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Mercy and sacrifice: thoughts for Good Friday

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 22, 2011

The bite of the Scriptures, sharper than any two-edged sword, can sometimes come from an unexpected direction. During the last few weeks of Lent, a particular passage has been playing on my mind because of what began as a distraction, and continued as an almost deliberate mistranslation, until it unexpectedly blossomed into a subject for meditation. Let me tell the story, in hopes that it might do the same for others.

It all began on April 2: Saturday of the 3rd week in Lent. At Mass that day, the response to the Psalm was taken from Hosea (6:6): “It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.” As I repeated that sentence, I thought how odd it is for us, in the congregation, to speak in the voice of the Almighty. The words are a message from God to his people: “It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.” That wasn’t something that I would say for myself, I thought.

Or was it?

As I mused on the question, I realized that there is a sense in which it is true for me. I do want mercy—although not in the sense God intends in Hosea. I want mercy for myself: forgiveness for my sins. And yet—again, not in the sense found in Hosea—I don’t want sacrifice. I don’t want Jesus to die for my sins.

What I want, in my selfish moments (and there are many of them), is for God to say that my sins don’t matter. I want to be reassured: “It’s OK, Phil, you’re really a good guy after all.” I want to know that things will be all right, despite the mess I have made of my life. I want mercy. But I balk at the idea that a price will be paid.

If only God could wipe the slate clean! That’s the sort of mercy I want: to be told that all my sins don’t matter. I don’t want to be reminded that my Savior was hanged on a cross, bloody and bruised, as expiation for those sins. It’s too much to bear. I want the mercy without the sacrifice.

(Yes, I know: at this point I have turned that passage from Hosea upside-down. Bear with me.)

Now here’s the problem. Even I, spiritually lazy as I am, recognize that my sins do matter. To say otherwise is to make nonsense of free will, and thus to render all human action meaningless. Part of me wants to be told that I’m really a good guy after all, but the other part—the wiser part—knows better. I know what I see in the mirror. Part of me wants to go to the wedding feast wearing the same dirty clothes that I have been soiling for the past several decades. The better part knows that’s impossible—that even if I were admitted to the feast, my presence would be a disgrace.

The truth, I know, is that I’m not a good guy. I’m a pathetic sinner. You do me no favor by trying to tell me otherwise, because I won’t be convinced.

When I say that I want mercy (as described above) and not sacrifice, I realize that desire is futile. I don’t deserve mercy, forgiveness, and salvation. What’s worse, in the natural order of things, I never will.

So, Yes, I do want sacrifice: the Sacrifice. Yet to accept Christ’s Sacrifice requires an unusual act of will. If He suffered and died for us—for you and for me—then we owe an incredible debt, which we can never even begin to repay. The only appropriate response would be to love Him as He loves us. But this, we realize, is beyond us.

It isn’t easy to accept a gift, knowing that we do not deserve it and that we can never even be properly grateful. It goes against human nature; it’s a constant struggle. And the magnitude of this gift beggars our imagination. We might have preferred the easy route: the god who tells us that our sins don’t matter. If we were inventing our own faith, we surely wouldn’t envision a God who meekly accepts humiliation, torture, and death at the hands of his lowly creatures. (This is one reason why I am tempted to laugh at the claim that Christianity is a man-made faith. Who would have thought up such an outlandish story? Credo quia absurdum.) But a god who told us that our sins don’t matter would really be telling us that we don’t matter. Our Incarnate God tells us something far more exhilarating: that we matter to Him, so much that He will join us, will live among us, will suffer for us.

In his beautiful encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict makes the point that in order to have hope, one must first recognize the need for hope. That is, before we can realize the infinite value of being saved from our sins, we must see the need to be saved. We see ourselves as sinners first; only then can we see ourselves as forgiven. We recognize that by ourselves we are hopeless; then we can place all our hope in Jesus.

Still we are left with that gaping hole: that debt we cannot repay. It would be more convenient, in a way, to accept “cheap grace”—the mercy that comes without sacrifice. But that isn’t the reality. The reality is a debt that is unfathomable: as measureless as God’s love for us. If we could somehow obtain mercy without sacrifice, perhaps we could thank God and move on with our own lives. As things stand, there is no possible limit to the love we might lavish on our Savior—and still fall miserably short of repayment. Once we come face-to-face with the reality of Christ’s Sacrifice, we recognize that, as St. Bernard said, the measure of loving God is to love God without measure.

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Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Apr. 23, 2011 1:02 PM ET USA

    We can never do enough - no amount could ever satisfy. Jesus knew what he was getting into before He offered the perfect Sacrifice. Your approch seems a little fatalistic. Did St. Bernard really mean for us to achieve infinite love here or rather not to try to measure our love because measurement brings comparison, competition, leading us to make judgements and addicitions. Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. Do your best honestly in humility and trust in His mercy.

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