As Lent moves toward Holy Week, the Passion of Jesus looms larger in our liturgy and our reflections. Most Roman Catholic churches have stations of the cross prominently displayed, and our traditional Good Friday services are centred on Jesus’ suffering and death. Many are moved by that cruel ending to his life. And many have asked themselves, at one time or another, “Why on earth did God allow that to happen?”
Last year I heard a sermon proposing that God allowed it to happen because God’s justice required repayment, some restitution, for all the sins we and our ancestors have committed. And only God’s divine son could adequately repay that divine debt. The Incarnation was, therefore, to this purpose, and it was precisely Jesus’ cruel death on the cross that achieved it. I find this view to be widespread among Catholics and Protestants alike and, in a sense, it is an ecumenical understanding of Redemption.
The idea that God required the death of (the divine) Jesus to appease God’s divine anger and satisfy God’s divine justice surfaced in the early church. St. Augustine disagreed, and mounted a powerful counter argument: If God was that angry, God would not have sent Jesus in the first place! However, in spite of Augustine’s great influence, the idea of a divine debt did not disappear.
In the 1100s, it emerged again in the western church (actually, England), as a full-blown theory that the death of God’s divine son was the price required by God to satisfy his justice, and that Jesus’ painful death on the cross is the means of that appeasement. It was articulated by St. Anselm of Canterbury, an influential theologian of the early Middle Ages. This theory is, at root, a legal theory: if a crime has been committed, there must be retribution for wrongs committed, and restitution in kind. Therefore, an offended Divinity cannot accept less than divine restitution for the offences committed. Centuries later, Anselm’s view was strongly reinforced by some leaders of the Reformation. And today it is still reflected in many of our lenten and Holy Week prayers, reflections and hymns.
It seems to me, however, to embody a dark view of our God, one increasingly unattractive to Christians and non-Christians alike. It certainly seems to clash with Pope Francis’ repeated claim that “Mercy is the name of God.”
An alternative understanding might unfold in this way: the Creating God loves all creation, including all of us. God’s sadness at our human infidelities and failures, while real, is always overcome by that overwhelming love (see the Parable of the Forgiving Father, sometimes misleadingly called the Parable of the Prodigal Son). His love is unconditional and abiding, and induced the Divine Word to become human to signal the depth and breadth of that love. Jesus’ mission was to show us a new, better Way (see Acts 9, where his early disciples are called “followers of the Way”).
After a rather short life, Jesus died. In itself, this should be no surprise: death is an integral part of being human. From the moment of his birth, the Son was dying, as are we all. Jesus, whom we profess to be truly human, had to die because all humans die.
However, Jesus did not just die; he was murdered most cruelly as a consequence of his faithfulness to his determination to preach a new Way. Now, the world God has created for us is a world in which actions have consequences. If you speak truth to power, you will pay for it. If you upset the established order, you will pay for it. And in a Roman world, you would be crucified for it.
Surely Jesus could see where his teaching would lead. But he persevered. I can believe he knew he would be crucified if he stayed the course. And that his Father knew he would be crucified, and wept to see it happen, just as we do. But I do not believe that God planned Jesus’ crucifixion, or wanted it, or was pleased by it, or was appeased by it, or that divine anger or justice required it. What kind of a God would that be?
In our parish we used to sing during lenten services: Jesus, “by thy holy cross thou has redeemed the world.” Now I sing, instead, Jesus “by your brave and generous life you have redeemed the world.” Dying was a part of that living, of course. As will mine be for me, and yours be for you. But let’s not emphasize that dying at the expense of his living. Instead, I prefer to believe that it was Jesus’ dedication, fidelity, and compassion; his honesty and bravery; his stories, his teachings, and his example; his friendships, leadership and loyalty; his love of his God, of his people and of his fellow humans; his refusal to capitulate in the face of rejection by his own peoples’ leaders, and his determination to carry on in spite of the danger that clearly generated. In sum, it was his living and how he did that living (and, yes, including his dying) that redeemed us.
Foy lives in Hantsport, Nova Scotia.