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.


Incarnation-Eternal Process

We have to identify some misconceptions about the Incarnation. Otherwise, we will not appreciate God’s action in eternity, in creation, in history, in the present, in the hereafter. The source of our misconceptions is that we relate the Incarnation to a single event in history (Christ’s birth and life), and thus pigeonhole the Incarnation. Rather, the Incarnation is a continuum—from before time to after time.

Incarnation in Eternity. The usual timeline of human salvation is creation, fall of the human race, and then the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. However, that standard chronology is not correct, states Biblical Scholar Stephen Doyle, OFM. “Before creation, before our first parents, before sin, the Word made flesh takes first place in God’s plan. Christ is not a last-minute rescue plan in God’s plan because Adam and Eve had sinned. Rather, Christ is the heart of the Father’s plan from all eternity. The divine Word would have been incarnated in Christ even if the first man and woman had never sinned.” St. Paul writes that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” (Eph 1:4) So God had great plans for us from all eternity.

Incarnation at Creation. In actuality and in a broader sense, we can say that the Incarnation began with the creation of the universe—with the Spirit bringing order out of chaos as we read in Genesis. God is first and foremost Creator. Incarnation is the way God creates—by becoming intimately part of that which He creates. Father Doyle says: “It helps to look at all created things as if they are scattered pieces of a beautiful picture puzzle. It’s only when the pieces are put back in their proper places that they form the original image of Christ, thus displaying their true beauty and meaning.” So, all is creation, all is incarnation, all is potentially Eucharist—capable of uniting us with God.

Incarnation in History. The process of Incarnation that began in God’s mind before creation, and in creation with the Spirit bringing order out of chaos, makes its spectacular appearance in Christ’s birth. Again the Spirit is at work. In Luke 1:34,35, we read: “Mary asked the angel, ‘But how can I have a child? I am a virgin.’ The angel replied: ‘The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of God shall overpower you; so that the child born to you will be utterly holy—the Son of God.” The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. At a point in time, God’s Son became incarnate to share His love with us. Jesus came not only as our brother, but as our redeeming brother.

Incarnation in Process. But the Incarnation is not only history; it is the mystery of the on-going process of Incarnation. This understanding of the Incarnation is both ancient and new. Ancient, Theologian Bernard Cooke tells us, because it is a recovery of very early Christian understanding. “New” because this sense of Jesus’ constant presence to believers gave way to the notion that Jesus had left this earth and gone up to heaven. It is only in mid-twentieth century that we have regained the understanding of Jesus’ constant presence. As a result, we also understand that believers function as the “Body of Christ”.

So the ongoing Incarnation is the process of the Spirit penetrating us with Jesus’ presence and power, and each of us attempting to bring to birth Jesus through our lives as members of the Body of Christ.

Incarnation in Fullness of Time. As Jesus has gathered us into His ongoing Incarnation during our lifetimes, in the fullness of time He will gather our resurrected bodies in a radically changed universe that has become Christ’s resurrected body, says Rev. John J. Walsh, M.M. St. Paul describes God’s plan “to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” And happily that includes us!