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Why Convert?

Rod Dreher shares a letter that Mother Thekla, an Orthodox nun, composed for a possible convert to Orthodoxy. She said in part:

I have not been told why you are about to convert, but I assure you there is no point whatsoever if it is for negative reasons. You will find as much “wrong” (if not more) in Orthodoxy as in the Anglican or Roman Churches.

So – the first point is, are you prepared to face lies, hypocrisy, evil and all the rest, just as much in Orthodoxy as in any other religion or denomination?

Are you expecting a kind of earthly paradise with plenty of incense and the right kind of music?

Do you expect to go straight to heaven if you cross yourself slowly, pompously and in the correct form from the right side?

Have you a cookery book with all the authentic Russian recipes for Easter festivities?

Are you an expert in kissing three times on every possible or improper occasion?

Can you prostrate elegantly without dropping a variety of stationery out of your pockets?

OR…..

Have you read the Gospels?

Have you faced Christ crucified?

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

George D., I am so sorry to hear about your sister-in-law. I will continue to pray for her and her doctors and her children.

Fr. Imbelli, I like the "lifeline" image. I literally do go around clutching my rosary in my pocket when things get really bad, and I usually ask a couple of saints to say it for me while I'm taking care of more immediate exigencies. I took care of my elderly mother at home after emergency heart valve surgery because she is nutty and refused to go to the rehab center. Then she got pneumonia. The only prayer I could manage was, "Jesus Christ, don't let me screw this up." 

Crystal, FWIW from another struggling convert, I'd say contemplate the words and actions of Jesus Christ, in community with others (if not in your parish, then come over here). It seems to me you can hardly go wrong doing that. Also FWIW, my gateway into trying to fathom the crucifixion were Christ's words to the Good Thief. Anyhow, if God expected perfect understanding of the faith, he'd have made us smarter.

Abe,

Let me take up your reference to the Greek word huper: for/on behalf of. I think it is a golden thread tying together most of the books of the New Testament.

I suggest that it marks the New Testament's conviction that we are the graced beneficiaries of Christ's life, death, and resurrection, and that this action of his total self-gift is not only a human action, but the very action of God with us done for us: huper hemon. This is the joy of the Gospel.

I reiterate: it is the conviction of the early Church THAT.

HOW the life, death, and resurrection accomplishes this is, I take it, the issue we struggle with.  Not only on this thread. This thread is only the latest iteration of probings and ponderings that we have been engaged in on this blog for years. And rightly so. For we are pondering inexhaustible mystery, the mystery of human salvation in Christ. And what better time than Lent to explore once again.

Let me direct attention to three occurences of huper that may serve our ongoing reflection.

In Galatians, Paul speaks very personally about his experience of "the Lord Jesus who loved me and gave himself for (huper) me" (Gal 2:20). Then, in a more cosmic horizon, he writes in Romans of God not sparing his only Son, but giving him up for (huper) us all (Rom 8:32). Lastly, for my present purpose, he speaks a few verses later of the living Lord Jesus who intercedes for (huper) us at God's right hand (Rom 8:34).

What I want to call attention to is the WHY of God's redemption action in Christ. It clearly flows, in the perception of the early Christians, from the Love of the Father incarnate in the Son. And this love manifest in the paschal mystery is eternalized in Christ's ongoing intercession for us.

And all these instances point to the identity of Jesus as constituted by the "for:" the total self-gift in worship of God and the service of the brothers and sisters.

It is this insight that characterizes the Christology of Bonhoeffer and Benedict XVI: Jesus' being is a "being-for." If some have not yet read Joseph Ratzinger's "Introduction to Christianity" I heartily recommend it. It could well serve as post-Easter mystagogia.

 

It WAS a blood sacrifice, meant to be the last .It inaugurated for us  a new understanding[revelation] of God; God as God  who has no need for sacrifice because he loves his creatures.He  prefers love of neighbor[the beatitudes] then sacrifice.Jesus was the last sacrifice ,accepted by god[father] as the last and perfect sacrifice after which no more sacrifice is needed.["The tomb was empty because the sacrifice had been accepted"The people of the time; Jews and Pagans alike  would have understood that.Hence the earliest gospel ends with the tomb being  empty,not with the resurrection]. Nor ever was but mankind did not understand that and Jesus brings us the fuller understanding about God, as a god calling us to a relation with him. God as in solidarity with humans ,humans who suffer and die.The iconic cross is the human person/body and soul too.Though we suffer and die,and suffering and bodily death are evil, we are not abandoned by an indifferent universe .We are loved by our creator and Jesus exemplified God's presence and love for us.Our suffering and death is not the be all and end all of us,as the good news of the resurrection proclaims.Jesus calls us to be in relation with God which is why we were created. To me it is quite uncanny that there was a time, a brief time in history where people actually used crucifixtion as the method of execution.That it corresponds so iconically,so fittingly with God's revelation; though we suffer and die[the body that has to die,the cross] we are more then mortal beings, God wants us to share of his goodness ,his life which transcends our fallen state. Had Jesus died of old age in a bed,the iconic cross would have not been possible.[If you get what I'm trying to say]. God never needs sacrifice but god revealed himself to us via the cultural understanding of people at the time.And a god that requires appeasement through blood sacrifice was such an understanding.[As was the commandmants which Jesus never abrogates]The eurcharist is repeated now as a remembrance of that new covenant; the last forever perfect  blood sacrifice revealing  that  god has no need of blood sacrifice because that is not what god is;God wants to be related with us as Jesus is, and allows the primitve pagan? symbolism of ingesting the divine to partake of divinity to stand as a ritual expressing god's desire to give/share  of himself to/with us.now as when jesus walked on  earth,and as Jesus is now with god[ father/infinite being].

I am usually a lurker - but I want to thank you all for the many thoughtful posts and respectful discussion.   Best thread of 2014 so far!

Crystal:

You wrote: “I can't help thinking that it is Jesus' life, his acts and words, that have saved us, and not  by some magic atonement thingy but by revealing to us what God is really like.  I think his death might have been inevitable given his times and the way he lived his life, but I don't think he came here purposely to die, and I don't want to celebrate his torture and murder.”

We had a conversation about this a few weeks ago, and its clear that what you understand by the doctrine of the Atonement is a stumbling-block for you. (I do wish, however, that you hadn’t been so dismissive as to refer to it as “some magic atonement thingy”.) I tried back then to clarify some common misunderstandings of the doctrine.

You seem to think that we have to choose between assigning redemptive significance to the death and resurrection of Christ and finding salvific value in “Jesus’ life, his acts and words.” I don’t know any reason why to assert the second is to deny the first, or to assert the first is to neglect the second.
Similarly, you say you believe in the resurrection, but you seem not to be able to see in Christ’s death anything but “his torture and murder,” that is, what those who put him to death did, not anything that he did. (The suffering and death of Christ seem to be a void between the two parts that you like: his life and works and his resurrection.) Believe me, on Good Friday we don’t gather together to “celebrate his torture and murder,” that is, what they did, but rather what he did.

It’s very clear from the NT that the disciples of Jesus were as shocked and scandalized by the suffering and death of Jesus as you are. The only explanation of why after his death his disciples did not disperse and go back, disillusioned and disappointed, to their former lives is that they became convinced that he had been raised from the dead and made Lord and Messiah. But if he was the Messiah, then some sense needed to be made of his death, too, which could not be regarded just as an unfortunate miscarriage of justice. So they ransacked their Scriptures and there found in the Torah and the prophets passages that they believed foretold what happened to Jesus. “Was it not necessary,” the risen Jesus tells the slow disciples on the road to Emmaus, “that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” This is a divine “necessity”: even the supreme evil of Jesus’ torture and murder, although it horribly violates the divine will, does not escape the divine plan, but can be understood in the light of the resurrection. And that is why in very many places in the NT writings, the emphasis falls on what God and Christ were doing in the death and resurrection of Christ, and not on what his executioners did.

Theories of the atonement are attempts to understand why it was “necessary” that we be redeemed through death and resurrection, and the best of them, so far from seeing any "magic" in it, take seriously not only all the NT data but also everything else the Scriptures require us to believe about God, his righteousness and his infiinte mercy and the love that prompted him to send his Son so that we might live.

No NT book more celebrates God's love for us in Christ than the First Epistle of St. John, but listen to this passage: "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins" (1 Jn 4:9-10). Now, we can either take all that stuff about love and forget the part about expiation, or we can try to understand what the part about expiation can possibly mean in the light of stuff about love. If we try to keep the two thngs together, we can at least conclude this: whatever "expiation" means, it doesn't mean something that turns God from angrily just or justly angry into a loving God. God didn't need Christ's expiatory work in order to love mankind. Somehow, somehow, what Christ did, and what he suffered, is the fulfilment, the embodiment, the expression of God's loving plan.

It saddens me beyond measure that so many people seem to have imbibed a theory of the atonement that holds that God was so constrained by the demands of justice that he could not forgive the sins of the human race unless his anger was satisfied by the blood-sacrifice of his only Son or that maintains that it was God who was inflicting this punishment on his innocent Son in our place. I do not think that either of these views can be justified from the New Testament nor from the writings of such great theologians as St. Augustine, St. Anselm, and St. Thomas Aquinas. 

Fr. K,

Thamks for responding.  You wrote "The suffering and death of Christ seem to be a void between the two parts that you like: his life and works and his resurrection.) Believe me, on Good Friday we don’t gather together to “celebrate his torture and murder,” that is, what they did, but rather what he did."     That's true.  Every Easter I get so upset trying to go from Jesus' life to his resurrection without having to go through the crucifixion.  The Spiritual Exercises has people spend one of the weeks on just magining the death of Jesus and I used that time to try to figure out how to actually save him ... I never could. I understand the deep need of the disciples  to make sense of what happened to Jesus - I feel it too - but their answer doesn't make sense to me.  You mention "what he did" but what *did* he do but suffer and die?  It feels like I have two choices"  1) Jesus' death was not planned but when it came up, God did not intervene to save him, or 2)  God planned Jesus' death as a kind of example or sacrifice and Jesus agreed.  But I so much don't want to believe either of these options because of what theu say to me about what God is like and how he feels and will deal with me and those I love.

Crystal,

I think you touch the heart of the matter when you ask: "but what did he do but suffer and die?"

It seems to me that the faith of the Church is that Jesus transformed his death into the way of life -- thus the tradition's loving contemplation of the Cross as the tree of life.

Drawing upon different dimensions of the New Testament tradition, what Jesus "did" on the Cross was to worship God: "Father into your hands I commend my Spirit:" what he did was to create communion: "Father, forgive them," "this day you will be with me in Paradise;" what he did was to initiate the new creation: "and bowing his head, he handed over the Spirit."

I think these were the "deeds" of the dying, life-giving Jesus that spoke to Saint Francis from the crucifix at San Damiano.

 

 

Fr. I,

One of the things the retreat emphasized was what Jesus was like during his suffering and death ... that he wasn't changed for the worse by it, that he still loved, still trusted.  A big part of me wants to say that's not enough of an answer to  suffering, that if I drag my feet long enough God will change his mind and save Jesus, save us all, from that suffering.  But I'll dwell on this ... what Jesus *did* do ... during the time left before Easter.   Thanks both of you, Fr. K and Fr. I  :)

Fr. K,  you wrote:

It saddens me beyond measure that so many people seem to have imbibed a theory of the atonement that holds that God was so constrained by the demands of justice that he could not forgive the sins of the human race unless his anger was satisfied by the blood-sacrifice of his only Son or that maintains that it was God who was inflicting this punishment on his innocent Son in our place.

Well, I know I'm pretty unsophisticated when it comes to theology, but I can't help but think that maybe we ordinary non-theologian types have "imbibed" this theory of atonement because that is what the church teaches!  If that is not what the church expects us to believe, then maybe  the church should provide a bit more interpretation or nuance.

I nominate you, Fr. Komonchak, to be the principal author for the next version of the Catechism, because your ideas are far more understandable than those in the current catechism.  I find your explanations of various topics that keep me away from the Catholic church to be far more intelligible than those that I find in official Catholic documents like the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The message that comes through to at least some ordinary people like me, non-theologians, is that Jesus "had" to be a victim to "atone" for human sin.  He had to die as the ultimate blood sacrifice to "redeem" human beings and "save" them. Even you quote the bit about "expiation" from John but say it is a mystery?  

Is it not understandable from reading the passages below that many would  conclude that the Catholic church teaches that if Jesus had not been a victim, if he had not been a blood sacrifice, that God would not forgive human sin?

The following highlights several sections of the Catechism, selected to illustrate why some of us may have "imbibed" a certain theory of atonement.

  In 606 below, it says that God loves Jesus because he lays down his life - he obeyed the commandment to suffer and die!  (this implies that God commanded Jesus' death, does it not?).  It says that Jesus' incarnation was not to live a life that teaches all humanity how to live, and demonstrating throug his life and death hat sometimes living according to how we should live might bring severe consequences (including suffering and even death), but he was incarnated (607) as a human being to "give his life as ransom".  In 609, it says that God "wants to save" humankind, but apparently won't unless Jesus suffers and dies.  It says God "loves me" (Jesus) because he lays down his life for humanity and also because by following what God commanded (laying down his life), people would know that Jesus loved God. 

1992 Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. ...

603 ....But in the redeeming love that always united him to the Father, he assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin... Having thus established him in solidarity with us sinners, God "did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all", so that we might be "reconciled to God by the death of his Son".407

604 By giving up his own Son for our sins, God manifests that his plan for us is one of benevolent love, prior to any merit on our part: "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins."408 God "shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us."409

605 At the end of the parable of the lost sheep Jesus ... affirms that he came "to give his life as a ransom for many"; ... following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: "There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer."412

606 ....."And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."414 ... The sacrifice of Jesus "for the sins of the whole world"416 expresses his loving communion with the Father. "The Father loves me, because I lay down my life", said the Lord, "[for] I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father."417

607 ....for his redemptive passion was the very reason for his Incarnation. And so he asked, "And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour."419 And again, "Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?"420....

608 ... John the Baptist looked at Jesus and pointed him out as the "Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world".422 By doing so, he reveals that Jesus is at the same time the suffering Servant who silently allows himself to be led to the slaughter and who bears the sin of the multitudes, ....Christ's whole life expresses his mission: "to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."424

609 6 Indeed, out of love for his Father and for men, whom the Father wants to save, Jesus freely accepted his Passion and death: ".....

610 ....while still free, Jesus transformed this Last Supper with the apostles into the memorial of his voluntary offering to the Father for the salvation of men: "This is my body which is given for you." "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."430

 

.... since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

IN BRIEF

619 "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures" (I Cor 15:3).

620 Our salvation flows from God's initiative of love for us, because "he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins" (I Jn 4:10). "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (2Cor 5:19).

 

622 The redemption won by Christ consists in this, that he came "to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mt 20:28), that is, he "loved [his own] to the end" (Jn 13:1), so that they might be "ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [their] fathers" (I Pt 1:18).

623.... Jesus fulfills the atoning mission (cf. Is 53:10) of the suffering Servant, who will "make many righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities" (Is 53:11; cf. Rom 5:19

Ms. Chapman:

Two comments: (1) You will see how many of the passages you adduce contain biblical citations or references, so any difficulties or objections raised with regard to these statements must also be directed at the authors of the biblical statements, in their varied efforts to understand why salvation came through death and resurrection. 

(20) No single statement you adduce, nor all of them together, requires "a theory of the atonement that holds that God was so constrained by the demands of justice that he could not forgive the sins of the human race unless his anger was satisfied by the blood-sacrifice of his only Son or that maintains that it was God who was inflicting this punishment on his innocent Son in our place."

In the article on the subject that Commonweal asked me to write a few years ago, I proposed a comparison with Martin Luther King.

If an illustration of the law of the cross is needed closer to us in time, one might think of Martin Luther King, and of the way in which the metaphors associated with Christ’s death recur in King’s story.  From the beginning of his work for civil rights he knew that his efforts could bring him death. Two years before it happened, he said: “I choose to live for and with those for whom life is one long, desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little, I’m going that way. If it means sacrifice, I’m going that way. And if it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice saying, ‘Do something for others.’” To keep on going that way took fidelity and courage, virtues still in evidence in the speech he gave the evening before he was assassinated. He had just mentioned renewed threats against his life, but he expressed his confidence that God’s work would  move forward:  “I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like everybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

One reviewer of the film about King, “Eyes on the Prize,” said people will find themselves “weeping tears of joy and gratitude at the price that was paid by Martin Luther King and others to buy freedom for men and women of color.” The tears are of joy and gratitude, not of sorrow and anger. She wasn’t thinking about James Earl Ray and what he did, but about Martin Luther King and what he did.

St. Augustine said something similar 1500 years ago. The Suffering Servant had no beauty or comeliness to him, and yet he was the “fairest among the sons of men.” It takes the eyes of faith to see the beauty in the ugliness, Augustine said.  And what is the beauty that we love in Christ? he asked.  “The crucified limbs? The pierced side? Or the love? When we hear that he suffered for us, what do we love? We love the love. He loved us so that we might love him back, and that we might be able to love him back, he visited us with his Spirit.” And from there the tears of joy and gratitude that the Christian Church has wept for two millennia.

In the late 1960's I watched a newscast of M.L. King walking in a civil rights demonstration. I saw him flinch when a sound rang out like that of a gunshot, and I thought to myself, "What courage that man has! He knows that someone could shoot at him and he still continues his struggle." He did so, he says above, because he heard a voice saying, "Do something!" He did so because, he says, "I just want to do God's will." It was God's will that he continue the struggle, and he mustered the courage and love to do so even knowing, even anticipating, that it could cost him his life. God certainly did not will what James Earl Ray did, but he certainly did will what Martin Luther King did and the courage and love that enabled him to do it. I do not know why we may not say as much about Jesus of Nazareth. God certainly did not will what Judas did, what certain Jews did, what certain Romans did, but he certainly did will that Jesus continue his mission and the courage and love that enabled him to do it.  

Maybe Anne's talking about and what bothers me too is this ... the life that Jesus lived was wonderful because of what he did and said and his courage to do that in the face of obvious danger (same for MLK).  But his life would have been just as wonderful if he had not been murdered, and MLK's work would have been just as good if he had not been murdered.  It isn't the fact that those two were killed that made their lives and work special, and if they had lived to old age their lives would have been just as special.  But so many Christians seem to really like the idea that Jesus was brutally killed, as if his  suffering added some cachet to all he had done and taught. 

Crystal,

I think, as with your previous comments, you are seeking to understand something of what is salvific about the death of Jesus. In other words, it is not just that Jesus was willing to accept death as a tragic consequence of his life's commitment to healing and reconciling. But was there anything salvific about his death itself?

I think this latter is the key question and I probably cannot offer anything beyond what I've already said. Jesus' final act of love is to transform death itself into worship of God and service of others: "my body for you." That is why one cannot separate the Cross and the Last Supper. Christ makes death itself the way to Eucharist and communion, for "when we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."

Fr. I,

Thanks for trying to explain this stuff.  There is that connection between Jesus' death and the Last Supper, and another mention of eating his flesh in John. I know that muct be sinificant in some way but I don't understand it and I find it disturbing, like some hold-over from mystery cults s - I've done my best to ignore it (sigh).  It's been hard for me to become a Christian, being really attracted on a 'personal relationship with Jesus' level but having so much trouble trying to see everything in a way I can understand and accept and believe.  I'm not giving up yet, though  :)

There have been so many good things said here, that I hesitate to add anything. But here's one more thought, which may bear on Crystal's last comment:

That the solidarity of Christ with suffering humanity reaches so far as to share in a humiliating and painful death meted out to the lowest criminals is also, I think, a living sign to those who are themselves victims, innocent sufferers, those who are humiliated and subject to injustice in any way in this cruel and pain-filled, violent world. His suffering is God's suffering with them. His resurrection is their vindication because it displays not only God's power, but also God's justice (I am getting this last point via Jon Sobrino). In other words, the mystery of the cross is a revelation of radical compassion -- not some sort of trivial "feeling sorry" for us, but sharing with us the pain and devastation of abandonment and unmerited suffering, so that we might know he is with us in all things. 

So no, if Jesus had lived and died in peace, a great religious teacher with insight into God, it would not have fulfilled the work of redemption. For that, he showed us the depth of the Father's love, by accepting death on a cross (Philippians 2). 

Drawing upon different dimensions of the New Testament tradition, what Jesus "did" on the Cross was to worship God: "Father into your hands I commend my Spirit:" what he did was to create communion: "Father, forgive them," "this day you will be with me in Paradise;" what he did was to initiate the new creation: "and bowing his head, he handed over the Spirit."

I like that! In an earlier thread you had said that his crucifixion and death was not just the climax of a life of love, but essentially different, and here you seem to be explaining that statement a little bit. "Worshipping God" and "creating communion" recall the two commandments. Take the second one, for example. We say/hear it at Mass, of course: 

through your Son our Lord Jesus Christ you never cease to gather a people to yourself,

But how is Jesus creating communion? 

Anne --

Yes, the word "atonement" was used in my catechism classes, but I wasn't taught that Jesus *had to die* -- He chose to die.  He chose to die in order for our human nature to be purified of sin, but   *how* His death would result in our being purified is a mystery.  (To me, as for many, the biggest mystery is how God can let the innocent such as Jesus suffer.) 

The more I read on dot.Commonweal the more I realize that what American Catholics are told is official Church teaching isn't always the same thing.  It seems to vary from diocese to diocese sometimes.

Now we are into high theology, and Fr Komonchak well defends the doctrine of the Atonement. Whether the biblical sacrificial categories can be upgraded or replaced is a big question, but the faith that the blood of Christ washes away our sins and those of the whole world remains a bedrock (despite the downgrading of the feast of the precious blood). On a deeper level than all theory the Cross imposes itself as the "measure of the world" -- to quote Newman again:

 

"And as the doctrine of the Cross, though it be the true interpretation of this world, is not prominently manifested in it, upon its surface, but is concealed; so again, when received into the faithful heart, there it abides as a living principle, but deep, and hidden from observation. Religious men, in the words of Scripture, "live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved them and gave Himself for them:" [Gal. ii. 20.] but they do not tell this to all men; they leave others to find it out as they may... And thus "Jesus Christ and He crucified" is, as the Apostle tells us, "a hidden wisdom;"—hidden in the world, which seems at first sight to speak a far other doctrine,—and hidden in the faithful soul, which to persons at a distance, or to chance beholders, seems to be living but an ordinary life, while really it is in secret holding communion with Him who was "manifested in the flesh," "crucified through weakness," "justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, and received up into glory."

"This being the case, the great and awful doctrine of the Cross of Christ, which we now commemorate, may fitly be called, in the language of figure, the heart of religion... The sacred doctrine of Christ's Atoning Sacrifice is the vital principle on which the Christian lives, and without which Christianity is not. Without it no other doctrine is held profitably; to believe in Christ's divinity, or in His manhood, or in the Holy Trinity, or in a judgment to come, or in the resurrection of the dead, is an untrue belief, not Christian faith, unless we receive also the doctrine of Christ's sacrifice. On the other hand, to receive it presupposes the reception of other high truths of the Gospel besides; it involves the belief in Christ's true divinity, in His true incarnation, and in man's sinful state by nature; and it prepares the way to belief in the sacred Eucharistic feast, in which He who was once crucified is ever given to our souls and bodies, verily and indeed, in His Body and in His Blood. But again, the heart is hidden from view; it is carefully and securely guarded; it is not like the eye set in the forehead, commanding all, and seen of all: and so in like manner the sacred doctrine of the Atoning Sacrifice is not one to be talked of, but to be lived upon; not to be put forth irreverently, but to be adored secretly; not to be used as a necessary instrument in the conversion of the ungodly, or for the satisfaction of reasoners of this world, but to be unfolded to the docile and obedient; to young children, whom the world has not corrupted; to the sorrowful, who need comfort; to the sincere and earnest, who need a rule of life; to the innocent, who need warning; and to the established, who have earned the knowledge of it."

 

Like most cradle Catholics my age (66), I grew up believing that "the Father sent his only begotten Son to die for us on the cross to effect our salvation."  In other words, the Father expected the Son to be crucified in order to appease the Father.  "At-one-ment" was the result of Jesus' crucifixion to placate the Father.

Only in the past few years have I come to learn that this toxic theology was not part of primitive Christian belief.  It would not be too long before Christian writers would begin describing Jesus as "the Victim" on "the Altar".  The Father, in other words, "sacrificed" the Son to save us.  From this understanding of sacrifice, it only made sense to describe the Christian liturgical presider as "the priest".  Only a priest, after all, can offer sacrifice.  As Jews were losing their ritual/cultic sacrifice and priesthood after the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD, ancient Christian writers were appropriating these very terms to demonstrate the superiority of Christian belief and worship over Jewish belief and worship.  

In its commentary on Hebrews, the USCCB website notes the following:

"The author saw the addressees in danger of apostasy from their Christian faith. This danger was due not to any persecution from outsiders but to a weariness with the demands of Christian life and a growing indifference to their calling (Heb 2:1;4:146:11210:2332). The author’s main theme, the priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus (Heb 310), is not developed for its own sake but as a means of restoring their lost fervor and strengthening them in their faith."  Christian apologists, in other words, relied on typology/foreshadowing/prefigurement to "sell" the Christian message to a Jewish Christian audience.

The rest is history.  At least Vatican II retrieved the term 'presbyterate'.   The terms 'appeasement', 'atonement', 'priest', 'sacrifice' must be seen in their historical context to understand how the church arrived at its later salvation theology that many Catholics wrestle with today. I myself no longer subscribe to the orthotoxy apparently prevalent before Vatican II.

"It isn't the fact that those two were killed that made their lives and work special, and if they had lived to old age their lives would have been just as special.
 

Crystal --

But it is *part* of what made their lives very special indeed.  Their lives which include such acceptance of death for the sake of others are great lessons for the rest of us.  If Jesus had not died because He persisted in preaching His message of love and redemption, then we never would have even heard of Him, and without King's death he would probably be remembered as just another fine preacher in Atlanta.  Their deaths *show* their love in a way that other kinds of lives would not have done.  "Greater love hath no man .  .  .  "  Which is better?  To *tell* someone that you love them or to *show* them that you do?

It seems to me that the fact that we necessarily have wills leads almost inevitably to our sometimes actually choosing evil, even terrible evil.  In other words, humankind is the kind of thing that needs help, in some cases drastic help, to live a decent live, to reach a good end.  And the specific life that Jesus chose to lead IS the specific kind of help and the source of other graces that we need:  by living the life that He did, by giving us the example He did, He teaches us that a life which leads to pain can still be a good life, can be a life which eventually will overcome the evils we suffer because of our weakness and inclination to evil.  And, of course, He also promises us a second, better, second life.

The point to emphasize is that Jesus' sacrifice was *self-sacrifice*.  Jesus was not sacrificed by the Father.  I think Prof. Komonchak's comments on Martin Luther King, Jr. very much reflect a healthy parallel understanding of Jesus' sacrifice.

I agree with many of the comments about the crucifixion, emphasizing "solidarity with suffering humanity", a climax of love, etc., but am puzzled by Fr Imbelli's comment that in the crucifixion Christ "creates". The crucifixion reveals God's love for us, it shows us something that already existed before but was previously not so visible, but how is it a creation?

Thanks to all for this rich conversation.

Apropos Joseph O'Leary's quote from Newman, I often think that one powerful analogy of the Eucharist is our giving of blood. It is inseparably a physical and a spiritual act. It strikes me that Christ's death is the primordial blood infusion whereby new life is given to the world.

Now, of course, the entire paschal mystery of death and resurrection must be held together. If prior to Vatican II there was a one-sided focus on Christ's death, there can be an equally one-sided neglect of his sacrifice. The restoration of the Easter triduum was a wonderful gift towards our entrance into the entirety of the paschal mystery.

Claire, what I am seeking to do by speaking of "creation" is to underscore the newness of what God accomplished in Christ. Not only a restoration of the old creation, but the beginning of the new creation. Hence Paul's recourse to "new Adam" symbolism.

Let me close, then, with a reference to what he says in 2 Corinthians: "We are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised ... Therefore if anyone is in Christ he or she is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come" (2 Cor 5:14-17)

The question about the significance of the death of Jesus on the cross arose, and arises, only because of the conviction that he was raised from the dead. If he had not been raised from the dead, is there any reason to think that people would still be talking about him today? Why didn't he and his little movement disappear into the mists of ancient history? Here is a pertinent paragraph from a contemporary scholar:

Why, then, did people go on talking about Jesus of Nazareth, except as a remarkable but tragic memory? The obvious answer is the one given by all early Christians actually known to us...: Jesus was raised from the dead.. The resurrection... was the only reason they came up with for supposing that Jesus stood for anything other than a dream that might have come true but didn’t. It was the only reason why his life and words possessed any relevance two weeks, let alone two millennia, after his death.... (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 658-59).

Because of this conviction the disciples of Jesus tried to make sense of the death in disgrace of Jesus, and, unlike too much later theology, they did not do so by isolating the death and making it the chief moment in our redemption. For example, the notion of sacrifice explored in the Epistle to the Hebrews not only does not focus solely on the death on the cross but places the key moment of it in the great High Priest's service in the heavenly sanctuary:

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things which have come to be, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation. He entered, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, and achieved eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer's ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself up unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God! (Heb 9:11-14.)

Behind this vision lies the Jewish notion of sacrifice which places the emphasis, not on the physical slaughter of the animal, but on what is done with its blood, as, for example, when Moses seals the covenant between the Lord and Israel: "Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, 'This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words of his'" (Ex 24:3-11). Christians, of course, will recognize the echo of these words in those of Jesus at his Last Supper: "This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured out in behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins" (Mt 26:28). So also, as I understand it, the key moment in the sacrifice in the Jewish Temple was not when the animal was killed, but when the high priest brought the blood into the Holy of Holies. 

This is just one example of how faith in the resurrection led to a transformation of how the disciples, scandalized by the death of Jesus ("We had hoped that he was the one who would set Israel free" [Lk 24:21]; had hoped--they were no longer hoping that; they were leaving Jerusalem]), regarded his death on the cross--it wasn't disgraceful failure; it wasn't the victory of his opponents; it wasn't simply an unjust execution. Somehow, somehow, even the apparent triumph of evil must fit into the divine plan and be understood as a moment of supreme good. Everything gets turned upside-down. Paul put it dramatically in 1 Cor 1:20-25:

Has not God turned the wisdom of this world into folly? Since in God's wisdom the world did not come to know him through its wisdom, it pleased God to save those who believe through the folly of the preaching of the Gospel. Yes, Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified--a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's folly is wiser than men, and his weakness stronger than men.

It is only his belief in the resurrection of Christ that enabled Paul to make these claims, and I do not think that our situation today is any different. Apart from the resurrection, the death of Jesus is only folly and failure. 

Personally, I do not understand how belief in the resurrection of Christ does not transform how one views his death.

The question was asked about what Jesus did in his passion and death. I recommend a close and careful reading of and meditation on the passion-narrative in St. John's Gospel (chs. 18-19) which, even more than those of the Synoptic Evangelists, shows Jesus in command, the one judged judging , the hour of shame the hour of glory (see Jn 13:1; Jn 13:31-32; Jn 8:27; Jn 12:32-33).

Rita, thanks for adding your thoughts about Christ's identification with those suffering in a violent world. Pope John 23 used to visit the incarcerated at Christmas time. "You could not come to me, so I came to see you," he said. Couldn't those words have been spoken by Jesus? Yes, I think they could.

There's a nice picture at Sacred Space: http://sacredspace102.blogspot.com/2011/12/i-was-in-prison-and-you-came-...

Claire @ 12:50 asks of Bob Imbelli, "How is Jesus creating communion?"

Bob, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I have been assuming that your reference here is to reconciliation, with reference to the term communio: reconciliation to God and one another that is the fruit of the paschal mystery.

Poetically, the gospel image of the rending of the veil of the Temple at the moment of the death of Jesus seems apposite here. The cross tears down the barrier between the holy of holies, where God dwells, and world of blood and tears where the people dwell. 

People often think that the way to find communion with God is by striving to rise above the human condition. What the Christian scriptures reveal, however, is that communion with God is a gift which God gives by coming "down" to us (even unto death).

Creating communion among one another is the trajectory of the continuing story, though, which carries through the resurrection and the Acts of the Apostles. The reconciliation with one another that attends our reconciliation with God is primarily imaged at Pentecost, where the barriers of language fall down and all join in praise together. 

Thus, the story is told. I recognize that it is a lifelong process to live into it. But the notion that all this is made available to us, through the paschal mystery, is the source of much joy and hope.

It's obvious that the CCC, as demonstrated by Anne Chapman's textual quotes, reinforces a toxic notion of sacrifice.  It's not just that the pre-Vatican II church focused on the death of Jesus.  More important, the church at the time taught the laity that the Father *sacrificed* the Son.  If the clergy had a better (read: healthier) notion of this sacrifice, it did not reach down to the rest of us.  My 8th grade class of 1962 was the last one to graduate before Vatican II.  This toxic notion was standard fare.  Even today, we have hierarchs and frontline clergy who subscribe to such orthotoxy, which they insist is "orthodox".  Cardinal Raymond Burke (4 months my junior) comes to mind here with his warnings to Catholics about "risking your eternal souls".  In my blogging at NCROnline, for instance, I've encountered self-described "orthodox" Catholics who embrace Jesus as "the Victim".  Our language --- priest, sacrifice, altar, victim --- reinforces such toxic religion.  The CCC has been criticized, inter alia, for its "traditionalist" language --- rightly so!  Might we imagine rigidly conservative Vatican hierarchs substituting, instead, the terms 'presbyter', 'self-sacrifice', and 'eucharistic table', and clarifying that Jesus was the victim of a cruel Roman prefect and a high priest subservient to this official?  Self-described "traditionalists", from my experience, simply cannot comprehend the idea that God's love is unconditional, that we've *already* been saved.  In grade school, we were taught that if we died in the state of mortal sin, we were risking our eternal salvation (read: we're damned).  The CCC reaches back to this toxic language.  It seems to me that Rome is trying to blend two polar opposites of human language about God and our salvation.  No wonder so many Catholics are confused.  We're damned alright --- by dysfunctional doctrine, surely a key component of the church's dysfunctional state today.

I would like to thank all who responded, especially Fr. K and Fr. I - theology teachers. As usual, it will take me time to read and digest all these comments.

 However, I also want to thank Joseph J for joining me in pointing out why we ordinary Catholics who haven't read thousands of pages of high level theological interpretation "imbibe" the theory that God demanded the death of Jesus in order to forgive sins. The words are there in the catechism, during Good Friday services, and during every mass, and in the ever-present crucifixes in churches, and this is what most Catholics of my generation (same as Joseph's) were taught - that God is "perfect" and so only a "perfect" sacrifice would appease God enough to forgive the sins of humanity.

My two older children went to a Catholic high school - they were taught the same thing I was taught, long after Vatican II. I had thought the church had moved beyond this blood-sacrifice for atonement teaching - and according to Fr. K, it has - but this has not "trickled down" to ordinary parishes and schools and people.  We sent our youngest to an Episcopal high school because we felt that the Catholic high school was too "orthotoxic" to use Joseph's apt description.  He was taught a much healthier understanding than were his older siblings at the Catholic school.

The words and the concepts are still spoken in every mass, which emphasizes the blood sacrifice and the church teaches that we are literally eating Jesus' body (flesh, and tendons, and ligaments and muscle) and drinking human blood during the mass, under the "form" of bread and wine - human sacrifice that essentially affirms the ancient practice of blood sacrifice to appease gods or Jahweh.  We had a long discussion about this already and Fr. K was  endlessly patient during that discussion as well. But he did concede that there are implications of cannibalism in this teaching - that according to the gospels (which were not, of course, written transcripts) Jesus refers to us having to "gnaw" on his flesh.

The theology professors are continuosly surprised by what ordinary Catholics understand. But most ordinary Catholics never take a theology class, and are taught what they are taught by parish priests and religious educators.  They are given the CCC to read.  So we "imbibe" what some believe are misunderstandings of Catholic teaching. We imbibe what we have been taught. I did take theology classes, every semester I was in college. And we were also taught that Jesus "had" to die as a sacrifice for the redemption of human beings for sins.

Fr. K emphasizes the resurrection, not the death. This reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a long time friend, an evangelical whose daughter married a Catholic and whose grandchildren are being raised Catholic.  She had never spent any time in a Catholic church before having a Catholic join her family.  She asked me why Catholic churches all have a prominently displayed crucifix of the twisted and bloody body of Jesus instead of an empty cross that symbolizes the Resurrection.  She doesn't understand this emphasis even though she is a firm believer in the atonement theory of Jesus's death (he came to die in order to save us from the consequences of our sins.  She says that God demanded this for "justice".

 

 

Joe J,

Jesus was a victim. Of betrayal by a friend, of an unjust trial, of the meting out of brutal punishment by an occupying power, of the cruelty of guards, of the degradation imposed on criminals of his time.

If you take away his victim-hood, you deprive all other innocent victims of their standing. If he isn't a victim, neither are they.

What's toxic is to assign the agency of victimization to God. 

I'll be away and busy about other things for the next couple of days, but I do want to say a few things. First, I don't find the Catechism's texts toxic. As I pointed out yesterday, they are by-and-large a tissue of NT texts, texts that any biblically-based theory of redemption has to take into account. Our redemption might have been accomplished differently, but if in fact, as Christians believe, it came through a death and a resurrection, then the texts that refer to it need to be wrestled with. You may make something else of them, but those texts remain there, in our Church-constitutive Scriptures, and unless we are to undertake a Jeffersonian bowdlerization of the NT, they need to be taken into account.

Second, when I celebrate the Mass and recite the words of the great eucharistic prayer, I never have in mind the theories of the atonement that I criticized in yesterday's posts, and I do not believe they are implied in the liturgical texts. 

Third, when I receive the eucharist, I never, ever imagine it in cannibalistic terms.

Fourth, Newman's sermon, to which Fr. O'Leary has referred, can be found online at: http://www.newmanreader.org/Works/parochial/volume6/sermon7.html

Rita,

You are not "putting words in my mouth." Thank you for your own contribution. But I think I want to go a further step in pondering the "reconciliation" and "communion" that Christ effects. Here is what I am reachng for in speaking (with Paul!) of "new creation. It is in his own body that Christ effects reconciliation and communion.

I think here of what Ephesians teaches: "For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man (eis hena kainon anthropon) in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end" (Eph 2:14-16).

The Greek that I italicize above is better translated "into one new humanity:" the communion realized in the crucified and risen Christ is now to be extended to all, Jews and Greeks and beyond.

It is this stupendous God-given newness that the Church is called to embody and bear witness to, both in word and deed.

Christianity is profoundly "corporeal." I find Henri de Lubac helpful when he distinguishes and holds together the three-fold body of Christ: the body of the risen Lord (always bearing the marks of his passion), his eucharitstic body, and his ecclesial body. The three are inseparable.

 

I think, Fr. K, that the point that some of us (the non-theologians) are trying to make is this - you have expressed surprise more than once at what Catholics believe, what they have "imbibed", in a great choice of  verb.  You are a professional theologian who has "wrestled" with the texts that underlie the church's teachings as stated in the catechism and as such, you have interpreted these texts and even the very clear language of catechism based on these texts to, in a sense, almost airbrush what the words seem to say quite explicitly to those of us who are subject to ordinary, every day Catholic teaching.   You and Fr. Imbelli can reach interpretations that escape many of us because you engage in what Fr. Imbelli calls "high level" theology.

Some here (like me) are simply trying to help those with advanced levels of understanding and knowledge of high-level theology to realize that the interpretations that you and other high-level theologians have developed to deal with what is often very off-putting (to ordinary people)  language and concepts (toxic, as Joseph puts it) are very different from what is actually taught to many ordinary people.

However, I would again like to express my personal gratitude to all those here, and especially to the professional theologians, for their willingness to engage those of us who are very unsophisticated when it comes to high-level theology.  I am sure it is frustrating for you. And perhaps Commonweal doesn't really want people like us, who are far less educated and knowledgeable about high level theology and philosophy than the 'main" posters are.  However, I have found this site to be the only game in town outside of an indepth study program, either formal or informal, and that is why I am now a subscriber to the magazine.  Most Catholic publications with everyday Catholics as the target market never get into any depth at all, but seem mostly to parrot official teaching at a very superficial level.  Academic journals are out of reach for many of us because we lack the needed academic training.  So, thank you Commonweal.  I do a lot of reading and study on my own, but when I have questions (and I always have lots of questions when I read and mark up the margins of books) there is nobody to ask.  I can't write to the authors and ask them to clarify because most simply don't have the time or the interest.

So I have been very frustrated at times too, becaue in my many years long quest for understanding of basic credal concepts, I have never found a single priest at the parish level, nor "adult educator" at the parish level who even attempts to deal with these kinds of questions.  They eventually throw up their hands and basically say that " you just have to take it on faith". They dismiss those with persistent questions and very often simply shut off discussion. Perhaps this is because they themselves do not have enough education in high-level theology to even attempt to explain, for example, that the words in the CCC don't really imply what most who read them think they say when taken at face value, but something else entirely. 

I am actually considering going back to school at my advanced age to study Theology (again) because I suspect that the only place I will find people willing and able to engage with questions such as these may be in the academic world.  In the meantime, perhaps theologian educators should work to improve the content of what most ordinary Catholics are taught by the church at the parish level.  I honestly don't know how that can be done without an enormous effort though. 

Anne,

thank you for your generous words and for your participation. One disclaimer, however. It was not I who used the expression "high level" theology. All of us who are seriously engaged in "faith seeking understanding" are involved in the theological enterprise.

 

Anne,

I think I know what you mean about the gulf between 1) what the church officially teaches, and 2) what theologians discuss.  It's almost as if there are two worlds existing side by side.  What's helped me understand that what we can believe and still be recognizably Christian  is  really far greater than we might realize  has been reading stuff, mostly stuff available online at blogs and theology sites, and having an open-minded spiritual director to ask theology/spirituality questions of. 

Some sites  ...  http://www.shc.edu/theolibrary/  ...  http://www.religion-online.org/  ...  http://www.ntgateway.com/  ...  and this page has links to 50 blogs by theology professors - http://www.masteroftheology.org/top-50-blogs-by-theology-professors.html ... and here are some helpful theology videos from St. Johm's Nottingham U ... https://www.youtube.com/user/StJohnsNottingham

  Anne --

I join you in thanking Commonweal for its openness to questions, particularly in its blog.  I thank you for your own questions.  Many of the young people -- like Crystal -- are also asking them, but most don't know where to begin to find answers.  Most priests are too busy or not well enough prepared to help, so I also thank the theologians here who make time to  help us. 

Asking the hard questions, getting many answers from different people, sharing our researches  -- dot.CWL is a sort of supplementary education that I suspect the future Church will have to provide generally if it is to survive.  But first the official Church will have to learn to confront the questions people raise and not respond to them with double-talk.  With St. Peter, it will have to give reasons for its belief, persuasive reasons.  The rest of us will have to realize that in this world we aren't going to get all the answers that we'd like.  But we can try.

 

Rita, I fully agree with you.  Unfortunately, our self-described "orthodox" folks *still* assign victimization to God:  the Father sacrificed the Son.  In his THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION: A HISTORY OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF DOCTRINE, Vol. 1: THE EMERGENCE OF THE CATHOLIC TRADITION (100-600), theologian Jaroslave Pelikan notes that "Chrysostom [d. 407 AD] also spoke of 'the Lord being sacrificed and laid upon the altar and the priest standing and praying over the victim', summarizing the sacrificial language about the Eucharist which had also become accepted practice.  Therefore the apostles, too, were represented as priests." 

I, too, want to thank Professors Imbelli and Komonchak for sharing their theological insights about Jesus' sacrifice, etc.  My thanks also to Anne Chapman for articulating so very well the problems associated with what we were taught "back in the day".  I also want to thank my fellow bloggers for demonstrating (to me, at least) the distinction between theology and catechesis.  I think we really do need a revised CCC that presents doctrine from a better informed perspective.  Merely regurgitating the "old line" in terms misunderstood by many (most?) Catholics is inadequate to the task of catechesis.  Repeating "Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus in the Eucharist" or "Transubstantiation" are, in the end, futile attempts to explain the key mystery of our faith.  Mysteries defy explanation, but their presentation can certainly cause much consternation among rank-and-file members of the faithful.

 

Joseph J.,

thank you for your "thank you" (it was said of the late Cardinal Bernardin that he wrote "thank you" notes for "thank you" notes!).

In a small book that I wrote (Rekindling the Christic Imagination) I give two quotes that I would like to repeat here. The first is from the American poet Christian Wiman: "do we find the fire of belief fading in us only because the words are sodden with overuse and imprecision, and will not burn?" (My Bright Abyss).

The second is from Flannery O'Connor: "For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction. It preserves mystery for the human mind" (The Habit of Being).

I have often lamented the gap between catechesis and theology which serves to impoverish both. This thread, as you suggest, is a modest attempt at bridge-building.

 

 

The feast of the Annunciation has been more than honored by this thread!

Remarkable that a thread about something other than birth control, abortion, or gay marriage gets nearly 90 comments. Perhaps Catholics have a more basic hunger for talking about what their faith means? Books are great (I have Fr. Imbelli's work on order for Raber as an Easter present, as he often participates in RCIA, though this year he has become somewhat despondent about that whole process; maybe this will give him the inspiration he needs), but they don't allow the back and forth connection that many of us seem to be looking for "live" and personal. 

I see this thread as a yearning for faith community for many of us, where we can take our questions and not feel we're going to offend someone or just get chapter and verse from the CCC cited at us.

He had to die because he lived, because he was human. In reality it is not the how of his death ,but the fact that he became one of us, and in doing so suffered and died for our sins."For our sins" meaning as i see it, because we and all of creation is in a fallen state. Suffering and bodily death are the manifestations of that fallen state. In becoming human god who is NOT fallen, takes on our falleness and enters with us into the human condition. It is this incarnation, this willingness of God who is without need,who takes on out of   love for  us, and enters into our own human condition, that is simultaneously a recognition of  and atonement for our fallen state. It atones because it both afirms that we matter, our condition of suffering and death matters to God,not as a peripheral concern but totally, and he transforms that condition ,by his resurrection. He God is not a distant deity,and  we, lowly creatures abandoned by an indifferent God. Had he died of old age, he still would/could have been the redeemer of mankind;the one who takes on our condition of fallennes and in solidarity with us and for us transforms it and grants us a share in his eternal life.But the manner of his death, the iconic cross allows for the message to be heard and accepted universally and throughtout time. That this is how things are is a mystery. Yes God could have done other wise and why this is our reality and not another is a mystery.It is part of our humble recognition of our creatureliness that   we cannot  understand  the mystery, yet we can accept this reality and have faith in the good news of salvation.

The unjust and horrific nature of Jesus's suffering and death, i see as actually superfluous;a way to emphasize to all mankind God's concern for everyone .Had he died in good standing with the powers that be in the world, and peacefully , that message might not be acknowledged.The value of the death of Jesus  is the value of the incarnation;God loves us and stands with us and tranforms our human condition. God lowered himself to become a creature, subject to suffering and death. That itself is the  act which was/ is sufficient to show  the redemptive quality of God's love for us. The unjustness of his suffering and particular  death only underscores god's universal love for ALL.It underscores expiation for all; by lowering himself to the bottom rung of humanity so to speak;the convicted criminal.The expiation is the suffering person, like us who expiate our sins  when we  feel genuine remorse for a wrong we have done; we suffer as true   remorse  is experienced as a  suffering.The concept "penance" is a recognition of expiation for sins. Jesus though without sin,innocent of all wrong doing suffers as if he were  not only an ordinary fallen person who suffers and dies as is the way of all flesh, but as if he were a criminal who had done wrong in need of expiation.The unjust and horrific aspects of the world is acknowledged as mattering to God who is in solidarity with us.In his unjust horrific  death , all are covered as mattering to God.Jesus expiates[suffers]  for and with the fallen/suffering sinner and we're all fallen/ suffering sinners.His unjust execution, as a convicted  criminal, underscores God's love  for all so that none will be deemed outside the pale of redemption.But it is his incarnation as a  suffering mortal [human] that was the sufficient salific act,IMO,as it revealed God as intimately  involved with us and desiring us to share his holy life.The crucifixtion serves to  rub in the message of God's redemptive love; as total,[ he identifies with us completely as he takes on our plight of human suffering and physical death] and  universal[ applying to all], so to speak.His resurrection is then the  good news that transforms what it means to be human for people of faith.

A very wise  pastor of my (then) non-denominational parish once told me this when I asked what his standards for accepting people into membership were.  He said:  It's not up to me to judge whether their reasons are valid or not.  But it is up to me to make sure that the stay for the right reasons.

Had he died of old age, he still would/could have been the redeemer of mankind

I think that's a highly non-standard viewpoint. 

It's an aside ,a moot point.The reality is, in the "economy of salvation" ,in "salvation history" he DID die on the cross as a sacrificial pascal lamb, launching the new covenent between God and his chosen people;the chosen people now extending to all of humanity.The crucifixtion was most broadly; a dramatization, one could say, of the human condition and God's solidarity with us[suffering mortals].And most narrowly in the concrete "economy of history"; a pascal passover sacrifice that placed all of humanity in God's good graces[primitive religion believing that God needed sacrifice;life blood being the most precious of gifts, to ensure human well being.God revealed himself[worked with] through  these ancient,primal human beliefs about divinity].The precious blood  sacrifice is accepted and we are all forever saved,meaning death which befell us due to a fall, is now supplanted via the  incarnation with the resurrection.He died as we die and rose as the new Adam;our condition being changed to include sharing of his life.And so in His incarnation he reveals himself more fully as  God not in need of sacrifice but as God who  in his goodnes, in spite of our fallen condition, gives us a share of his everlasting life.

If the important thing is the resurrection, it does seem to me that it wouldn't have mattered if he died of old age.   An article I really liked at American Catholic  by Jesuit Ken Overberg ... http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/CU/ac1202.asp ...

"the whole purpose of creation is for the Incarnation, God's sharing of life and love in a unique and definitive way. God becoming human is not an afterthought, an event to make up for original sin and human sinfulness. Incarnation is God's first thought, the original design for all creation .... God is not an angry or vindictive God, demanding the suffering and death of Jesus as a payment for past sin. God is, instead, a gracious God, sharing divine life and love in creation and in the Incarnation (like parents sharing their love in the life of a new child)."

Crystal, I agree with you completely - it is the Incarnation that is almost beyond belief, at least to me - the teaching that I most struggle with in many ways (I have a lot of struggles with the Trinity!).  If one accepts the Incarnation, everything else, even the Resurrection is not  much of a leap. Jesus certainly did not "have" to suffer and die the way he did in order to fulfill his mission among human beings.  He "saved" us through his life, not through his death.

Jean Raber, you are also right, in my opinion - there is a huge need for a place for adult Catholics to be able to learn and to ask questions and receive replies that are not simplistic, not "fundamentalist"  and go beyond catechism level instruction. There is an enormous gap there, and most "adult" education programs in parishes are not equipped to fill it - they still teach at a "junior high" level.  I have found that even most parish priests are not equipped to educate the parish at an truly adult level either. They too give rote responses, catechism level responses - a reason to seek out a Jesuit parish when one is available!  The homilies are at an entirely different level. The homilies and adult education programs are also, in my experience as  an on-and-off sometimes member of Episcopal churches, at a much higher level in Episcopal parishes than in most Catholic parishes. 

Claire, It might be a non-standard belief but it is challenging and striking in its originality.  Basically, all death is hard.  When it comes to dying it's almost impossible to know what to wish for (though none of us would choose being executed versus, say, dying of a heart attack).  Look at how hard we fight to avoid death even after living long, fruitful and comfortable lives. 

I only say this because dwelling on the manner of Jesus' death, which was an outlier even for his own time, perhaps makes his example less meaningful than it should be.  And I do agree with the theme that death in this manner was significant because it shows that even the lowest and most marginalized -- the criminal -- matters.   I think even among Jesus' followers there was great shame at the manner of his death, as a common criminal. 

I just wish rose-ellen would learn to use the paragraph key stroke!

A fascinating exchange of ideas here -- plenty of booksmarts and streetsmarts on display. 

While I agree with Jean Raber Hughes that many Catholics have a "basic hunger for talking about what their faith means," for an exchange that is "live and personal," I want to recommend two more books that present good theologies of atonement. See Herbert McCabe's "Atonement; A Long Sermon for Holy Week," in "God Matters," and Gerhard Lohfink's discussion in "Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was." Lohfink sets the stage for his discussion by saying that "when modern people hear 'atonement' in a theological context they connect it with the specter of a cruel God who is profoundly offended, mercilessly demands the payment due him, and can only be appeased by an infinite atonement." Such views are at odds with the "reign of God," the "good news" which Jesus announced.

My apologies to Jean for messing up her name.

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