The Paschal mystery of Christ’s cross and Resurrection stands at the center of the Good News that the apostles, and the Church following them, are to proclaim to the world. (CCC #571)
Perhaps the most well-known fact of Jesus’ life is that He was crucified. Or is it the most well-known fact? Sure, we are very familiar with the story, we see the crucifix hanging in our homes and churches, but do we really “know” the meaning and significance of this act? Do we really know what it is all about? Do we understand why Jesus had to suffer and die? Or do we easily gloss over this central fact and typically turn our eyes only to the Resurrection and God’s presence in Heaven?
Certainly we must fully embrace the Resurrection of Christ and acknowledge His eternal presence in Heaven from where He continually ministers to us. But we should not overlook the significance of that real and historical event of His suffering and death. We should not miss its meaning, its power and its effect in our lives. Jesus died for a reason. And He died the kind of death He died for a reason. So let’s ponder that reality and event for a while and see how significant it is in our lives.
To begin, let’s start with Jesus’ life leading up to His suffering and death for a little context.
How could someone who has perfect charity offend another? How could Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father, have people oppose Him and dislike Him to the point that they wanted Him dead? Sounds strange. It’s easy for us to fall into the thinking that “If I’m just nice and loving, everyone will love me.” But that was not the case with Jesus.
Love, to be true and authentic love, must be grounded in the truth. And sometimes the truth can hurt. The content of the truth can hurt someone’s pride when they do not accept it, and the presentation of the truth can hurt someone’s pride when they are faced with the truth presented with authority beyond their own. These were the challenges Jesus faced.
Jesus, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, was obviously responsible for the entirety of the law which was handed down through the ages and was revealed by the great prophets. All of the Old Testament laws from God were just that…they were from God. But how they were interpreted left room for error and discord. The Pharisees and Sadducees were experts in the law and taught the people according to their own understanding and interpretation of it. And then along comes Jesus. He takes the law, as well as all prophecies of the Old Testament, and gives them a definitive and authoritative interpretation. Ouch! This was too much for many of the religious teachers of that time to handle! Who did Jesus think He was? Who gave Him the interpretations He was teaching? Where did His deep conviction come from?
Human nature is such that the pride of the teachers of the law, in Jesus’ day and age, was wounded when confronted by the mere presence of Jesus. They did not enjoy the “awe factor” Jesus did. People did not hang on their every word as they did with Jesus. This bothered them, and they got angry. They started to pick apart all that Jesus was teaching, and they tried to find fault with what He said. This created quite a conflict. Jesus, of course, was not backing down. He was not intentionally stirring things up, rather, He was just teaching the truth that people needed to hear, and He was doing it with great calm, conviction and clarity. And people responded. The Pharisees responded also. They responded by plotting against Him to stop Him. And, sadly, this was a result of their wounded pride.
At times, Jesus would teach something that was beyond the understanding of the Pharisees. For example, regarding the temple that Jesus greatly respected, He said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). This was remembered and brought up at His trial as a blasphemy. But if you understand what Jesus was actually saying, then you’d realize He was prophesying the truth. He is the new temple and they would destroy Him, and He would rise up on the third day. So there were statements Jesus made that were completely misunderstood but, nonetheless, were completely true.
At other times Jesus would take on the Scribes and Pharisees. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites…” He went on to call them “blind guides” and “blind fools” (Mt 23:15–17). Again, His statements were true. But they hurt. They hurt not because Jesus was too harsh or rude, they hurt because of the pride of those to whom these words were directed. In reality, this was an act of love on Jesus’ part.
Another “scandal” Jesus caused was His love and tenderness toward the sinner. He ate with tax collectors. Prostitutes were following Him and listening to His every word. He ignored the proud and haughty and associated with the lowly and the sinner. This gave His enemies fuel for their fire.
And lastly, the most inflammatory thing Jesus did was to assume the identity of God. He forgave sins. He spoke of His works as the works of the Father. He identified Himself as “I AM.” And He stated that “The Father and I are One.” This was too much for them. It was all true, all beautifully true, but too much for them to believe and comprehend. And, again, it was especially because of their pride and their hardened hearts. All of this created enemies for Jesus and, in the end, it cost Him His life.
Though Jesus had many who were against Him, He also had many who were for Him and were His followers. This included many ordinary people of His day, as well as some of the prominent Jewish leaders. So, as the plot against Jesus grew, it was not any one specific group or person who was responsible. Yes, there was a conspiracy within the Sanhedrin, Judas betrayed Him and Pilate made the final decision. But it would be a mistake to blame any one of them or any particular group. Why? Because Jesus gave His life willingly. It was part of the Father’s permissive will that He die for all. So, in a sense, we can say that it was the Father’s will that was behind this. But the Father willed this, by His permission, because there was a greater good. He knew that by allowing His Son to be crucified, that act of sacrificial love would triumph in the end. Ultimately, even though the Father permitted this act, it’s only truthful to say that all who have sinned are guilty of shedding the blood of Christ. This act was permitted for the sake of the forgiveness of all sin; thus, everyone who has committed sin is guilty. That’s us! True, we can make the claim that “I would never have participated or supported such a thing!” Perhaps. But it was still an act of love to wash away our sin that brought about Jesus’ death, so we’re still guilty.
Let me offer an analogy. Analogies are never perfect, but I think it sheds at least a little light on the dilemma. Let’s say that there is a new drug on the market that cures a particular ailment that you have. It’s the only drug that has been known to work, but it was manufactured through some process that is immoral. Is it possible to say, “I’m opposed to the process, but I’m going to buy the drug anyway?” No, not really. The fact of buying that drug makes you a cooperator in the immoral process of creating the drug. Again, this is not a perfect analogy, but it helps illustrate the main point. And the main point is simply that you cannot separate the remedy from the source. Jesus’ death is the remedy, and we are sick. The evil of His crucifixion was the means of giving us the cure. So, the conclusion is that we are responsible for His crucifixion. We may love Him, worship Him and serve Him, but we are still responsible. And God is not only OK with that, He willingly invites us to receive the fruit of His suffering and death. But we are only being honest when we acknowledge the fact of our responsibility in and cooperation with His death.
So what was accomplished by Jesus suffering as He did and dying on the Cross? Remember that He said to Peter at His arrest that He could have called on the myriads of angels in Heaven to come to His assistance at anytime. And they would have shown up and defended Him with the greatest of ease! But He didn’t call on them. He allowed Himself to be arrested, ridiculed, mocked, tortured, beaten, condemned and crucified. And after all of that, He died a human death.
For most of His followers, this would have been devastating. They would have been utterly confused and, perhaps, even scandalized. Some immediately started to believe that they had been fooled, deceived, and misled. Jesus was dead, and He died a horrible death. How could this have been the Messiah?
Perhaps we have a hard time entering into this human drama and dilemma since we know the end of the story. We easily skip over the suffering and death, and we jump to the Resurrection. But it’s essential that we ponder the suffering and death of Jesus fully and deeply if we are to also enter into an understanding of His Resurrection. So, again, why? Why did He do this? And what did it accomplish?
One of the most important pieces in understanding the answer to this question is to look at the original cause of sin: disobedience. Adam and Eve disobeyed God. And this disobedience brought about their fallen nature and ours. Disobedience to God is a way of saying “no” to His perfect plan. It’s a way of telling God, “I’ll do it my way!” But the problem with this is not so much that God gets angry at us and punishes us, rather, the problem is that God respects our decision and lets us do it our way. He does not impose His will and plan upon us. So the disobedience of our first parents sets them on their own journey, and the result is that they get lost. Lost trying to discover their own way and their own meaning of life. They enter into a fallen state which wreaks havoc on their lives. They can no longer see the way and choose the good. They no longer can clearly understand the voice of God and respond to Him. They are lost.
But God does not just give up on them or on us. We, too, experience this fallen and lost state. This is Original Sin. We suffer the loss of clarity and direction in life. We cannot find our way. The result is that we also sin and disobey God. And, once again, God respects our freedom and allows us to turn away as we so choose. The consequence of this, if we were not given a second chance, is that we would die an eternal death. We would never find our own way back to the Giver of Life. But, again, God does not give up on us. Here enters Jesus!
So back to our original question, “What was accomplished by Jesus suffering as He did and dying on the Cross?” Perhaps an analogy here will help. Imagine you are a child and you want to go explore the nearby forest. You have been told numerous times by your parents not to go there, but you sneak away and go anyway, telling your sister not to tell mom and dad. You get into the forest and are amazed. You wander by oaks and pines, cross a creek, climb a few trees and enjoy a few hours there. Suddenly you notice it is getting dark, and you decide to return home. But all of a sudden you realize you have no idea which way is home! As you panic, you get lost in the middle of some thorn bushes and get even more frightened. After wandering in circles for an hour, it is pitch dark, the sounds of night come out, and you sit there crying and frightened.
So what’s your best hope? Your parents. You hope they will rescue you. You hope your sister told them where you went, and you hope they are on their way. As you sit lost and hoping you see a flashlight in the distance, you hear your name being called. It’s your dad. You are completely relieved to hear him and see him coming and are grateful you were found. You talk, and he quickly forgives you but explains that you’ll be spending the night in the forest. But he quickly adds that he will be staying with you. It’s too dark to find your way back now, so you’ll have to wait till morning light. Fortunately, your dad anticipated this and brought with him two sleeping bags and some food. In the end, it turns out to be one of the most memorable nights of your life, thanks to your dad.
Now, as always, this analogy only gets at one part of the answer to the question of Jesus’ suffering and death. The fact is that we were completely lost and could not find our way home. Our home is with God, and we could not find Him by ourselves because of our disobedience. So God had to come to us. And where were we? Lost in pain, suffering, misery and ultimately death. Yes, that’s right. We could easily miss this fact, so I’ll say it again. We were lost in pain, suffering, misery and ultimately death. You see, if it were not for God, in the person of Jesus Christ, coming to meet us and “spend the night” with us in our suffering and death, we would never have been able to make it home in the morning. This world is like that night of darkness in the forest. Alone we are fearful, terrified and lost. But once Jesus finds us and we call out to Him, we realize that He has decided to join us on the very journey we are on—the journey of suffering and death as a result of sin. By entering into these consequences of sin with and for us, He is then able to take us by the hand “in the morning” and lead us back home. The morning being our final resurrection with Christ at the end of time.
The key to understanding this is that we were lost by disobedience. But God the Son was sent on a mission of obedient love, and He embraced it perfectly. He had to enter the “forest” of suffering and death to find us. He had to enter into the sleep of death with us. This was done out of love and as a perfect “yes” to the will of the Father. If we only cling to Him in His sleep of death, we will also rise with Him. But what we should focus on here is the choice of God to come to us. Sure, He could have left us on our own, lost and frightened. He could have left us abandoned. But He didn’t. He chose to take on the consequences of our disobedience and suffer them Himself. It was His perfect way of reuniting us with Himself. It is an act of the greatest love and generosity. And He did not hesitate to experience it in every way.
For the more philosophical mind, let’s look at it this way. Human nature is in a fallen state. It is a state of being that is contrary to the original intention of God. As explained in Chapter 2, we were made to live in this natural paradise with God. This is the state of Original Innocence. As a result of the disobedience of our first parents, all of humanity lost this state of innocence and now suffers the consequences. What are those consequences? Suffering and ultimately death. This is not God’s fault. It is simply the natural effect of doing it our own way. But, again, God did not give up on us. God decided to take on our own human nature and enter into all the effects of our sin. He chose to unite divinity with fallen humanity by becoming one of us and entering into all that we suffer.
So the first key to understanding this is to understand the incredible effect of the Incarnation. We have to realize that because God took on our human nature and united that human nature to His divine nature, we begin our reunion with Him. But the reunion is not complete unless God, in His human nature, also experiences everything we do in our fallen state. And that includes death. He is now like us in all things except sin. But the good news comes later when we look at the Resurrection. This is the Good News because, if we let Him cling to us in our suffering and death, we can then, in turn, cling to Him in His Resurrection. More on this later, but for now the point at hand is that God’s act of suffering and dying was an act of pure love to reunite us to God. Could He have done it another way? Perhaps. But He didn’t. This is what He did; and when we understand what He did, we should be filled with nothing but incredible gratitude.
From the beginning of time, starting even with the children of Adam and Eve, we see what we call “prefigurements” of the one sacrifice of Christ. These are sin offerings. Offerings of one’s labors such as food. But especially offerings of animals to God as sacrificial gifts. This practice is seen especially in the Temple when the priests would offer the sacrifices of lambs to God to atone for sin. Now, truth be told, none of these animal sacrifices could actually atone for sin. But they had a purpose. They were to prepare us for the one “Lamb” who would become a perfect sacrifice for all sin. Jesus is the one prefigured in all of these animal sacrifices. And He is the only sacrifice that truly takes away sin.
We are familiar with the phrase “The Lamb of God.” As this “Lamb,” Jesus spills His blood for the forgiveness of all sin. Furthermore, He is the one who freely sacrifices His life, so He is also the one Priest who does the offering. And the Cross becomes His altar of sacrifice. Though there is much that could be said about this from the point of view of biblical teaching, it is sufficient for our purposes to simply understand the concept of Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Jesus truly died. This means that His body and soul were separated. But there is something fascinating about His death that is unlike ours. It has to do with His burial.
Remember that Jesus’ body was not anointed with the various oils and ointments. It was too late for this upon His death since the Passover was beginning. So Mark’s Gospel tells us: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him” (Mk 16:1). But He was not there! He had risen!
Why is it significant that Jesus’ body was never anointed? Because His body never needed to be anointed. In God’s providence, this act of anointing the body was never done because Jesus’ body never began to experience decay. This is one of the unique aspects of Jesus’ body shared only with His mother. You see, the corruption of the body is a consequence of the fallen state of sin we are in. It’s important to understand, though, that the corruption of the body is not part of the original plan and design of God for our bodies. And even though Jesus suffered and died, His body was still without sin and, thus, never experienced any of the consequences of sin. Therefore, when His body and soul separated, His body never fell into corruption.
The same is true for our Blessed Mother. As explained in Chapter 3, she was the Immaculate Conception, meaning she was preserved from all sin and never chose to sin. Therefore, she also was free from the corruption of the body. For that reason, we have always professed that, upon the completion of her life on Earth, she was taken body and soul into Heaven.
In the Apostles’ Creed, we say that Christ “descended into Hell.” So what does that mean? How could Jesus go to Hell? Hell is a place of eternal separation from God; therefore, it seems strange to say Jesus went there, doesn’t it?
This is the great mystery of Holy Saturday. On that day we ponder the silence of the tomb. But we also ponder another great mystery. We ponder the fact that Jesus’ final leg of the mission He was sent to accomplish was accomplished only as His body lay in the tomb.
You see, at that time “Hell” was simply the “place,” so to speak, where all those who had already died were present. It was the place of Abraham, Moses, the great prophets and also the great sinners. It was the abode of the dead. And it was called “Hell” only in that God was not present. He was not present, because Jesus had not reconciled humanity yet. So His descent to this abode of the dead was His way of bringing the Gospel to them. It was His final mission. And as the righteous in this place encountered Jesus, they were able to follow Him to the land of the Living in His Resurrection.
Once this act was accomplished, “Hell” took on a new form. Hell is now the place where only the damned are left, those who have freely rejected God and who live eternally separated from Him. So it may make more sense to us to say He “descended into the dead.” But it’s certainly proper to use the word “Hell” as long as we understand the difference between this temporary place of separation from God and the permanent one.
Also Available in eBook & Paperback