Kereszty, R., Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology, (Alba House, New York, 2006), pp. 413-415, cf. CCC 614 & 615). This idea of Christ as a trailblazer works well with the idea of Christ as High Priest on the cosmic Day of Atonement (cf. Ratzinger, J., Many Religions—One Covenant, (Ignatius, San Francisco, 1999), p. 63.); He really enters the Holy of Holies and He really destroys the sin of the people. Through Him, the veil between life and death is ripped, just as the Temple veil is ripped from top to bottom (Mat 27:51). Jesus blazes a trail for us, showing us how to follow Him and preparing a place for us in His Father’s house (Jn 14:1-4.).)
The value as redemption, reparation, atonement and satisfaction, which is conferred on Christ’s sacrifice, is because of His “love to the end” (Jn 13:1). 
“The existence in Christ of the divine person of the Son, who at once surpasses and embraces all human persons and constitutes himself as the Head of all mankind, makes possible his redemptive sacrifice for all.” (CCC 616).
The New Testament makes clear and vigorous allusion to Christ’s death as a true sacrifice, a supreme act of worship to be rendered to God alone.

Covenant

Perhaps the omega point when considering Jesus’ Passion and death could be summed up in a single word: Covenant. This word draws together all the threads of Scripture laid down up to the point of Jesus act of Redemption. 

A covenant is a pledge of loyalty. In Jesus Passion and Death, God’s loyalty to us is declared. This loyalty is stronger than death, stronger than sin. In Jesus Crucifixion, in the Hour when we beheld His glory, God’s merciful love and loyalty (John 1:14) are shown us so powerfully that we are drawn, gently yet powerfully, to respond freely.

St. Irenaeus wrote:
“Understanding…consists in showing why there are a number of covenants with mankind and in teaching what is the character of those covenants.” As cited by Professor Scott Hahn in his introduction to: Ratzinger, J., Many Religions-One Covenant, (Ignatius, San Francisco, 1999), p. 14.
The covenant God made in the Old Testament becomes real when, in Christ Jesus; the God of Israel becomes the God of the nations, fulfilling the prophecy that the Servant of God would bring the light of God to the nations. Christ Himself refers to the sacrifice of the covenant in the words he speaks of the chalice, calling His blood the “blood of the covenant” (Cf. Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20). St. Paul reminds us of this reference when he passes on the Eucharistic tradition he has received in 1 Cor 11:23-27. It is for this reason that Hebrews 7:22 stresses so heavily, Christ’s mediation of a New Testament, a new and everlasting covenant. It is through His Passion and Death that He unites the God of Israel with all the nations as prophesied again and again in the Old Testament (see especially Isaiah 66:19, 21). For Joseph Ratzinger, reconciliation is the nucleus of Jesus’ mission, and through Jesus we can conceive an inherent alignment between His mission and the prophetic thrust of the whole of the Old Testament; common recognition of the kingdom of God, recognition of His will as the way. A unification of us all as one in Christ Jesus, just as we can understand our corporate identity and Fall through Adam. Following the Catechism, we can see how Jesus’ life and death constitutes a radical intervention of God in human history; 
“…through the perfect fulfilment of the Law by the only righteous One in place of all sinners”. CCC 579. 
Perfectly fulfilling the Law meant that Jesus had to accept the “’curse of the Law’ incurred by those who do not ‘abide by the things written in the book of the Law, and do them.’” (Gal 3:10, CCC 580). Here the Catechism links Jesus’ death itself as the great event of atonement, as the perfect realisation of what the signs of the Day of Atonement signify (cf. CCC 433, 578)

So what was the significance of the Day of Atonement? It is interesting to note that there is little detail in the Old Testament about how the cult of sacrifice was carried on, indeed it is only for the Day of Atonement that we have detailed internal rites to be performed by the priest, at which no one else may be present (Lev 17). Leviticus, of course, is the worship guide of the Hebrew Scriptures. God ordains the Sacrifices set down in Leviticus, in order to dispel evil and strengthen bonds of unity. The view given by Leviticus is powerfully optimistic; divisions can be healed, sin can be forgiven and, by the grace of God, union among people, and between God and mankind is possible. Because of this conviction, the priests demonstrate a grave concern for sacrifices, which we know, became arid legalism and ritualism in some instances, and this, as we have seen, was frequently condemned by the prophets (q.v.). (Cf. Am 5:21-22; Is 1:11-17; Ps 50:7-15).

The common ground shared by Ezekiel and Leviticus demonstrates the way in which the priestly traditions influenced the prophets, just as the proclamation of God’s Word shaped the priestly traditions, for example, Ez 44:10-31; Lv 6:3-4; 21:1-24, (cf. Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, (Ignatius, San Francisco, 1991), p. 117). The Day of Atonement (the solemn day of atonement or Yom Kippur) followed Rosh Hashana (New Year’s) by ten days. The High Priest did formal penance for the people’s sins, laying them on a “scape-goat” which was then driven to the evil spirits who lived in the wilderness. This Levitical cult was not a true solution to the problem of sin (cf. Hebrews 10:2). Under the Old Covenant, sins are remembered but not removed.; under the New Covenant, sins are no longer remembered because they are removed completely (cf. Heb 8:12; 10:17; CCC 1539-40).

It is interesting to note that the goat was not killed, and this leads us to ask then how this sacrifice is analogous to Christ’s death on the Cross. The Letter to the Hebrews makes a lengthy comparison between this sacrifice, where the high priest enters the holy of holies to sprinkle the blood of sacrificial victims on the Propitiatory, set upon the Ark of the Covenant (cf. Heb 9:1-7), and the death of Christ and His entry into the true sanctuary, which is the presence of God: 
“That blood represented the life of the people, and its sprinkling in the most holy place of the Presence of God proclaimed an irrevocable will to adhere to Him and to enter into communion with Him, thus overcoming the separation and distancing caused by sin. Above all, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, with the help of this ritual, has interpreted the death of Christ on the cross and specifically noted the outstanding effectiveness of the Sacrifice of Christ who ‘entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing eternal redemption”: John Paul II, Address, 21 September 1983: Insegnamenti, VI/2 (1983), 596. 
The same sacrifice is referred to by St. John, when he speaks of Jesus as “the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn 2:2) and that “God sent his Son to be the expiation of our sins” (1 Jn 4:10) as well as “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7). Another reference can be found in Romans 3:23-25, which is clear in its allusion to God as the subject, who makes Christ a sacrifice of propitiation. It is through this sacrifice that God destroys sin and thus manifests His salvific justice.

If we turn to the Catechism, we can see that the Day of Atonement was a necessary part of the Jewish year because they
“…were never able to observe the Law in its entirety without violating the least of its precepts.” CCC 578
The Old Covenant was conditional, and it relied on humanity’s faithful observance of the Law. The Old Testament illustrates that Israel was aware of this breach and finds dramatic expression in the broken tablets at the foot of Mount Sinai. When these tablets were lost after the Exile it was obvious that this was a permanent condition; Israel could not restore the tablets, but neither could God withdraw His love. Indeed the promise of renewal; of the New Covenant was already present in the Old Covenant (in a kairological sense). Jesus is the Word made flesh; “the Law has become a person” (Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007), p. 268) and the will of God is revealed to all nations and it is the transgression of this will that is the basic evil from which Christ delivers us.

In the same way as Jesus fulfils and replaces the Torah, so He fulfils and replaces the ritual of the Day of Atonement. In the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is likened not to the scape-goat, but to the High Priest (Hebrews 3:1-4:14, “a High Priest worthy of Faith”; Hebrews 4:15-5:10, “a High Priest Abundant in Mercy.”), a theology developed from Psalm 40:6-8: “Sacrifices and offerings you did refuse—you have prepared a body for me” (Hebrews 10:5). Indeed, Jesus becomes man in order to give himself and to take the place of the animal sacrifices, which could only be a gesture of longing, but not an answer. Christ ministers His Priesthood in the sanctuary of heaven (Hebrews 8:1-2); He is completely sinless (4:15); His immortality eliminates the need for successors (7:24)--one of the deficiencies of the Aaronic priesthood, i.e. that they are continually replaced with successors because of death (Hebrews 7:23); His priesthood is established by divine oath (7:20-21); and His single sacrifice is the definitive means of expiating sin (10:5-18). Jesus truly cleanses us of sin, not simply cleansing us of ritual defilement. Through His Passion, death, and Resurrection (along with the gift of the Holy Spirit), Jesus inaugurates a new world order: the kingdom of God, which promises to take us beyond sin and all its power. The incredible potency of Jesus’ saving work is manifest in the paradox that we perceive the cross to be; a bitter end, tortured and reviled, the end of a criminal (cf. 2 Cor 13:4). Truly it is shocking to us that God did not seek domination, glory, military victory; in other words that He did not enforce His will on us, but by His gentle frailty, He literally turned our perception of what constitutes power upside down. Yet the reality of that even, was the completeness of love, love unto death, that was manifest through that self-giving. 

Perceptions of Expiation

Historically, the idea that Jesus paid off a debt for us to an angry God has been developed from St. Anselm’s “satisfaction theory” laid out in his work Cur Deus Homo? Written on the threshold of the Middle Ages. It is written from a perspective of feudal honour:
“Behind this is the idea that the measure of the offence is determined by the status of the offended party; if I offend a beggar, the consequences are not the same as they would be if I offended a head of state.”~Ratzinger, J., Introduction to Christianity, (Ignatius, San Francisco, 2004), p. 232.
One can easily follow St. Anselm’s reasoning from here to the infinite nature of God, hence any offence to Him becomes infinitely important. Humanity, though capable of destroying life, is incapable of restoring it. Likewise man’s sin is something he is incapable of making reparation for, especially in terms of the infinite offence it causes to God. St. Anselm suggests that Christ then, a denizen of humanity yet in possession of the power of infinite reparation denied to man makes up for the injustice and makes the required expiation. The danger of this approach is that it can lead—
“…one to think that Christian faith in the Cross imagines a God whose unrelenting righteousness demanded a human sacrifice, the sacrifice of his own Son…”~Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, op. Cit., p. 281.
Indeed, St Bernard seems to argue that this is the case 
“It was not His death alone that pleased the Father, but His voluntary surrender to death”~St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “Letter 190,” [Against…Abelard’s Heresies], 8, 21, as quoted in Catalamessa, R., Remember Jesus Christ, (The Word Among Us Press, Maryland, 2007), p. 103.
although he does point us firmly to the key of the Passion, Christ’s obedience to the will of the Father: “God desires obedience, not sacrifice, according to Scripture (see 1 Samuel 15:22; Hebrews 10:5-7)”, Catelamessa, ibid, p. 103-4. Conrad argues that St. Anselm was misunderstood. He points out that St. Anselm “…explicitly denies that God transfers our punishment onto Jesus” (Conrad, op. Cit., p. 183.) and also notes that there is much more of value in his work. Certainly St. Anselm does say that there is a great deal more to the way Jesus saves us than simply paying our debt. However, McBrien explicitly disagrees with the notion that a ransom is paid to God, rather he argues from Scripture that God is clearly our redeemer (Psalm 78:35; see also Psalm 19:14; Isaiah 63:5). He sees sin as something that binds us to death and it is God who has to pay an extreme price; it costs Him dearly to forgive and deliver us from that bondage. For McBrien, the New Testament’s language of sacrifice is emphasising that “the risen Lord’s life and death somehow served God’s salvific purposes in history.” Cf. McBrien, R., Catholicism, (Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1994), p. 445. He emphasises an important point; there is no exact “commercial” description of what actually happened in Jesus Passion and Death that saved us. McBrien argues that Jesus was not marked out by God the Father in expiation for offences we committed. He posits that the language of sacrifice evident in the New Testament is a Pauline paradox; Paul mixes the proper and improper senses of the same word in order to make a point, as in Galatians 3:13, with a quotation from Deuteronomy 21:22-23. The blood sacrifices are clear allusion to the New Covenant and not a means of atonement.

Joseph Ratzinger turns these arguments on their head somewhat and seems to cut straight to the essential matter of the Passion and Death of our Lord. Alluding directly to St. Anselm’s theory and its development, he focuses in on the idea of “satisfaction” in the context of the whole biblical presentation of election. Ratzinger unlocks this idea by means of the Pauline key which teaches us to understand Christ as the “last man”, the final man, in whom we all come together (Gal 3:28), the next evolutionary leap in whom we break out of the limited scope of humanity. Ratzinger agrees with McBrien in stating that it is not men who conciliate God in the manner of the sacrifices of the Old Testament, but God who redeems man. The Cross then stands as the sign that God loves us to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man.

Reflection 

Why did our Lord choose this path? Why so much pain, so much suffering? I feel that one could say that there is extraordinary comfort to be found through a meditation of Christ’s Via Dolorosa, comfort that can only be properly understood when one suffers an extraordinarily profound tragedy.

Soon after my daughter died, I found myself, late one night, on my knees by my bed, unable to sleep, pouring out my grief to my heavenly Father. The prayer that formed in my heart was the prayer of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane;
“Father, if you are willing, remove this chalice from me; nevertheless not my will, but yours be done.”~Lk 22:42.
My only daughter, it seemed impossibly ironic that the very gift I had thanked God for the most had now been taken away from me. What had taken place was beyond my understanding, my agony unbearable, not only for myself, but also considering my wife, my mother and all our family; little Ruth touched so many lives. I could not begin to see what God had planned or what He intended to achieve through Ruth’s death, but I began to understand that I could not know. If any one of us understood what would happen in our lives, we would probably never begin the journey.

A recurring question over those weeks after the accident to both my wife and myself has centred on what others perceive can only be anger with God. They ask: “You must be so angry?”, “ Aren't you bitter?”, “It really makes you question your faith…”. But the truth us that throughout this experience Louise have not felt alone, bitter or angry, but rather one in solidarity with our Lord, who is a crucified God. It is only now that I truly know what St. Paul meant when he wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20). In my suffering I have looked to God in solidarity and listened more closely as He has spoken to me: “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” (Jn 13:7). 

When we look upon our crucified Lord, if we consider all He suffered at our hands, because of our sin and rejection of the loving God who respects our dignity, will not over-ride our autonomy and so seeks another way to show us His love; we are converted by our compassion. Jesus on the cross is God revealed to us, not an angry God looking down on man, but God pierced and facing angry men. God’s Word recreates us through His Passion and Death. He also cancels death, redeems it and gives it, the final negative, a new and positive meaning as a doorway to what comes after, the fullness of our being, what we were created for; full communion with the Triune God. I know that He has tasted to the dregs the darkness of every conceivable human tragedy, and so I know that I am never alone in what I am experiencing. 

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Bibliography

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