The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response
"Chapter 9: Cenacle and Calvary"
During the many long years of seclusion at Nazareth, He willed to give us the supreme example of the value of even a seemingly ordinary life, lived in accord with the will of the Father. But even more, He willed by this very obedience to begin to redress the imbalance caused by sin.1
But the Father had planned to go further. Centuries earlier He foretold through Jeremiah (31:31-33):
We saw how our Father made a covenant with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. He promised in it to act as their kinsman, even their Father. The regular Hebrew word for the covenant bond, hesed, makes clear that He really would act as their kinsman. The ceremony of ratification of the Sinai covenant underscored this. After Moses came down from the mountain, he had holocausts and other sacrifices offered, and then (Ex 24:3-8): "Moses took half of the blood and put it into basins, and splashed half of the blood on the altar. . . . And Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and he said: 'Behold, the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you'." In Hebrew thought (Lev 17:11): "The life of a living body is in its blood." So this rite of mingled blood taught the people that God was their kinsman.
But now, through Jeremiah, He had to tell His people that because they broke His covenant, He could not act as their Father, but only as their master. Really, there had been a long series of breaks in the covenant. Their Father tried to bring them to their senses many times, by sending foreign nations to oppress them. Each time, when they repented, He would send a great leader to deliver them. But finally their infidelity became so great that He handed them over into captivity in Babylonia, when Nebuchadnezzar II, in 597 and 587 B.C., took Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and deported most of the people to a strange land, to break their national spirit.
Yet even at this time He did not desert His people, but planned for their restoration, which He announced in the beautiful prophecy of Jeremiah which we just saw.
He said that the new covenant would not be like the old, for the old was broken-but there was the clear implication that the new would be unbreakable.2 Further, the old covenant was inscribed on tablets of stone, but as to the new He said: "I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts."
In spite of these differences, the new was to be parallel to the Sinai covenant on the really essential points. Sinai had brought into being a people of God; in the new: "I will be their God and they will be my people." The old people had been promised God's favor on condition of their obeying the covenant law; in the new, the law would not be on stone tablets, but would be written on hearts.
In the old covenant, He had pledged to act as though He was the kinsman of His people. But in the new covenant, He actually took on our flesh, and so became most literally our kinsman, our brother, who would even mingle His blood with ours in the Eucharist.
The great fulfillment of this prophecy of Jeremiah did not come in the period just after the end of the exile. Rather, the expectation of Jeremiah looked to the future. Vatican II, in its Constitution on the Church, quoted the chief part of this prophecy, and continued: "Christ instituted this new covenant, that is, the new testament in His blood, calling together a people from Jews and gentiles, which would be . . . the new People of God."3
The obedience of the people in the old covenant had been poor. But even though the obedience of the people was still required in the new, at their Head would be Christ, the New Adam, whose obedience was perfect. For He (Phil 2:7-8) "emptied Himself, taking on the form of a slave . . . being made obedient even to death, death on a cross."
He pledged that obedience in the Cenacle, on the first Holy Thursday night. He could have done it by signing a document, or by reciting equivalent words and accepting. But He actually chose to make a dramatized form of acceptance of the Father's will. So He took bread and wine and said over them: "This is my body. . . . This is my blood." Now if body is here and blood there, the man is dead. So in this way He wanted to indicate His acceptance of death on the cross.
We today are less accustomed to such forms of expression, so let us translate. It is as if He were saying to the Father: "Father, I know the command you have given me: I am to die tomorrow. I turn myself over to death. I accept, I obey."
He pledged His obedience that evening; the next day He carried out what He pledged.
But still further: Moses had sprinkled the blood of animals on the people to indicate that they were becoming God's blood relatives. Jesus did more. He instituted the Eucharist then to give us His blood to drink and His body to eat-a sort of transfusion, to make us His brothers.
What a time He chose to do it! The very time when our race was about to do its worst to Him, to make Him most fully the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, and rejected by men! We, if someone mistreats us, find it hard to want to be close to that one again. He at this very time chose this strictly marvelous means of getting so close to us as to want to come inside us, as our food.
Right after this pledging of the new covenant, He took the eleven remaining Apostles-Judas was absent, busy betraying Him-and went down the southern slope of the hill on which Jerusalem stands, across the brook Kedron, and, by the light of the full moon-for it was Passover-ascended the side of the opposite hill, the Mount of Olives. Leaving all but three near the gate of the grove, He went in further with Peter, James and John. Then He dismissed even them, and went on a little way, and began to be "frightened and troubled." Yes, the original Greek of St. Mark (14:3) does have that incredible word, ekthambeisthai, "to be frightened."
We ask ourselves: How is it possible that the God-man, who knows all things, could be in fear? The answer is clear. He was truly man as well as truly God. When Satan after His 40 days fast in the desert suggested to Him to turn stones into bread, He treated it as a temptation. Why should it be a temptation? Was it unreasonable for Him to eat after the long fast? Or did He not have the power to turn stones into bread? But the reason was this: As St. Paul said, He had (Phil 2:7) "emptied Himself, taking on the form of a slave." He could not, of course, empty Himself of divinity, so as to no longer be God. But He could, and did, decide He would never use His divine power for His own comfort-for others, to heal their infirmities, yes. But not for Himself. And so, though His divinity could have rescued Him from this fear, in fact, from the entire ordeal, yet it was the will of the Father that He suffer it. And human nature, unsupported, will suffer the shrinking-back emotion of fear in the face of terrible suffering and death.
He even, according to the inspired physician, St. Luke (22:44), fell into a sweat of blood. Any good medical dictionary lists such a condition; it is hematidrosis. It occurs when the interior tension is so acute-if the victim does not lose consciousness-that the small blood vessels adjacent to the sweat glands rupture, and pour out their red fluid through those openings.
How could He suffer so terribly? Did not many other men in ancient times face execution, execution in the same form He was to suffer? Yes, but there were two special features to His suffering. First, He had alway known it was to come, had known every hideous detail in merciless, glaring clarity. His human soul, from the first moment of its existence, had the vision of God, as Pope Pius XII told us.4 In that vision He could see all-and He saw even this moment. It must have been a nagging, wearing, eating thing, protracted through His entire lifetime. When we foresee something dreadful ahead, we can always take refuge in the thought: Maybe it will not happen, or maybe it will not be so bad. The clarity of His vision left Him no such help.
We saw already that one day during His public life He admitted to His disciples (Lk 12:50): "I have a baptism in which to be baptized; and how am I straitened until it is over!" In other words, He knew the waters of tribulation into which He was to be plunged. The thought would gnaw at Him interiorly until He could get it over. Again, only a few days before His passion, in front of a great crowd in Jerusalem, He suddenly interrupted His discourse and gave way to such feelings and exclaimed (Jn 12:27): "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say? Father, save me from this hour!" Most persons at some time have suffered a nightmare during sleep: something frightful was chasing them, they were almost paralyzed, could not move, it was about to seize them-when suddenly, and gratefully, they woke up. But imagine Him, when the lifelong nightmare did finally catch up with Him, and He knew fully there was no escape.5
St. Margaret Mary, who received the great Sacred Heart revelations, tells of a vision:
The second reason He could suffer so much in Gethsemani was the pain of rejection by the very ones whom He was dying to save. The pain of rejection is proportioned to two things: to the form the rejection takes, and to the love the rejected one has for the one who rejects.
How great was His love? If love is, as we saw, a desire, a will for the well-being of another, then His love is immense in two ways. First, the well-being He wants us to have is not just a happy life for a hundred years: it is happiness forever. And He wants for us not just the happiness that is proper to a human being. For each animal, God has planned satisfaction proper to that kind of animal. But for us, He wills not just human satisfaction: He wants us to have the life of God Himself, for He has literally made us sharers in the divine nature. Secondly, His love was so strong that it could not be stopped even by so immense an obstacle as the Passion. We know that a small love can be blocked in its striving for the happiness of the beloved by a small obstacle. A great obstacle is needed to stop a great love. But what a love was this, that did not say, in the face of a sweat of blood, in the face of the cross: this is just too much; I would like them to be happy, but enough is enough. No, He went right ahead. His love for us was really measureless. We saw, with the help of the words of Pius IX, that Mary's love of God was so great that only God can comprehend it. What must the love of the God-man Himself for us be!
We said that love is measured by the love of the rejected one, and by the form the rejection takes. If someone just jostles me rudely in a crowd, I may feel slightly offended. If he beats me physically, it is far worse. But what if he wants to kill me, and is not satisfied with just death, but wants to kill me in the most horrid way he can think of!
So then, a strictly measureless love is rejected in the worst way conceivable. The pain of such a rejection is beyond our power to picture. Hence He is reported to have told St. Margaret Mary in a vision: "I feel this [the ingratitude and contempt of men] more than all I suffered during my Passion."7 No wonder, the spiritual pain of rejection, being of a different, a deeper order, far surpasses mere physical pain, though that in Him was dreadful too.
There was not only rejection of His love. His very intelligence was outraged, insulted, when His Sacred Head was crowned in derision, and he was treated as a fool. Yet that Sacred Head was most literally the human physical organ of Divine Wisdom, the instrument of the Holy Spirit, who in the human order, moved Him in all things.8 That human intellect, illumined by the vision of the divinity, saw each one of us even during the Passion. As Pius XII said, "In the manger, on the cross, in the eternal glory of the Father, Christ has all the members of the Church before Him, and joined to Him far more clearly, and far more lovingly than a mother has a son on her lap."9 Of course, no human heart can love someone it does not even know. But thanks to the unimaginable brilliance of His human intellect, which knew each of us individually, His Heart was enabled to love each of us individually, even when we rejected both His intelligence and His love.
To say that this "enabled" His Heart to love needs a certain qualification. When we ordinary humans love, we are stimulated to it by seeing some good in the one we love; but He, precisely at this point, saw in us not something lovable, but instead, sin, sin that was weighing down on Him at that very moment. Yet, as St. Paul tells us, He (Rom 5:8) "proved His love for us, because when we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
The divinely illumined wisdom of His human mind still directed His Heart to love us, not because of, but in spite of what it knew, in the only utterly disinterested, purely generous love the universe has ever seen.10
And, of course, His pain was compounded immeasurably by the nearly infinite weight of sin for which He was to atone. St. Paul puts it dramatically (2 Cor 5. 21): "Him who did not know sin, He made sin for our sakes, so we might become the righteousness of God in Him."11
The immeasurability of His love comes out even more clearly with the help of the covenant framework. A covenant is something like a contract: "I will do this, if you do that." Now anyone who makes a contract wants to at least think he is getting in return something of at least equal value to what he gives, else he will not make the contract. So in the contract of the new covenant, the Father obliged Himself to give something of the same worth as the (1 Cor 6:20) "price" of redemption, to use St. Paul's word. But that price of redemption was really beyond infinity-for if even the smallest act of an Infinite Person, the God-man, was of infinite worth, what was such suffering worth! So the Father obliged Himself to give an infinite treasury of grace, favor, forgiveness to the new People of God, who were to come into being, and receive His benefits through this covenant. If we used legal language, we would say that an infinite objective title to grace and forgiveness for us was created by the new covenant.
But there is more. St. Paul wrote to the Galatians that (2:20) "He loved me and gave Himself for me."12 Legal language will make this clearer: it means that the Passion, in the new covenant, not only created an infinite objective title in favor of mankind in general; it created an infinite objective title in favor of each individual man! This is the measure of measureless love!
We saw in chapter 4 that there are two great principles in God's ways: His love of us, and His love of the objective order or objective goodness. We saw too that Pope Paul summed up beautifully the conclusions we reached on the objective order when he taught that:
Since sin, under one aspect, is infinite in that the Person offended, God, is infinite, only a God-man could fully restore the damage to that universal order. Hence the same document of Paul VI could speak of "the infinite and inexhaustible price that the expiation and merits of Christ have before God, offered that all humanity might be liberated from sin."14
Read in this light, we can see the marvelous depth of Romans 3:24-36. It refers to us
The sense is this: We are made just, instead of being sinners, without having earned it. But Jesus did earn it. He is the new propitiatory,16 foreshadowed in the Old Testament propitiatory. That is, He is the means of expiation, of balancing the objective order. The benefit of this goes to those who have faith in His blood. In all of this, God shows He Himself is righteous, that is, concerned over balancing the objective order. During the time of His "passing over sins," the Old Testament period, that was not really clear. It is true, He did punish sins then, at times openly and dramatically. But the punishment could not at all really balance the scales, for as we saw, sin has an infinity about it. So God's intention to rebalance was not yet clear. But now with the infinite expiation accomplished by Jesus, it is fully evident that God is righteous, concerned over objective morality. And He makes righteous those sinners who depend for their righteousness on faith in Jesus.17
We said that now we can see the depth of this passage, because if we read it without this background of rebalancing the universal objective order, the death of Jesus would seem merely like a New Testament ceremony or liturgy, the new version of the Old Testament propitiatory. But then the thought would be shallow, and we would have to ask: Why such a painful death merely as a means of ceremony or liturgy?18
There is another aspect to Calvary, that of sacrifice. A sacrifice consists of two elements: the external sign, and the invisible or interior dispositions which the sign expresses and promotes.19 In the Cenacle, and in the Mass, the external sign is the seeming separation of body and blood, by having the two species, bread and wine, separated. On Calvary the external sign was actual physical death. But in the Cenacle, on Calvary, and in the Mass, the internal dispositions are the same, those of the Heart of Jesus. They include of course, adoration and love of the Father, and the intention to atone, to rebalance the universal order, "so that sins may be forgiven" as we hear in the consecration of the Mass. But most prominent, according to Vatican II, and as we could see from covenant theology alone, is His obedience. The constitution on the Church teaches that: "By His obedience He brought about redemption."20 This is an echo of St. Paul's words in Romans 5:19: "Just as by the disobedience of the one man, the many21 were constituted sinners, so also by the obedience of the one man, the many will be constituted righteous." St. Paul is bringing out the parallel between Christ and Adam. Adam, the first head of our race, plunged us into the ruin of original sin; Christ, the new Adam, the new Head of our race, reversed that damage by His sacrificial death. Similarly, St. Paul told the Philippians (2:7-8): "He emptied Himself . . . being made obedient even to death, to death on a cross." The first Adam became disobedient even to death,22 for his sin brought death on himself and our whole race; the second Adam became obedient even to death. For mere physical suffering and death, without such interior dispositions, would have been only a dreadful miscarriage of justice: it would not have had any redemptive value. But when done as an act of obedience, then that death was a sacrifice, was able to redeem countless worlds.
Pope Paul VI brought this out beautifully in an Address of October 5, 1966. He said that the obedience of the members of Christ
Nor are we neglecting love when we make obedience central. For as we saw in chapter 5, our love of God is in practice identified with obedience.
Thus this obedience-love of the Heart of our great High Priest won, through sacrifice and covenant, an infinite claim on the Father, a claim not just for our race in general, but for each individual person.