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Crucified Lover

Jesus’ priestly mission came to a shameful, horrific end. How we explain his passion and death can either cloud Jesus’ triumph of love for us and weaken our response to his love, or it can transform us into tremendous lovers of Jesus.

Theologian Father Joseph Komonchak critiques in the January 28, 2005 issue of Commonweal the oversimplistic theological explanation of penal substitution: “Christ stepped into our place and endured the full wrath of God’s vindictive justice…to pay off the immense debt incurred by the sins of humanity.”

Mystery.  Komonchak says that this theological viewpoint neglects the fact that “the redemption involves mystery from the beginning to the end. It deals with things like evil and death, life and forgiveness.  Any theory will have to move between the supreme mystery of God, whose ways and thoughts are not ours, and the abysmal mystery of evil.”

The great danger of this long-standing theological viewpoint is that we are left with the feeling that God is a vengeful God who desired Jesus’ suffering and death. Yet scripture tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (John3:16). Jesus was God’s Self-gift to humanity, the highest sign of God’s love for us.

Another problem is that this theological viewpoint focuses our attention on the brutality of Jesus’ passion and death. The physicality of Jesus’ suffering overshadows the spirituality of Jesus. The great love story becomes the great horror story that can hinder us from entering into Jesus’ tremendous love for us.

A further problem of penal substitution as an explanation for Jesus’ passion and death is that it turns our attention on ourselves rather than on Jesus’ great love for us and thus becomes a block to a deeper relationship with him. If we shed tears for Jesus’ agonizing suffering, let us also shed tears of joy and gratitude for his great love.

Spirit at Work. The Spirit did not abandon Jesus at his critical time. The dynamic partnership that Jesus enjoyed with the Spirit throughout his life brought out Jesus’ tremendous love for us. Mysteriously, the Spirit helped Jesus resolve the great dialectic—two opposing realities—the mysteries of God and evil through Jesus’ love and forgiveness that overcame the reign of sin and death. “A frightful evil was transformed into a transcendent good, an execution became a self-sacrifice”, says Komonchak.

At creation it was the Spirit who brought order out of chaos. On Calvary the Spirit continues his work of bringing order out of chaos in the reconciliation of God with humanity through Jesus’ great act of self-giving.

Love Conquers. In the end, we must ask the question thatSt. Augustine raised more than 1500 years ago. He asked: “What is the beauty we see in Christ?….The Crucified limbs? The pierced side? Or the love? When we hear that he suffered for us, what do we love? The love is loved. He loved us so that that we might love him back, and that we might love him back, he visited us with his Spirit.”

It would be helpful to imagine the love life of Jesus as he encountered his agonizing last days. Imagine Jesus going up the mountain with the apostles and being transfigured before setting out on his journey to Jerusalem and certain death. Jesus thinks to himself: “I choose to live for and with those for whom life is one long, desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I’m going… If it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice saying, “Do something for others.”….”We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter to me now. Because I have been to the mountaintop….I just want to do God’s will…I have seen the promised land… My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

These are the words of Reverend Martin Luther King who prophesized the end to his life, a life of self-giving to others. His words give us only a glimpse into the mind and heart of Jesus, the tremendous lover, the image and mirror of God, the Radical Lover.