The mystery of the Atonement solved

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.]

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5 thoughts on “The mystery of the Atonement solved

  1. I must say I very much disagree with you here. To view the Paschal sacrifice as primarily a test for who ought to, or really desire to, be saved, just makes no sense. God already knew. Further, it is so much less than the mystery of the Body of Christ, by which we participate in the Body and Blood.
    Suffering unnecessarily to demonstrate or exemplify love is not praiseworthy. Think of Van Goph’s ear.

    I believe the key to understanding Christ’s sacrifice, and all sacrifice in scripture, is that the blood was considered as being the life of the animal. United to the life of the victim, sins are given to God, or to look at it differently, the life of the sacrificial victim is given to the death of our sins. Life is united to sin, and both are offered up.
    Why did Jesus give us far more than just a drop? Because He is giving us His self entirely, so that we can be completely united to Him, living His life. It is so we can die with Him.

    God bless you

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  2. Ignatius:

    I’m making a number of statements, all of which seem to me undeniably true:

    1. Christ’s sacrifice is the fulfillment of the Passover.
    2. In the Passover, God had made up his mind to save the Israelites as a nation.
    3. Yet 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.
    4. Those who failed to do this would not be saved from the Angel of Death (that is, their firstborn sons would die).
    5. This excluded salvation from those who were not of the Israelite nation (namely, the Egyptians).
    6. This excluded salvation from those Israelites who failed or neglected to sacrifice the lamb, etc.
    7. God could have saved the Israelites without their having to do anything.
    8. Fulfilling the requirements of Passover salvation was a matter of faith.
    9. Failing or neglecting to fulfill the requirements of Passover salvation indicated a lack of faith.
    10. The Mass is similar in these respects. If Christ’s sacrifice is the fulfillment of the Passover, then the Mass must be part of that very fulfillment.
    11. Conclusion: The Cross makes no sense without the Mass.
    12. A single drop of Christ’s blood would have sufficed to save the whole world. This is because Christ being God, *any* sacrifice or offering of his would have infinite merit. (This view is also endorsed by St. Thomas Aquinas [http://catholicharboroffaithandmorals.com/St.%20Thomas%20Aquinas%20Lenten%20Meditations.html] and Cardinal Newman [http://www.newmanreader.org/works/discourses/discourse15.html], among others I’m sure.)
    13. Jesus, in dying, was an example to us, that we must die to self, and be willing to suffer and die literally if God wills it, rather than commit sin.
    14. Participating in Jesus’ sacrifice, in the Mass, provides us with the grace to be conformed to his likeness, which includes being willing to lay down our lives in obedience to God’s will if called upon to do so, but at least being willing to die to self.

    I don’t say that Jesus suffered unnecessarily to demonstrate or exemplify love. It was necessary for him to suffer since it was his Father’s will that he should suffer at the hands of men for bearing witness to the truth. This also serves as an example to us; indeed if we are to be conformed to him, then this is one of the main respects in which we are to be conformed (Mt. 16:24).

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    • Thank you for outlining your claims. Here are my objections:
      1. You dismiss the idea that the sacrifice fulfilled some idea of justice, but you put nothing in its place. In leaving this empty, the rituals become empty and arbitrary rituals, incapable of, in themselves, saving anyone.
      2. As a result, neither the Passover nor the Mass can be said to save anyone, but on the contrary, to only exclude from salvation. As you put it, ‘This was a way of excluding from salvation two groups’. You do not say that it was, or how it was, a way of saving anyone.

      I suppose I’m not actually objecting to any of your claims here, but to what you have not said. Perhaps this is not fair, although I’d say this is the mystery of atonement, so it really should not be left out.

      But why should the Father necessarily will Him to suffer and die? It might be necessary for Jesus, but it’s still unnecessary for the Father to command suffering that isn’t in itself efficacious.

      God bless you

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  3. I don’t dismiss the idea that “sacrifice fulfilled some idea of justice”. I just have a hard time with the idea that Christ *had* to die in order to save the world from its sins. This is a rejection of the idea that any sacrifice of Christ’s would have had infinite merit. This may be our point of disagreement. Do you in fact reject that idea?

    Regarding your number 2, it’s not true that neither the Mass nor the Passover can save anyone, and I never said any such thing. I said that a single drop of his blood would have been sufficient for the world’s salvation. If so, then how much more efficacious was his death?

    My main conclusion, in fact, is that the Cross makes no sense without the Mass, as a way of letting us partake of the Cross in a concrete way, and be thereby saved. Without the Mass, the Cross may be a substitutionary atonement — but it leaves nothing for us to do, which does not fit the pattern of the Passover. Jesus may as well have lived and died in obscurity, and might have saved the world in that manner, if there didn’t need to be a way for us to choose to partake of, and participate in that sacrifice in order to be saved. But I contend that there did need to be such a way, and the Mass is it.

    I’m sure you’re right that the post suffers from what it does not say. However I didn’t intend this to be a comprehensive account of the atonement — notwithstanding the tongue-in-cheek title. : )

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  4. Agellius,

    Thank you for another insightful reflection. I always looking forward to reading your posts.

    On the matter of how God chose to save His people, I recently read this excerpt from St. Augustine, Sermon LXXXVIII (on Matt. xx. 30): “Surely He could have come down from the Cross, who if He had not so willed, had not been on the Cross; but it was a greater thing to rise from the grave than to come down from the Cross. Our Lord then in doing these Divine, and in suffering these human things, instructs us by His Bodily miracles and Bodily patience, that we may believe, and be made whole to behold those things invisible which the eye of the body hath no knowledge of.”

    God bless!

    Liked by 1 person

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