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Embracing the kind of redeemer God appointed

To embrace the cross is to embrace the logic of salvation as God has established that logic, not as we might design things.

Detail from "The Crucifixion" (1880) by Thomas Eakins [WikiArt.org]

The Gospel readings of Lent remind us that opposition to Jesus and his mission frequently grew out of the desire for a redeemer who was more like what various characters in the drama thought a redeemer should be.

Jesus’s fellow-townsmen reject him because they can’t imagine a messiah whose relatives are all around them. In Jerusalem, the upper crust rejects Jesus and his claims because he’s from the Galilean boondocks: “A messiah from Galilee? Please. We had something else in mind.” The Sadducees reject Jesus because he challenges their notion of the Temple as the privileged locus of God’s presence, while the Pharisees object to his understanding of the Mosaic Law. The Twelve, along with Martha and Mary, miss the point when Jesus deliberately delays his visit to Bethany so that the glory of God may be revealed in his raising Lazarus from the dead. Then the final, degrading insults come on Calvary. There, Jesus writhes in agony and struggles for breath on a cross surmounted by the mocking Roman inscription, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum [Jesus the Nazarene, the Kind of the Jews], while passersby hurl taunts – “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35).

Notwithstanding the “Suffering Servant” canticles of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus’s contemporaries found the idea of a messiah who would redeem Israel through his suffering (especially suffering unto death) implausible, bordering on ridiculous. Surrounded by misery, including such horrors as leprosy and demonic possession, these men and women had difficulty imagining that the Chosen One would manifest God’s glory through the suffering that was ubiquitous in their time and place. Our contemporaries often have a different problem: because suffering is typically kept distant, sheltered in special facilities, western culture tends to forget that suffering is an irreducible part of the human condition and that suffering teaches us something important about us.

Throughout his long life, St. John Paul II knew suffering from the inside. In the 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris [Redemptive Suffering], he invited the Church to look deeply into the mystery of suffering – a meditation especially apt in this plague time.

Animals feel pain, John Paul noted, but only men and women suffer. So suffering, even great physical suffering, has an inner or spiritual character; suffering touches our souls, not just our nervous systems. That is why the Bible is “a great book about suffering” (in John Paul’s striking phrase). And while the Scriptures contain many accounts of profound suffering, the Bible also teaches that “love…is the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering.” That was the truth to which Isaiah prophetically pointed in the “Suffering Servant” songs. To grasp that truth fully, however, humanity needed more than images or arguments; a demonstration was required.

That demonstration, Salvific Doloris teaches, was what God ordained “in the cross of Jesus Christ.”

There the Son, giving himself without reservation to the Father’s plan of redemption, took the world’s evil upon himself and immolated it in perfect self-sacrifice to the divine will. On the cross, theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, the Son freely bore “all that the Father finds loathsome,” and did so in order to “clear out all the refuse of the world’s sins by burning it in the fire of suffering love.” At Calvary, the divine wrath at the world’s wickedness coincides with the divine mercy, determined to heal all that evil has broken or disfigured. On Calvary, the purifying fire of divine love reaches into history and transforms everything in this world that seems to stand against love, including suffering and death.

To embrace the cross is to embrace the logic of salvation as God has established that logic, not as we might design things. God’s “demonstration” does not end on Good Friday, however. It continues through Holy Saturday until the full meaning of “redemption” is revealed on Easter.

There, in the Risen Lord who manifests what Benedict XVI called an “evolutionary leap” – a new and supercharged mode of human life – we encounter the supreme demonstration of the divine logic of redemption. There, in the “Lamb….[who] had been slain” (Revelation 5:6) but who is now gloriously, radiantly alive, we meet God’s triumph over death itself and over all that is death-dealing in the world. There, we meet the redeemer God ordained:

Jesus…has become a high priest forever…For all eternity he lives and intercedes for us…there is no limit to his power to save all who come to God through him. (First Responsory,  Office of Readings for Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent, from Hebrews 6:19-20, 7:24-25).


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About George Weigel 296 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.

2 Comments

  1. We embrace the Redeemer God appointed by embracing the cross.

    Consider the following imaginary scenario:

    A father of a big family had to leave the care of his family to his eldest son since he had no choice but to be away for a couple of years. The father knew that things were going to become very difficult while he was gone. He asked the eldest son to do whatever it took to care for his younger siblings, and warned him in advance that doing so would entail much labor and suffering on his part.

    And so it happened. Years later the eldest son’s younger siblings find out about those two years; they realize that they had been shielded from all distress and had been oblivious to what their elder brother had suffered for their sakes. They were upset with their father. They said to him “Why didn’t you tell us what was going on? We would have helped out! Why did you think so little of us?”

    Christians who wonder about the meaning of suffering must realize that our Heavenly Father, unlike the one in the story, thinks very highly of us. He expects us to share the burden of carrying the cross with His Son, Who, unlike the eldest son in the story, explicitly told us that we must take up the cross and follow Him.

    As St. Paul put it

    Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church …
    — Colossians 1:24

    Even though Paul’s remark is mysterious and leaves us wondering “What could possibly be lacking in the sufferings of Christ?”, it makes sense if we realize that we were all meant to share with our Elder Brother the burden of the cross.

    Our sufferings and the evil we endure have redemptive value if we unite them to the sufferings of Christ. One of the verses of Amazing Grace reminds us that the cross is not for Christ alone:

    Must Jesus bear His cross alone, and all the world go free?
    No, there’s a cross for everyone, a cross for you and me.

    Consider also:

    All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death. That is the way I can hope to take my place in the resurrection of the dead.
    — Philippians 3:10-11

    And if we are children we are heirs as well: heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory.
    — Romans 8:17

    We embrace our Redeemer by getting under the cross behind Him and helping to hoist it up, as opposed to when we were spiritual infants who rode on top of it, adding to its weight as we complained about the rough ride.

  2. Weigel’s prima facie condensed is expectation of what’s expected rather than revealed. Except Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum is implicit recognition by Pilate of the “Just Man” whose crucifixion he washes his hands. Logos here evokes pathos within Jew and Roman suggesting ethos. The Crisis of Modernity Senz seemed more suited for discussing tradition until I read Weigel’ Kind of Redeemer. The reason is controversy of the identity of Christ at this exact historical space. Time for this Pontificate understood as development of tradition juxtaposed with static space. “We speak of the traditions of a school or of an organization. We speak of national or regional traditions. Here ‘tradition’ connotes something more than conservatism; something deeper, the continual presence of a spirit and of moral attitude, the continuity of an ethos. Just as rites are the expression of a profound religious reality, so these traditions, which enshrine and safeguard a certain spirit, should comprise external forms and customs in such perfect harmony with this spirit that they clothe it without stifling its natural spontaneity its strength and freedom. Tradition is rather a principle that ensures the continuity and identity of the same attitude through successive generations. A sociologist [M Dufrenne] defined it accurately: ‘Tradition, in the true sense of the word, implies a spontaneous assimilation of the past in understanding the present, without a break in the continuity of a society’s life, and without considering the past as outmoded'” (Yves Congar The Meaning of Tradition). May I add to this essay that Crucifixion transcends even the “clearing out all the refuse of the world’s sins by burning it in the fire of suffering love” (Balthasar). Weigel rightly juxtaposes Divine wrath Divine mercy “Calvary, the purifying fire of divine love that reaches into history and transforms everything in this world that seems to stand against love”. We might add Resurrection in finality reveals ethos, human life transfigured by the Logos in a display of divine love that transcends human reason and modification. The institution of an inviolable living tradition.

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