May the Sacred Heart of Jesus
be everywhere loved

 

We are an Easter People

 

The Victory of the Resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus sheds its light over the whole history of the world; not just on his death itself, but on all the experiences of darkness and suffering that people have to face in this world. It is the triumph of Love over evil, the victory of a loving and merciful God, of a God who is Love and Life and Forgiveness and Healing. It does not answer for us all the whys of life, but it gives us a hopeful outlook on life and sustains a conviction that life ultimately does not deceive us, that it has a meaning, even an ultimate meaning.

Shortly before his death, Bishop Jim Cuskelly wrote a little book entitled Walking the Way of Jesus. An Essay on Christian Spirituality. He stresses the importance played in our spirituality by the revelation of God as Love, the God who so loves the world that he gives his own Son to reconcile us to himself. Mons. Cuskelly speaks about the need for us to have a vision of life that is consistent with this basic principle of spirituality. Even where we find at times in the Bible or in the language of the liturgy an anthropological presentation of God that seems to contradict this image of a loving and forgiving God, we must always and everywhere interpret that word according to the revelation of God made manifest in the death of Jesus, the revelation of a God who empties himself in his love for the human race. So when we read in the liturgy, "God condemned", we make bold to correct, "God does not condemn"! This has immense repercussions in our personal journey of faith, in our living of the great commandment of fraternal love and in our attitude to sin in all its manifestations. In Tertio millennio adveniente (Nį 7: I have changed the official English text to make the language inclusive), Pope John Paul II has written:

In Jesus Christ God not only speaks to human beings but also seeks them out... Why does God seek them out? Because they have turned away from him, hiding themselves as Adam and Eve did among the trees of the Garden of Eden (cf. Gen 3:8-10)... Going in search of human beings through his Son, God wishes to persuade them to abandon the paths of evil which lead them farther and farther afield. "Making them abandon" those paths means making them understand that they are taking the wrong path; it means overcoming the evil which is everywhere found in human history. Overcoming evil: this is the meaning of the Redemption. This is brought about in the sacrifice of Christ, by which the human being redeems the debt of sin and is reconciled to God. The Son of God became man, taking a body and soul in the womb of the Virgin, precisely for this reason: to become the perfect redeeming sacrifice. The religion of the Incarnation is the religion of the worldís Redemption through the sacrifice of Christ, wherein lies victory over evil, over sin and over death itself. Accepting death on the Cross, Christ at the same time reveals and gives life, because he rises again and death no longer has power over him.

God goes in search of human beings, enters personally into human history in Jesus, engages with us in word and action, identifies with us in everything, except in sin, goes to the limit in the commitment of his love for us, routs the evil one through his loving obedience to God in his death and resurrection, overcomes evil through the purifying fire of his own burning love, and opens for us the way of life. The Pope makes much of the sacrifice of Jesus, his redemptive self-offering to the Father on our behalf. Jesus knows himself to be the Servant, who offers his life in atonement. I will come back later to the Holy Fatherís expression, "the human being (man) redeems the debt of sin". Leaving this aside for the moment, we can say that the redemption is presented here as the victory of God and of the human race in Jesus over Satan, evil, sin and death. The victory of Jesus is translated into the reality of our reconciliation through our faith in him. The gift of having our sins forgiven is freely bestowed upon us and we are transformed in the depths of our being into a new creation. We receive a new heart to know Godís love and to respond in kind to his invitation, being persuaded to abandon the paths of evil and to choose the way of life. Let us try to reflect a little more on this doctrine of our redemption in a way that is consistent with the principle of Godís love for the human race and for the whole world created by him.

2. By your Cross you have redeemed the World

The action of God in reconciling the world to himself through Jesus is called the "redemption" in the Scriptures. A correct understanding of the redemption forms an important part of our Christian spirituality, even of our own particular understanding of the mystery as MSC. The word "redemption" can have a literal meaning, as when it is used of the liberation of captives (soldiers, slaves, kidnapped people) through the payment of a ransom. It can also be used metaphorically or analogically, with a variety of meanings, according to the context. The basic context in the biblical understanding of the word is provided by the liberation of the people from the slavery of Egypt through the powerful intervention of God on their behalf. In this action of God, no ransom is paid to Pharaoh! The latter is simply routed and the people are set free! This action is a "redemption", because God "acquires" a people as his very own, out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, a people that is "holy" and "consecrated" to him in a unique way. God acquires them, not because of any particular good qualities they may possess, or because they are more powerful than other nations. He acquires them out of pure love for them! Henceforth they will be his very own people and will be expected to behave according to the covenant which he makes with them, a covenant sealed with blood, which in the culture of those times is the sign of a shared life. Ever afterwards the people will remember this redemption in their annual celebration of the passover, through various rites (unleavened bread, paschal lamb, blood sprinkled on the doorposts of the house, bitter herbs, various cups of wine) that help them to remember and renew the covenant made with their ancestors.

The liberation of the people from Babylon is presented in Second Isaiah as a new exodus, a new redemption achieved without the payment of a ransom (cf. 52:1-12). God himself is again the Redeemer, but the new covenant is achieved only in and through Godís faithful Servant, who, though innocent of any wrong-doing, suffers grievously and offers his life in atonement for the people. It becomes ever more clear that redemption is both liberation from slavery and consecration to God through a process of "atonement", in the original meaning of "reconciliation" that the word ("at-one-ment") had in English. The new covenant is written, not on stone tablets, but on the human heart, the heart of the Servant, who listens to the word of God and remains faithful in the midst of great suffering, unjustly inflicted. The Prophets recognise that this new covenant, written on the heart, characterised by knowledge and obedience, is possible only through the gift of the Spirit. After the return from the exile, a faithful remnant, the anawim, look forward to the final manifestation of Godís faithful love, which will bring salvation to his people.

Coming into the world in search of the scattered people of God, "Jesus said, ĎGod, here I am! I am coming to do your willí... And this will was for us to be made holy by the offering of his body made once and for all by Jesus Christ" (Heb 10:5-10). The redemption encompasses the whole life of Jesus, his childhood, his youth and manhood, his public life and final destiny. In and through this fullness of human experience, Jesus penetrates in a new way (Spirit-filled) into the depths of the human heart, shares the anxieties and yearnings of our being in the world, lives all of this in deep communion with his Father, and thereby reclaims and redeems the human being for Godís kingdom of justice, love and peace. He is the human being fully alive and we are all called to share in his fullness. In illustration of this truth, John Paul II, in Redemptor Hominis 8, cites Gaudium et Spes 22:

In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man and woman truly becomes clear. For Adam, the first man, was a type of him who was to come (Rom 5:14), Christ the Lord. Christ, the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals the human being to himself/herself and brings to light his/her most high calling... He who is the "image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15), is himself the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam and Eve that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin. Human nature, by the very fact that it was assumed, not absorbed, in him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For, by his incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man and woman. He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin.

If this is so, if we are being set free in and through the whole life of Jesus, in all his actions and words, why do we often speak about being redeemed by his Cross, by his Blood, by his Passion and Death? Do these represent the "price" that Jesus had to pay for our sins? This analogy of "paying the debt of punishment due to sin", an analogy taken from the tribunal of human justice, is in real danger, as Bishop Cuskelly states so clearly, of betraying the content of the good news of our salvation in Jesus. The Scriptures do indeed speak about the price paid to set us free (1 Cor 6:20; 7:22-23; 1 Pt 1:18-21; 2 Pt 2:1). But what they want to convey by these expressions is that our being set free from captivity, our reconciliation with God, cost Jesus dearly, cost him his life, the shedding of his blood (Ac 20:28; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:12; Rev 1:5; 5:9). Jesus was not condemned and punished by God. The real reason behind his suffering is not Godís vengeance being taken out on him, but Godís love in sending his Son into the world, in Godís wanting him to be truly one of us, to be identified with the least of the human race, with the most abandoned, rather than to claim privilege. This is what is meant by St Paul when he says that "God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all" (Rom 8:32) and by St John when he says that Jesus "had always loved those who were his own in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was (lit. he loved them to the end)" (Jn 13:1).

The cross was for the Jews the symbol of Godís curse. For everybody, it was the instrument of the most cruel and shameful death that the Romans could devise. For us it is the symbol of our redemption through Jesusí loving us "to the end". It was on the Cross that Jesusí obedience became perfect, that his love reached its limit. The cross is not an accidental extra on the road to our liberation. It signposts the extremity of Jesusí love, the depths of the mystery of the Incarnation. Its branches hold Jesusí arms "extended between heaven and earth in the sign of the eternal covenant" (Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation II). Giving his life for us, Jesus draws us to believe in his love, draws us to his heart. Then through faith and the sacraments of new life, he cleanses our souls from sin and truly seals a New Covenant with us. His last word spoken on the cross, "it is consummated", is the prelude to his gift of the Spirit and to the opening of his side by the stroke of the soldierís lance. All of these things happened to "fulfil" the Scriptures, to fulfil all the typology of the religious experience of Israel, and not only that but also the typology of the religious experience of the whole of humanity. Looking on the one whom we have pierced, believing in him, whose victory over sin and death is manifested in his resurrection, we (Jews and Gentiles alike) are reborn in a wonderful way, through the pure gift of God, without any merit on our part. We receive the Gift of New Life in the Holy Spirit and we learn to walk in the way that he has taught us. We tell one another the story and confirm each otherís faith. "Yes it is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon" (Lk 24:35).

Redemption consists above all in this, the forgiveness of our sins (Eph 1:7; Col 1:14; Heb 9:15). It is deliverance from the power of darkness (Col 1:13), from our subjection to the law (Gal 3:13; 4:5), from the useless way of life we inherited from our ancestors (1 Pt 1:18), from death (Col 2:13-14). It is a "redemption of acquisition" (Eph 1:14), because Jesus "acquired" us with his blood (Ac 20:28) and thereby made us his own (Tt 2:14). Through his work and through our co-operation in his mission, Jesus brings the whole of creation into a new unity in himself, "recapitulating" everything in an harmonious unity that respects the integrity of people and cosmos.

3. Making Amends

Did Jesus "make amends" for our sins? Yes, he did, in superlative fashion! His love and his fidelity to God were such as to constitute an abundant source of goodness for the human family, far outweighing any guilt and sin on our part. St Paul says it: "However great the number of sins committed, grace was even greater" (Rom 5:20). By his goodness, he more than makes amends for our lack of loving fidelity. As Mediator and High Priest, his self offering on Calvary becomes an efficacious sacrifice of expiation (Rom 3: 24-25; Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:1-2; 4:10), cleansing us once and for all from sin. As our Advocate against the accusations of the evil one, he speaks on our behalf. As our Brother, he pleads for us on the Cross in a most efficacious way.

I do not know enough about the history of dogma to be able to comment on the origin and history of the idea that through the death of Jesus "the human being redeems the debt of sin" (Tertio millennio adveniente, cited above). I think it comes from St Anselmís theology of redemption, according to which redemption is a process of making satisfaction for sin and its temporal punishment. According to this theology, the insoluble debt owed by us could only be solved by the Incarnation of the Son of God, who alone could make satisfaction for us by his death on the cross. Whatever be the merit of this theology, we need to be aware of its limitations. We read in the Scriptures that God sent his Son into the world to redeem us, to set us free, or as the Synoptic tradition puts it: "The Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45). Jesus paid once and for all our debt of love to the Father. He freed us from our evil ways and cancelled all our sins by his loving obedience to his Father and by his loving fidelity to us "to the end". He did not shirk the consequences of the Incarnation, but was true to us to the end, courageously facing up to the storm unleashed upon him by the sin of the world because of his goodness. Through his victory he takes away that sin and offers forgiveness to everybody.

The importance attached to the blood comes especially from the cultural context of Judaism, for which "there is no expiation of sins without blood" (Heb 9:22). The important thing for us, as for the New Testament, however, is the interior disposition of Jesus, the love of his Heart. The cross was not demanded by God as compensation for the debt of punishment merited by our sins. We are not to imagine all the sins of the world and the punishments due to them piled upon Jesus by a vengeful God, who looks for "satisfaction". In all of our efforts to seek an understanding of the mystery of our redemption, we must be aware of the big difference that exists between human justice, which seeks to judge fairly the innocence or guilt of those accused, in order to punish the guilty, and the divine justice, which requires that the guilty acknowledge their sins and turn from them, so that they may be delivered through the grace of their being forgiven.

Both Jew and pagan sinned and forfeited Godís glory, and both are justified through the free gift of his grace by being redeemed (dia tes apolutroseos) in Christ Jesus, who was appointed by God to sacrifice his life so as to win reconciliation through faith (lit. whom God put forward as an expiation [hilasterion: a mercy seat, smeared with blood] through faith in his blood) (Rm 3:23-25).

In all true reconciliation, to be sure, making amends for wrong-doing is important, in so far as making amends is humanly possible. But in a process of reconciliation, there is no question of wanting to exact the last penny, such as we seek to do in a process of strict justice in the human tribunal. As with the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" in South Africa, there needs to be a palpable sincerity of intent, a recognition of the wrongs done, a desire to make amends and to begin a new way of life, involving some reparation, in so far as reparation is humanly possible, and above all involving forgiveness. In cases of grievous injury, reparation is rarely possible in the full sense. It can only be symbolical, for example, in offences that caused grievous injury or death. There is a finality about these things and one cannot make amends for them. But in order to overcome permanent resentment and hatred, in order to bring about reconciliation and forgiveness, a process of truth and making some amends is called for.

There is also in the Passion an aspect of Jesusí making amends to God for us. He is our elder brother, our advocate, who pleads our cause. Out of his own fullness of loving obedience to the Father, he comes to our aid when he prays, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do". In a similar way, our making amends to God for our sins does not consist in the first place in our performing good works of a penitential character (fasting, pilgrimage, night vigils, almsgiving), but in our listening to Jesus, believing in his love and mercy, keeping his commandments, growing in his love and thereby bearing fruit (Jn 15: 9-17). Peter was given the opportunity of making amends, not by doing anything, but by answering three times the awkward and penetrating question, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?" And then comes the command, "Feed my lambs..., look after my sheep".

Godís coming in Jesus in search of his dispersed sons and daughters aimed at subverting the idea of God as someone who needed to be appeased by sacrifice, so that he might lay aside the vengeance he had planned to wreak on humanity. Jesus presents God as the one who takes the initiative in loving, in showing mercy. Suffering is not a punishment for sin, even if the Genesis story and the historical books of the Old Testament interpret it in that way. Jesus worked to alleviate suffering through his ministry of preaching and healing. He wanted to heal people and ease their burdens, yet not by waving a magic wand over the world. The cross is built into the structure of this world as it is and Jesus invites his followers to face this reality. The cross is the symbol of all the unjust as well as of the accidental and inevitable suffering of the world. Fatigue and pain are part of the mystery of life, the negative side of a reality that is wonderfully positive, open to growth and maturity even through suffering itself. The Church in her ministry to alleviate pain and suffering in the world, in her opposition to injustice in all its forms, may be said to have the mission "to take the crucified people down from the cross" (Sobrino). But the Churchís mission is not to rid the world of the cross. The Church is called rather to follow in the way of Jesus. In becoming man, he took a firm grasp of the cross, embracing the human condition, so as to experience it fully, in all its depths of suffering. In the letter to the Hebrews it is said that "he learned obedience through suffering". Suffering entered into his becoming perfect, into the work of our redemption. It is as the perfect Man that he redeems us, sets us free from captivity to sin and its consequences, so as to create with us a new world more marked by Easter glory than by Calvaryís excruciating agony. I like this phrase of Gaudium et Spes 38, which indicates that the cross is planted deeply within each human being and is equally planted at the core of human history:

Christís example in dying for us sinners teaches us that we must carry the cross, which the flesh and the world inflict on the shoulders of all who seek after peace and justice.

It is in following the example of Jesus that we share in the work of "reclaiming" human life and the world for God. "The true reparation asked by the Heart of the Saviour will come when the civilization of the Heart of Christ can be built upon the ruins heaped up by hatred and violence" (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Fr. Kolvenbach). Through our participation in the paschal mystery, in the Eucharist and in the events of every day, "the work of our redemption is being carried out" (Roman liturgy). We are becoming perfect through our following of Jesus Christ in his self-offering to God and to others. Through our faith in Jesus, suffering becomes for us too a source of purification from our attachments to sin and a source of growth in communion with him. There seems to be even a hidden law at work in the apostolate, according to which the power of Jesus makes its presence felt most of all in the experience of our weakness and troubles. The work of redemption thereby continues in and through the Church, Christís body: It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church (Col 1:24).

4. He loved me and gave himself for me

It should be clear by now, but it is worth emphasizing, that the self-offering of Jesus, his redemptive sacrifice, is often in the New Testament explicitly connected with his love for us and for the Father (see Gal 2:20; Eph 5:2.25; Jn 10:11.17; 13:1; l Jn 3:16). This is an important aspect of the mystery for a Missionary of the Sacred Heart. Some of us would even hold that, through his infused knowledge, Jesus knew and loved each one of us individually as he entered deeply into his redemptive suffering in Gethsemani. "The life I now live in this body I live in faith: faith in the Son of God who loved me and who sacrificed himself for my sake", says Paul (Gal 2:20). If this is not true of Gethsemani, it is certainly true of the risen Christ of Easter.

The four accounts of the institution of the Eucharist in the New Testament preserve for us Jesusí own understanding of the meaning of his death. The last supper of Jesus with his disciples is a time of deep and intimate sharing with them of all that he is then experiencing. The ritual interprets his death and resurrection as a sacrifice of redemption, against the background of three principal rituals of the Old Testament (the Passover, the Sinai Covenant and the Day of Atonement). Through the Eucharist we enter into communion with Jesus, the Lamb, who in his passover from this world to the Father takes away the sin of the world and reconciles us with God. Each one of us in the Church, as we celebrate the Eucharist, is invited to an intense participation in this mystery of love: "This is my body, which will be given for you". Its purpose is that we pass with him from death into life, from alienation into meaning, from a useless way of life into a new way of life, a life that is full of joy in our liberation from sin and death, full of love in our recognition of the "body", not just in the Eucharist but also in others, in each of our brothers and sisters. May that joy be ours in full measure at Easter and may that grace enable us to be ever more fully alive, ever more truly missionaries of love and reconciliation, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. For we are an Easter People and Alleluia is our name!

 

Rome, April 1, 2000

Michael Curran msc

Superior General



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