Embracing the kind of redeemer God appointed

George Weigel

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 King 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, Salvifici 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).

COMING UP: Transforming quarantine into retreat

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This bruising Lent, in which “fasting” has assumed unprecedented new forms, seems likely to be followed by an Eastertide of further spiritual disruption. What is God’s purpose in all this? I would be reluctant to speculate. But at the very least, the dislocations we experience – whether aggravating inconvenience, grave illness, economic and financial loss, or Eucharistic deprivation – call us to a more profound realization of our dependence on the divine life given us in Baptism: the grace that enables us to live in solidarity with others and to make sense of the seemingly senseless.

If we cooperate with that grace rather than “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14), it can enable us to transform quarantine, lockdown, and the interruption of normal life into an extended retreat, a time to deepen our appreciation of the riches of Catholic faith. Dioceses, Catholic centers, and parishes are offering many online opportunities for prayer, thereby maintaining the public worship of the Church. Here are other resources that can help redeem the rest of Lent and the upcoming Easter season.

* Shortly before the Wuhan virus sent America and much of the world reeling, I began watching Anthony Esolen’s Catholic Courses video-lectures on the Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’ve long admired Tony Esolen’s Dante translation and his lucid explanation of the medieval Christian worldview from which Dante wrote; and there was something fitting about watching Esolen accompany Dante and Virgil through hell during a hellish Lent. Professor Esolen’s explication of Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise (also available from Catholic Courses) are just as appropriate these days, however. For the entire Comedy is a journey of conversion that leads to the vision of God; and that is precisely the itinerary the Church invites us to travel during Lent, as the Forty days prepare us to meet the Risen Lord at Easter and experience the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

* Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was arguably the greatest papal homilist since Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century. The March and April sermons in Seeking God’s Face: Meditations for the Church Year (Cluny Media), help put the trials of this Lent and Eastertide into proper Christian focus.

* I’ve often recommended the work of Anglican biblical scholar N.T. Wright. Two chapters (“The Crucified Messiah” and “Jesus and God”) in The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity Press) make apt Lenten reading in plague time. The fifth chapter of that small book, “The Challenge of Easter,” neatly summarizes Dr. Wright’s far longer and more complex argument in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press) and makes a powerful case for the historical reality of the Easter events. Like Wright, Pope Emeritus Benedict’s reflections on the empty tomb and the impact of meeting the Risen One in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (Ignatius Press) underscore the bottom of the bottom line of Christianity: no Resurrection, no Church.

* Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series is the greatest audio-visual presentation of the faith ever created. If you’ve never watched it, why not now?  If you have, this may be the time to continue with Bishop Barron’s Catholicism: The New Evangelization (an exploration of how to put Catholic faith into action) and Catholicism: The Pivotal Players (portraits of seminal figures in Catholic history who did just that – St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and Michelangelo).

* Pope St. John Paul II’s centenary is the Monday following the Fifth Sunday of Easter: an anniversary worth celebrating, whatever the circumstances. The first 75 years of this life of extraordinary consequence for the Church and the world are relived in the documentary film, Witness to Hope – The Life of John Paul II. Liberating a Continent, produced by the Knights of Columbus, is a stirring video evocation of John Paul’s role in the collapse of European communism – and a reminder, in this difficult moment, of the history-bending power of courage and solidarity.

* The Dominican House of Studies in Washington and its Thomistic Institute are intellectually energizing centers of the New Evangelization. The good friars are not downing tools because of a pandemic; rather, they’re ramping up. Go to thomisticinstitute.org to register for a series of online “Quarantine Lectures” and an online Holy Week retreat. At the same home page, you’ll find Aquinas 101, 52 brief videos that make one of Catholicism’s greatest thinkers accessible to everyone, free and online, through brilliant teaching and striking animation.

And may the divine assistance remain with us, always.