I found out recently that I grew up Protestant.
I was baptized as a Catholic on December 11, 1977. I attended Catholic Mass on Sundays my whole life. I attended Catholic Sunday school, CCD, faith formation, whatever you want to call it. I was in Middle School the first time I ever set foot in a Protestant church building. I was clearly Catholic. There’s no question. So why that first line? Easy, some key aspects of Christianity were taught to me in a way that has been so infected by the Protestant theology of the 16th century and thereafter that I didn’t even know I was taught wrongly.
Specifically, I’m talking about how the atonement worked. So, how did Jesus dying on the cross save me? The whole time I was growing up, I understood this event as what I’ve come to call the abusive father model. I often think this is how most people think of it because it just seems to be what’s going on. That model goes something like this. Mankind has sinned. God is mad at us, but He doesn’t want to punish us because He loves us. So, He sends the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, to punish instead. Rather than pour out all of his wrath on us, he pours it out on His Son, so we are saved from it. If that’s not an abusive father, I don’t know what is.
Ok, so if that’s wrong, how should we understand the atonement won by the crucifixion? Rather than focus on the downward movement of the Father’s wrath, we focus on the upward movement of the Son’s immense and self-sacrificial love. The Second Person of the Trinity took the form of a slave, and, from a depth of love to which we should all aspire, offered himself for us. It was not the fact that the Father had someplace to focus his wrath that saved us, it was the love of the Son!
There’s a great description here, so I’m not going to go into a theological discussion beyond that.
I have been thinking since I had the conversation with one of the professors here at the seminary what that means to me. It truly changes the way we think of the passion of Christ and our participation in it.
One thing that has confused me for years is how we can say that we participate in Christ’s suffering. Even Paul said that, “in [his] flesh [he] completes what is lacking in Christ’s affliction.” (Col 1:24) What a slap in the face to the Son of God if the notion of God’s wrath being poured out on the Son is correct! It is as much as Paul (and we) are saying, “Jesus, thanks for all that, but it still wasn’t enough, so here’s my little bit of suffering to make yours enough.” Lots of Protestants attack the Catholic Church for this interpretation, and, if the abusive father model were correct, they’d be right. Rather, when we join our suffering to that of Christ to “complete what is lacking,” we aren’t taking on more punishment, we are joining our love to His!
I have a friend who is an artist, and, if I can ever get her to talk about the commission enough to make it, I want her to make a painting for me (too bad she’s not a sculptor) that represents this. I have to believe that, even in His agony, which I cannot begin to imagine, Christ was at peace because he knew the results that his act of love would give. Think about the people you love most in the world. Wouldn’t you accept all kinds of suffering on their behalf? Now multiply that love by infinity and realize the love that Jesus had when he took his place as a sacrifice of love. I found out, while looking for a few images for this post, that my idea is not new, but that’s ok. I still want one.
There’s a suggestion at the bottom of the page to which I want to add my voice. Go reflect on the Way of the Cross, go watch The Passion of the Christ, go read the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion, all with this thought in mind, that Jesus was loving instead of God punishing. The new meaning these take by that one small change is enormous!