Die for …
Not long ago, people witnessed mixed feelings at a court. The final sentence: death penalty for the murderer. The news article gives lots of details, among which is one that evokes both admiration and heartache: the image of a mother begging the judge to let her die for her son.
We must still remember a real story during the Second World War: the Catholic priest, Maximilian Kolbe, volunteered to die for an unknown prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Yes, having courage to die for someone’s fault or sin is the purest virtue found in the human heart.
How can people sacrifice their life for each other? Cetainly the survival instinct will strongly oppose this act. Just have a quick look around, we will see many people who terribly suffer and yet try their best to remain alive. So the question is: How can one die for another?
I don’t know how you would think about this. As for me, I’m thinking of an essential reason: love. If there were no true love, no one would die for others. This reminds us of the words of Paul, who used to persecute the first Christians: “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:7-8) Yes, the God-made-Man – Jesus Christ – sacrificed himself for our sins. But what does it mean by “dying for our sins”? Not long ago, a little student in a catechesis class asked a question: “Human beings sinned, and then Jesus came down to redeem them. Would God the Father be too cruel when he forced his Only Son to die on the Cross?” Well, at times children can ask complicated questions, can’t they? I invite you to compare the stories above to see how complicated the issue is.
In the story of the mother who begged the judge to let her die for her criminal son and that of the Catholic priest Kolbe who volunteered to die for a prisonner, we see 3 parties involved: the law represented by a judge, the accused and the sacrificer. But in the case of Jesus dying for us humans, the accused is each man or woman and the sacrificer is Jesus, who is the judge? Obviously, Satan cannot be the judge over God. If the judge were God the Father, then he would be seen as “cruel” in the eyes of that little student (and others, I suppose). How can we deal with this?
There is another story that can be used as an effort to explain the “self-sacrifice” of God for the human. It goes as follows:
Sometime ago, a king who wanted to end all wrongdoings in his kingdom summoned his officers and passed new strict laws that would be applied to all citizens, including the royal family. At the beginning, everyone seemed to obey them perfectly. The king was content. But one day the king heard of a case of stealing. He ordered that the thief be punished according to the law. His kingdom then functioned well for a while until one day he heard of another more serious case: a man attacked and injured someone. The king decided to see to the case himself. When the criminal was led into the court, the king felt very furious and yet at the same time very sad because the criminal was his own son. The law had to be fulfilled so as to keep the kingdom in order. He ordered that the prince be whipped forty times. The guard was about to strike the prince lying down on the ground when the king said: “Wait!” He came over and covered his son’s body with his own. Then he ordered the guard to carry out the penalty as the law demanded. The king took the place of punishment for his son. Since he was aged and sick, the punishment was too much for him. He passed away a few days later.
Here we still see 3 parties: the law (by the king and his court), the accused (the prince) and the sacrificer (the king). In this picture, the king was “in the law system” and so he was under the same jurisdiction when he took the place of his son. If we compare God to this king, can anything be solved? The situation would look like this: God established a law system for human beings, then put Himself under it, finally punished Himself by taking their place. In a sense, God is no longer The Most High since there is a law sytem controlling Him. In other words, God belongs to this law system and depends on its judgment. There is something incorrect here. How do you think?
Let us continue to explore this. I have another story to tell you with hope that it may help clarify the question a little bit more. This story is so rich that it will take years to tell all the details. Please allow me to summarize as briefly as I can. Perhaps you have known it. Here it goes:
Before anything ever exists, there is only Unconditional Love. Unconditional Love is The Trinitarian God. God’s Love is so abundant that it overflows and creates all good things of the universe. In the universe God lovingly creates men and women. For God, they are his beloved children coming into existence out of his love-filled fatherly heart. (Mt 6:9)
Since God is Love (1Jn 4:8), God’s “image” (Gn 1:27), namely men and women, also come from love, are immerged in love and invited toward their fulfillment in love. God treats his children by his nature which is love, so God also desires their response of love. In order to guarantee this ‘bilateral relationship’ to be truly loving, God creates freedom and respectfully implants it in them. That’s why the nature of freedom is noble. Without this freedom of choice, their love would be distorted and insincere. Without it, their response would be colored with unwillingness and constrain. Next, this Freedom can obtain its meaning only when it is capable of responsibility. Responsibility guarantees the existence of freedom. Therefore, it is the natural outcome of freedom. Besides, God also implants in his children conscience, intelligence, will and other helpers to guide them to exercise their freedom with love and righteousness.
Then, with this ‘equipment’, men and women set out on a journey to perform their life. God, the Loving Father, always watches over their every step. Since he absolutely respects their freedom, he gently journeys with them with counsels and instructions so they will follow the way of love from which they come and to which they will return. The Father does not influence them in any manner that will take away their freedom. In other words, he accompanies them but accepts to be outside this “freedom system” so that final choices always belong to their own decisions. The children thus walk in the confidence and thoughtful yet gentle care of the Father.
Dear friend, we know well the rest of the story: men and women misuse their freedom of choice in acting negatively, which leads to all kinds of brokenness harmful to themselves and others. Freedom produces the corresponding responsibility which belongs to human beings who are once again the beloved children in God’s eyes. The guides such as conscience, intelligence, will and other helpers are put aside. The children abuse their freedom to sin, even sin against their very Father. Sin leads to misery and death which weighs them down. (Rom 5:12b) They are too weak and fragile to take this too heavy responsibility. In brief, they cannot save themselves. All kinds of chaos enter their used-to-be-at peace life and produce in them doubt, fear, jealousy, hatred, despair… (Rom 3:23) They begin to lose heart of their own love. They can no longer dream of Unconditional Love. True forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, and compassion suddenly become abstract and strange concepts.
The Loving Father, the Trinitarian God, never ceases to watch over his children. Seeing their deadly miserable state, he is so filled with compassion that he decides to actively take their burden. He voluntarily bears the consequence of their sin. (Jn 1:29) Despite all, the Father never takes back the gift of freedom because it is still needed to guarantee their true love. His acting manner is always love and ‘love to the end’. That’s why he continues to choose the way of self-sacrifice. For him, it is the best way to bring his children back to Love where they will find themselves and their true joy and peace. He desires to see them touched and converted before so great a love. He expects them to understand his heart, the heart of the compassionate God, and confidently come back to the source of happiness. (Lc 15: 20-24) Since their existence, the Father always longs to express more and more his love for them in whichever possible way. Therefore, his sensitive heart sees immediately an opportunity to do this in the misery of his children.
Then The Most High Trinity decided to help the children find themselves again. God voluntarily became like them in humanity to be close to them. (Jn 1:14) Always respecting their freedom, he came to them gently, so gently that they did not even recognize him being fully present in Jesus Christ (Jn 1:10-11), who came into this history to bear their burden.
Jesus goes everywhere to look for men and women. He weeps with those who weep and laughs with those who laugh. All are welcome, healed and blessed. Those who understand him regain themselves in peace and dignity. People encounter in this friendly Jesus an endless source of truth and compassion.
Freedom is a noble thing at the beginning when it attaches itself to Love. However, the human, including ourselves, use it to take a different direction. God, out of love, respects it at all costs. And the most terrible thing has happened:
The human, namely once again the children created by the Heart overflowing with love, killed the Loving One. Mount Calvery that afternoon witnessed two opposite scences. The first was the most terrible in the entire human history: the children using the freedom given by the Father to kill Him. The second was the best that can only be grasped by those who live in love: the Father sacrificed Himself for the children, He died for them. (Phil 2:6-9; Rom 5:8)
The moment Jesus Christ died on the Cross is the moment God gave all his life to us.
Please take a silent moment, close your eyes to contemplate the Love totally offered to us.
The sacrifice of Jesus Christ does not lead to a dead end but opens up new horizons for us men and women. From now on we understand that the freedom detached from sin and attached to love is the most valuable freedom. From now on we have found Unconditional Love again. From now on we, the children, understand how much our Father loves us. From now on we see our true worth in our Father’s eyes. From now on we don’t have any more reason to be afraid on the way back to our Father. Now, we have found our true self in our Father who is embracing and kissing us.
Dear friend, my reflection is only one of many efforts that try to explore a very rich and profound mystery. There are of course other numerous meanings in the sacrifice of God in Jesus for us. Let us continue to pray, meditate, contemplate and learn so as to better understand his unconditional love for us.
Easter is approaching shortly. In order to enter the depth of God’s love, let us taste again these following words:
“…because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps….He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1Peter 2: 21b, 24)
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15: 12-13)
Dear friend, our God in Jesus Christ gave his life to us. This is the greatest gift that a person can have in life. But the gift can only be truly ours when we open our heart and hands to receive it. Certainly, we are totally free before this gift of God’s love. If we refuse it, we choose to nullify its precious value offered to us. If we graciously welcome it, we are receiving salvation and new life.
Joseph Viet, O.Carm.
In Vietnamese: https://only3minutes.wordpress.com/tieng-viet/chet-thay/