God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today is the most solemn day of the Christian year.
We have prepared ourselves for it with an almost forty day fast. We have intensified our focus on the Cross by veiling it for the past two weeks in church services. Last night we have stripped away all other furnishings in the church except this Cross, that we might focus on it. It is all preparation to celebrate Easter. And yet, there can be no Resurrection without first the Death of our Lord. No empty tomb, without the Cross.
But what does it mean?
We could explain the teaching simply to a child and the child could give us the right answer – Jesus died to pay the debt for our sins. But we know that this knowledge, proclaimed to the disciples, proclaimed through the ages, held by us in our minds, remains a mystery. There is something hidden about it, though it is something that we know we must contend with, we keep returning to it – it is not found so explicitly in other world religions. We hang a cross on our necks, we build cathedrals on the plan, the weekly Sacrament flows from that Cross, the Cross is in the centre of our daily prayer – forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
How can we make sense of it? We can only peer in at the edges, we see through a mirror darkly. I would like to speak to three questions tonight that the modern world might ask: i) Why sacrifice? ii) What if I don’t feel any guilt? and, iii) what if I feel overwhelmed by guilt when I look at the Cross?
i) Why sacrifice?
Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology, has said regarding the almost universal practice of sacrifice in ancient cultures that it is based on the discovered principle “that something better might be attained in the future by giving up something of value in the present.” [Twelve Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos, p. 164] Although we may think the ancient idea of sacrifice to be primitive and barbaric, we understand this principle of sacrifice intuitively today, in a more spiritual but no less real way. For example, it is obvious to us that we give up current pleasures to study for our future well-being, or that we sacrifice time now working for some expected future comfort, daily food, a trip, a house, our retirement. If we undertake any kind of spiritual discipline that is not easy – fasting, prayer, reading the Bible – we must sacrifice our time and energy now, but we are promised a present and future benefit – wisdom, insight, greater spiritual liveliness, a more loving heart, our sanctification.
Peterson says that in making a sacrifice,
“Our ancestors acted out a drama… they personified the force that governs fate as a spirit that can be bargained with, traded with, as if it were another human being. And the amazing thing is that it worked.” [ibid., p. 165]
We see it in the story of the very first descendants of Adam and Eve – the brothers Cain and Abel – that very short but foundational story begins with the sacrifices they offered up. And from it we see the principal that there are better and worse sacrifices.
“Now in the process of time Cain brought a sacrifice to the Lord from the fruits of the ground. Abel also brought a sacrifice from the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. The Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his sacrifices.” [Gen 4:3-5]
If some sacrifices are better than other sacrifices to please God, what is the best sacrifice? What is the highest sacrifice that one can give? A pair of turtle doves are better than an offering of fine flour, because the birds are living creatures. [Lev 5:11] But, if we can afford it, a lamb is better than two turtle doves, and an unblemished lamb is better than a blemished lamb. [Lev 12:8] An ox, being much bigger, is better than a lamb (or is it?). But there are even better sacrifices than these. If we follow the logic of the hierarchy of being, it is surely our very selves, that is a far better sacrifice. And even higher than giving up our lives, would be to give up the child whom we have come to love – most parents would give up their life for their child in a moment (and in some sense they do).
Abraham is asked by God to be willing to make that highest sacrifice possible for a human being. He is horrified but willing, but his hand is stayed at the last minute, and God promises that he will provide the sacrifice – a ram caught in a thicket is substituted. [Gen 22] Jesus says, and I think he is referring to this moment, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and was glad.” [Jn 8:56]
Paralleling the idea of lesser and greater sacrifices creating lesser or greater rewards, something we all know intuitively to be true, is the principle of substitution.
- the ram replaced Isaac on that mountain in the land of Moriah;
- Judah nobly offered up himself as a slave in the place of his brother Benjamin out of love for his father Jacob;
- Moses stood in the gap between Israel and God’s wrath many times, once he said, blot my name out of your book;
- An unblemished lamb can stand in the place of the firstborn son when the angel of death passes over Egypt when it is judged;
- The prophet Jonah, offered himself up and is cast into the sea, to save his fellow sailors;
- And Jesus says something we know to be true, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” [Jn 15:13]
Sacrifice is something we understand. And substitution is something we understand. The sacrifice of some present good, for the sake of some future reward we understand. Do we understand that if we commit some present evil, that it will bring with it future punishment? When I say future punishment I’m not only talking about in the next life, but in this life.
We know it in all sorts of ways:
- We learn, excessive chocolate now, can bring sickness later, excessive drink tonight brings with it a hangover in the morning;
- Offend a person today, and it can cloud relations with that person and others well into the future;
- Respond to an offense with bitterness and resentment and it darkens our lives;
- Tell lies today, and our understanding and grasp of reality in the present weakens, our very conscience becomes less reliable in the future, we lose our way;
- Steal in the present, whether the things or idea of others unacknowledged, and we undermine our trust and the trust of others in every human exchange;
- Commit adultery in act or in our thoughts, and we affect the depths of trust, and so intimacy, that can be known now and into the future;
- Murder another person, in thought or deed, and our lives become a living hell. [Peterson suggests this is explicated most profoundly in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.]
The choices we make in the present can lead us closer to heaven or to hell.
God shows us that a good sacrifice in the present can bring future reward, and he also shows us that a good sacrifice in the present can undo or substitute for the future punishment we deserve.
Under the Law of Moses, this sacrifice was made for that offence, and the greater the offence the greater the sacrifice needed. It helped Israel to see justice, to appreciate the consequences of sin, that it is costly, and that is a start to their reform – to come to the knowledge of the reality of good and evil in themselves and of the brokenness of the human heart.
Israel began to see the futility of those sacrifices – you see it in the Psalms, you see it in the Prophets – Do you think that I will eat the flesh of bulls and drink the blood of goats?… Offer unto God thanksgiving… The sacrifice of a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, you shall not despise… [e.g. Psalms 40, 50, 51] You see at the same time a longing for an efficacious sacrifice, a sacrifice that would truly change hearts. [see Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part II, pp. 233-235]
Jesus Christ, is the highest, the greatest sacrifice that can possibly be made – the sacrifice to which all other sacrifices pointed: the Son of Mary, the Son of God, willingly offers himself – the perfect human being, the unblemished life, who is one person with the divine Son.
And we are told by Jesus that we can trust in this sacrifice, it can be ours to offer, we can plead it, by trusting in it, by having faith in him:
- Jesus says, “The Son of man…came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [Mark 10:45] He ransoms us from the debt owed, from the punishment we can expect to experience from sin.
- John says, “If anyone sins, we have an advocate, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the propitiation [the atoning sacrifice] for our sins.” [1 John 2:1-2]
When an Israelite sinned, he brought an animal from his flock and its throat was cut. That is not something easy to forget, especially for a child who would witness this – it made them take their actions more seriously. We do something like this in holding before our minds the Passion of Jesus, whom we’ve come to love, so that we take our actions more seriously, that we understand more deeply the consequences of sin, and the love of God, so that we turn from evil and open ourselves to being reformed.
ii) But what if I don’t feel any guilt?
Someone might ask, why go to a Good Friday service and try to bend my emotions in some way when I don’t feel honestly on the inside that I’m responsible for the death of Jesus?
I think the teaching, of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for all, can be taught to all, so that when a person does have the experience of being convicted for sin, he or she can then turn to the Cross rather than to despair – it is a seed planted there waiting to grow into a tree of life. That’s how it happened for me. When hell opened up, Jesus stood in the gap.
We know that “The fear of God” is not something that can be taught, God tells us that through the prophet Isaiah [Isaiah 29:13]. It has to be experienced. And that “fear of God” is, I think, related to an experience of “conviction for sin”, it is related to “seeing Christ” [e.g. Luke 5:1-11]. If you don’t know it and you desire it, ask for this gift. “Fear of God” is one of the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit that we pray for in Confirmation, it is described in many places in the Bible as “the beginning of Wisdom”. I think it is the awakening of our heart to the reality that: the ground on which we are standing is holy, and our actions really matter, that what we do shapes our reality and our perception of reality, and the lives of those around us, and that there are consequences both now and in the future for our actions for good or for ill. Jesus warns the Pharisees not just about their actions but what precedes them, every word we speak:
“I tell you, on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. [Matt 12:36-37]
What can we do when we are awakened to “the fear of God”?
The Cross, the knowledge of God’s love, permits us “to confront the reality of sin in all its implications.” [Crouse, Images of Pilgrimage, p. 37] We don’t know ourselves. But the Spirit shows us the truth about ourselves, both our good and our evil, so that we can become whole. Wholeness is living more fully in the truth, speaking the truth, walking according to the truth. Jesus prays that we may be “sanctified [made holy] in the truth.” [John 17:17-19] But the truth is hard to bear without the assurance of the Cross. So in salvation history, there can be no Pentecost, no pouring out of the Spirit of Truth, until there is first the Cross.
And as we begin to know ourselves as people in need of and as the recipients of mercy, we begin to know every soul and of its need for mercy. Love grows, barriers fall, communities form, societies flourish… when people gather in humility around the Cross. [See Peterson, On the ark of the covenant, the cathedral and the cross.]
iii) And what if I feel overwhelmed by guilt when I look at the Cross?
It means one thing, you have not accepted the precious gift that Jesus has come to give in that very dying. Jesus does not say, I have come to make you feel guilty, he says,
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” [John 10:10-11]
Jesus died that we might have abundant life: not a life downcast with guilt, or a life of regret or enslaved to past mistakes. Neither does abundant life mean an end to suffering. But it is the gift of life built on the Truth, with eyes opened wide, a life full of meaning, a life uncertain and so an adventure, it is the only life that is truly worth living.
Today we give thanks to God for Christ’s sacrifice this Good Friday, or we can pray for the grace to see the need for this mercy, or we can pray for the grace to accept this great gift. Perhaps for each one of us it is a combination of these.