There was a discussion recently on another blog concerning the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. It was asked why Jesus had to die on the cross, whether God’s requirement of an innocent victim for the sake of remitting the sins of others was consistent with mercy, and similar questions. This is obviously a deep subject and one which continues to be debated by qualified theologians, but I boldly pontificate nevertheless.
If Christ’s sacrifice is acknowledged to be the fulfillment of the Passover (1 Cor. 5:7), I think it might help to think about how the Passover accomplished the salvation of the Israelites. Was it a matter of justice? A lamb needed to be killed so that the Israelites need not be killed? I don’t think so. It seems that God had made up his mind to save the Israelites as a nation, nevertheless each individual Israelite family needed to do something in order to partake of that salvation: Sacrifice a lamb, put its blood on the lintel of their house, and eat the lamb. Those who failed to do this would die.
This was a way of excluding from salvation two groups: Those who were not of the Israelite nation and therefore would not be included in this ritual of salvation; and those who were of the Israelite nation yet couldn’t be bothered – or lacked the faith – to perform the ritual.
God could simply have saved the Israelite nation without their having to do anything. But he wanted them to do something to be saved, which would require faith: Faith that the threat of death was imminent, pursuant to the warning of God’s prophet; and faith that the Passover ritual would save them from it, also pursuant to the word of God’s prophet.
Was it unmerciful of God not to save those who didn’t do those things? Certainly not, since he provided a way for them to be saved if they would be saved. Those who chose not to do it, either didn’t believe in the peril, or didn’t trust the remedy.
The parallels seem clear: The Egyptians represent the world generally, not caring about God, neither loving nor fearing him, and certainly putting no faith in him. The nation of Israel represents the Church: A body of people professing belief in, and love for, and fear of God. God intends to punish those who neither love nor fear him, and sin in violation of his laws.
No one outside the Church will be saved*, but it’s not even sure that everyone within the Church will be saved, but only those who participate in the rituals of salvation which God has laid down for that purpose. This not only separates his own sheep from those who are not of his fold, but also those ostensibly within the fold who genuinely believe in and fear and love him, from those who do not.
In short, Jesus’ crucifixion only makes sense in the context of the Mass. Without the Mass, Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross does indeed seem pointless.
I realize this begs the question of why Jesus had to die. As I understand it, he didn’t. St. Bernard apparently said (though I can’t find the source) something like, “The Blood of God is something so precious, its virtue is so great, that one single drop would more than have sufficed to save the entire world, yet behold what God has done!”
But it seems to me that by his death, Jesus showed what is required of us: To resist sin to the point of death. He showed that death itself is preferable to disobeying God’s will. He also used the occasion to show that death is not the end, since even death is subject to God’s power, and therefore not something to be feared: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Mt. 10:28.) It is for this reason that we are saved by taking up our own crosses and following in his steps: Because valuing our own lives more than God’s will leads to death: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mt. 16:26.)
Jesus died, when he could have saved us in an easier way, to be a pattern to us and to suffer in every way in which he calls on us to be willing to suffer; yet to do so in faith and the sure hope of resurrection. This was Jesus’ sacrifice: To lay down his life in obedience to his Father’s will, and enable us to do the same!
[* This doesn’t address those who may be saved in individual cases without formal membership in the Church, by means known to God alone, but addresses only the normative means of salvation, the way in which God intends people to be saved in and through his Church, for which purpose it was established as the only sure and direct way of salvation.]