From the Last Supper to the Cross
Today marks the start of Holy Week. Through the Gospel of Mathew (26: 14 – 27:66), we follow Jesus to the Cross.
With the Apostles, we follow Jesus into Jerusalem and spend the Passover with Him, breaking bread and drinking wine. Like Peter, James and John, we fail to stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus goes through agonised prayers to submit to the Father’s will. Like Judas, we betray Jesus with a kiss as we hand Him over to be persecuted. Like Peter and the other Apostles, we flee at the first sign of trouble and deny any association with Jesus – despite having pledged undying loyalty to Him. Like everyone from the High Priest to Pilate to the frenetic crowds, we condemn, ridicule and torture Jesus to His very last moment – His very last breath on the Cross. With Mother Mary and the Beloved Apostle John, we grieve at the foot of the Cross.
Why on earth would Jesus need to die on the Cross?
It would take an eternity to unpack the divine truths as presented in these passages of Matthew’s Gospel. Which is handy, for belief in Christ’s death and resurrection gives us an eternal life to contemplate the proof of His love for us .
But perhaps the obvious question to start is, “Why would Jesus have to go through such a horrendous crucifixion to save us? And save us from what, exactly?”
Growing up, I went through the Stations of the Cross crying at the torture done to Christ. I fully recognised myself in each character that betrayed Jesus – wasn’t there someone that I had hurt and betrayed, in some way? I fully recognised myself as the women who wept as they saw Him carry the Cross to Calvary – do I not cry when I see the injustice in this world?
Strangely, though, growing up I never questioned why. To be honest, I could never get past the torture of the Crucifixion, and the wonder that anyone would love me so much that He would be willing to give His life for me.
As an adult though – when accepting God’s love like a child becomes difficult without some kind of intellectual proof – the obvious question surfaces: Logically speaking, how does the sacrifice of Jesus’ life wipe out our sins?
I have circled this question many times as an adult. And thanks to conversations and reading several different theologians and truth seekers, I have come to accept something fundamental that escaped me as I was growing up. I will fully admit that I do not understand it completely, but these are the premises in which my limited understanding rests.
We are body and spirit – and therefore governed by the natural laws of the material world, and the metaphysical laws of the spiritual world
We do not just live in a material world – we also live in a metaphysical world. We are not just body (a.k.a flesh and blood), but we are spirit as well – just as God created us as body and spirit (Genesis 2:7).
It is hard to deny that we are bodies with spirits. Neuroscientists can physiologically ascribe spirit to our conscious and subconscious mind, but I have a hard time limiting spirit to just neurological processes. Whenever I feel my spirit being energised, physiologically speaking the energy seems to emanate from the heart and takes wing across my neck and into my arms, and can propel me into rapturous singing and dancing; or into heartbreaking repose with arms hugging my body to comfort a spirit broken within. If we can intellectually assent that our spirit is governed beyond neurological processes of conscious thought to something that connects deep within our core selves and something transcendental beyond ourselves – we can then contemplate a few more things.
When we – symbolised by our first human parents, Adam and Eve – walked in the Garden of Eden, we walked in body and Spirit with God, fully enjoying His Company. We were His Children, and He was our God.
Like all children though, we somehow got it into our heads that our Father was holding out on us. Like all children, we thought we could do better than Him. Our first sin was giving in to these lies from the devil – the father of lies. Our second sin was hiding from God – because we knew there was something wrong with us in our nakedness, our vulnerability. Rather than seek Our Father, the One who created us, from healing, we hid in our shame. I cannot help but think how much of the brokenness that lies at the heart of our human experience oscillates between our pride and our shame.
There is a material and metaphysical consequence to sin
But there were real consequences to choosing to go against God and hide from Him – this is the very definition of sin, a disbelief in God, and His ability to fix us. Our sin against God ruptured something between the material and the metaphysical world – that meeting point in the Garden of Eden. Our sin ushered in the concept of death – we no longer could be eternal beings walking with God. However neither did we immediately die and be delivered to the eternal torture of the devil.
God gave us a halfway point – between returning to Heaven with Him and Hell with the devil. Yes, we were cast out of Eden, but we ended up here on Earth. And it appears, from Genesis onwards, the battleground between Heaven and Hell has played out on Earth. From simple white lies to revealed infidelities, from a single murder to outright war – sin has had real consequences in the material earth. But in parallel, they have had consequences in the metaphysical world as well.
So is there any chance for God to have His children return to Him, feasting together in Heaven to enjoy a continuous and full exchange of love with Him?
Can humans overcome sin alone?
It seems we would have to get past the devil – whose first lie was to get us to doubt and become greater than God, and second, turn way from God. To belabour the point, this is sin – believing in the lies of the devil by turning away from God to do our own will, rather than trusting in God’s plan for us.
However if just one person managed to not fall for the devil lies by never renouncing God, that person could escape death – as that person proved that on earth, the devil never had any hold on him/her in life through not sinning for one single instance. In short, the devil would have no basis to keep the person in death if that person did not sin in life. Therefore, that person could return to full, eternal life with God.
For me, it reads like a kind of metaphysical law determining the consequences of sin, death and eternal life.
I now understand why the God of the Old Testament was so angry with His children every time they rebelled against Him. He knew what the eternal consequences for just a single sin in the life of a human being would be – eternity with the devil, and life cut off from eternal love with God, the One who loved us enough to create us.
Like earthly loving parents, God does provide His children with free will to make their own choices. But who else but a loving parent would punish their kids when they feared their child did things that would permanently mess up their lives? Loving parents do set boundaries – and these boundaries can be exercised in a strict manner, and does include the consequence of punishment when children do something wrong. But loving parents also know how to nurture and direct their children to grow into the adults that we were made to me. Now our earthly parents, being limited themselves, try their best but rarely know how to give this balance between freedom, boundaries and direction for our lives perfectly. But who better than our own Creator to know what the purpose of our lives is on earth, and direct us toward it?
I know that the Old Testament stories of the Bible, from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Moses to David to Solomon, all reveal the covenants and instructions God gives to His chosen people to trust in Him, and not fall into sin.
The crux of the matter is that not even these revered Biblical men – indeed, not a single human being is able to escape our broken nature – our penchant for original sin. It seems from our very first inception, we are pathologically hell-bent on listening to the devil and asserting our own will, rather than trying to get to know Our Father, and His Will for us. It seems we are destined for a finite life that ends with death. Eternity cut off from God.
Only a pure and unblemished sacrifice can cancel out the metaphysical consequence of sin
I always used to be disturbed by the number of spotless lambs that were slain to atone for the sins of Abraham and his descendants. It was only until I read many of Jill Eileen Smith’s biblical fiction novels on the women of the Old Testament that I did get some kind of clue to the metaphysics of sin. I believe it was in her telling of the redemption of Rahab, the prostitute who helps the Israelites defeat Jericho, where Jill Eilieen Smith gives a salient explanation for the need for something pure and unblemished to counteract the effects of our sins – both consciously and sub-consciously undertaken – in the metaphysical world. And unless we are completely heartless, we are truly aggrieved for our sins when we see real – and innocent – blood being shed to atone for them. It spurs us to think twice before sinning again.
But there are no amount of unblemished lambs in this material world that could counteract the effects of every sin of every human being in the metaphysical world. I think God does love innocent lambs as beloved Creatures of His, and wouldn’t want an eternal shedding of their blood.
No, it would have to be a Lamb of God who had the exponential and infinite power to eradicate the metaphysical effects of all human sin. It would have to be One unstained by original sin. It would have to be One who had the full consciousness of knowing God and having access to trusting and know His Will. It would have to be God Himself.
But God is pure spirit. Through the Holy Spirit, and Mary’s consent as a human mother, both pure spirit and flesh are formed into His Son, allowing God to enter the material world. Allowing for the opportunity for Jesus to fully atone for our sins by living a life in full compliance to the Father – to be the sacrificial Lamb of God.
Though Jesus was a Son of God, He was still human, and therefore had full freedom to exercise His own will should He choose to. And the devil knew that. I more recently realised why it is really important to fully grasp that Jesus did have the freedom to reject His mission on earth. If Jesus had no freedom of choice – well, then the devil would not have even tried to have tempted Jesus in the wilderness to turn stones into bread to slake his hunger towards the end of his 40 days of fasting; and then testing Jesus to call upon God the Father to save Him from a perilous fall; and lastly, tempting Jesus with riches and power of the material world by worshipping the devil.
What would have been the point of the devil taunting Jesus if he knew beforehand that Jesus could never give in? No, the devil knew God the Father gave Jesus the choice, and the devil tried to appeal to Jesus’ human nature to tempt Him.
And when the devil couldn’t directly get Jesus to commit even one sin through the temptations, He indirectly used the sinful nature of other humans to torture Jesus. This was the devil’s last attempt into getting Jesus to renounce God, to flee from doing the Will of God the Father.
No wonder the Crucifixion is so brutal. If you were the devil and were facing the possibility of losing your deathly kingdom, wouldn’t you throw everything and the kitchen sink against the One who will defeat you?
And in this case, the devil used the most powerful kingdom on earth with its military might and methods of torture – particularly the Roman crucifixion to undertake a prolonged and torturous death. The devil appealed to the sanctimony of God’s own people, using the laws of blasphemy of Jesus claiming to be the Son of God to condemn Him – the irony is inescapable. And Jesus’s own disciples abandoned Him – nothing can be more disillusioning to the human heart than betrayal from those who You loved the most and claimed to love you back.
And yet, even with all that brutal violence of the Crucifixion, even with the psychological torture of the taunts of people on earth – Jesus did not renounce the Will of His Father. Yes, He agonised over it and even asked the Father for the cup to be taken away from Him. But He asked – He did not demand.
It’s easy then to think: how could a loving Father ever allow His Only Son to be tortured in this way? Because God the Father, and His Son, knew what was at stake – the sacrifice of an unblemished life that was not marked by sin, despite every brutal attempt by the devil to nail Jesus with sin.
It was only then that God and Jesus won on earth – they eternally overcome the metaphysics of sin for all of humanity by giving Jesus access in His human form to go into the deathly realm and free others. The devil could not hold Jesus in death for he had no justifiable grounds to keep Him there. And once entering Hell, Jesus could release His glorious and healing power to free others from their eternal jail.
So what does Christ’s Crucifixion mean for us?
Christ’s triumph from death does not mean that we are free from sin on earth – we have not escaped our earthly limitations of original sin. But we can seek to believe that the death and Resurrection of Jesus has a real and eternal consequence for our lives beyond this material world. From Adam onwards – they – and we – all have the chance to be in eternal communion with God the Father through Christ the Son.
All we need to do is recognise God the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ. And thanks to the sacrament of confession – with contrite hearts that recognise how we deny God through our thoughts, words and actions – God Himself allows us to return to Him. We don’t need to hide from Him when we mess up.
For me to believe that any of this is real, I needed to accept these premises: we are humans that are governed by both material and metaphysical laws. As such, our eternal lives are governed by the material and metaphysical consequences of sin. But God the Father loved us so much that He sent His Only Beloved Son to be the unblemished sacrificial lamb to overcome the metaphysical law of sin – just so that we can have a chance at a real and eternal life with God.
Honestly, trying to understand the meaning of the Cruxifixion still seems all a bit fantastical to me. But it’s something worth believing in.
Resources that helped me assent
- Bishop Robert Baron’s Reflection on Dante and the Spiritual Journey: Short Video
- CS Lewis intercepts The Screwtape Letters: Book | Audiobook | Short video summary
- Christopher West on the Theology of the Body for Beginners: Book | Video talk
- Eben Alexander MD on the Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife: Book ; Video talk
- Father Mike Schmitz discusses Old Testament God versus New Testament God: short video
- Jill Eileen Smith’s fictional accounts of the women of the Old Testament: website
- Jordan B Peterson’s Biblical Series I: Introduction to the Idea of God: Transcript and Video
- Neal and Matthew Lozano explores Abba’s Heart: Finding Our Way Back to the Father’s Delight: Book
- Word on Fire Mass on Monday, 6 April 2020: video link