Here we go again. It’s that sullen time of year when mass vestments turn penitential purple, Fridays are meatless, and two days, last Ash Wednesday and Good Friday on March 30, we have to skip meals. And the faithful undertake varying degrees of prayer, mortification, and charity — all to remember and share the suffering of Christ.
Sadly, most of us may miss the whole point of our Lord’s sacrifice. Saying He suffered and died for our sins, as does today’s first mass reading quoted above, can’t tell even half of the story and significance of what God did for us in three days of agony, death and burial.
So, let’s really get into what Christ did for us — you, me and the rest of humanity — straight from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the tome of truths we are supposed to believe in and speak out. Go to the part titled “Christ’s Redemptive Death in God’s Plan of Salvation,” from the part CCC 599.
Truth No. 1: It was God’s plan. Now, that may get a yawn, having dropped into every other homily. But hang on that thought and really figure out what it’s saying.
God Almighty, Who doesn’t need any of us, and would have far less pain and burden on His mind and heart without us, deliberately planned to send His infinitely beloved Son to live our miserable life on earth, and then be betrayed, beaten, falsely accused, bloodied with scourges and thorns, forced to carry a crossbeam up a hill, and then stripped, nailed to the crossbeam, pulled by His impaled wrists up the crucifixion post to suffer three hours of agony, barely able to breathe, with the nails sending paroxysms of excruciating pain every time His torso moved to draw air.
Is that the sort of thing a loving Father would do? But that is what God did. As St. Peter said in his first sermon after Pentecost: ““This Jesus [was]delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.”
Truth No. 2: “Christ offered Himself to His Father for our sins.” From CCC 606:
“The Son of God, who came down ‘from heaven, not to do [his]own will, but the will of him who sent [him]”, said on coming into the world, ‘Lo, I have come to do your will, O God … and by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’.”
So, the Son went along with the God with a plan. And the plan isn’t just going through three days of agony and death, but 33 years with all the burdens of fallen human nature, including not just hunger pangs and wayward people, but temptation and frustration — that is, the ungodly tendency of not totally wanting to obey God. Plus: the sense of abandonment, as Jesus cried on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Imagine this even if you can’t: The Second Person of God, Who has been infinitely close to the First Person since eternity, tore Himself away from this absolute divine union to become a creature, distinct and separate from the Creator. This was probably even more wrenching than crucifixion, for both Father and Son.
Truth No. 3: God did all this for love of us. From CCC 604:
“God takes the initiative of universal redeeming love: 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.’ (That last line was from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 8:32; 5:10 — the most important theological work of Christianity’s most important theologian. Put reading Romans on your bucket list.)
In case you’re still with us, the story so far is that by God’s plan, His First Person sent His Second to the world to become a man separate from Him and subject to not just the physical limitations and burdens of humanity, but the separation of creature from Creator, so that Christ even feels temptation, abandonment, and a separate will, with Jesus even asking His Father to spare Him from the cross, though He obeyed in the end.
The question begging to be asked, of course, is why? What’s the big problem about humanity that God in heaven has to put Himself through life and death on earth to save the world? Couldn’t the Almighty just snap His all-powerful fingers and fix us all up?
There’s a lot of industrial-strength theology to explain why God had to live a man’s life and die a man’s death. Part of it is to satisfy divine justice for man’s transgressions. There’s also the need for one man to break through into the utterly transformed life after resurrection, so that the rest of humanity can partake of this divine gift.
But perhaps the biggest and simplest reason is to show us how men can become perfect like God, so we can then join Him in eternal bliss.
By becoming one of us, God lived an unblemished human life in total love and sacrifice for others. The Almighty had set Himself aside to bring forth, sustain and tolerate imperfect creation (since every creature is flawed, being different from the perfect Creator). In the same way, Christ emptied Himself completely for others, from the moment He took on unborn humanity in the Annunciation, to His ignominious crucifixion on Golgotha, and His utterly helpless, lifeless state in the tomb.
That blazed the trail for anyone willing to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Christ to do what God did, live as He lived, and offer the greatest sacrifice God has done: living and dying as a creature to lift all creation to the sky.
Thus, Jesus Christ became the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Amen.