Why Did Jesus Have to Die, and Why Does the Resurrection Matter?

Resurrection

Calvary is the fulcrum of history.

Everything changed on that hill called Golgotha 2,000 years ago. Three days later, when the stone rolled away, God put His final redemptive imprimatur on the story of our salvation.

Before that Day in the garden outside the empty tomb, when He looked at the woman and said, Mary!,  Solomon’s ancient wail of “Vanity, vanity; all is vanity,” was the summation of the reality of human existence.

But Calvary and what He did there, the garden and Who the woman met there, changed all that forever.

Do not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, for you will surely die, God told them.

“You will not die,” Satan countered, in one of the deceptive lies disguised in a seeming truth that he uses so often against us.

They ate.

And they did not die.

Then.

But death was born into the world with that first bite of disobedience. The scales fell from their eyes and they knew. They fouled their primal innocence with willfulness, and they knew shame; first the shame of their nakedness, and then the shame of their fallenness.

Their first action was to hide from God because, as they told Him, “We were ashamed because we were naked.”

God’s answer illuminates their changed condition, Who told you that you were naked?

Their second action was to blame one another.

Primal innocence was gone in a single bite of the apple of disobedience, replaced by primal love of self.

Humankind denied this loss throughout its history, denies it even to this day. Self-will battles with God’s will in each of us every moment of our lives. And yet, there is in each of us, encoded in our souls, a haunting memory of who we really are, and an inchoate longing that will not be silenced for what we have lost.

“Our hearts are made for thee,” St Augustine said. And so they are.

God-longing is a part of the human condition, as is a hunger for transcendence and lost innocence. Separated as we are, this longing festers into resentment and denial, while the hunger congeals on our souls as hubris and self-worship.

The curse of lost innocence drives us to rageful disobedience. It ensnares us in our own desires and, if we let it, murders us with the excesses those desires breed in our lives.

Throughout human history this pull of longing for God and lost innocence has played against the push of the hubris of our self-aggrandizements and twisted desires. The tension it creates drives us into a universal acceptance of insanity. We kill one another and we kill ourselves in as many ways as the human story can devise. Our blood-soaked history of suffering and misery has one message: We cannot save ourselves.

The God-hunger encoded in us and the God-image inside of us, drive us to seek propitiation. From moloch to corporatism, we feed our lives and the lives of our children into the empty maw of false gods of our devising. We seek our lost transcendence in debauchery and achievement; in doing good and doing bad; in war making and peace making; in causes and rights and laws.

We try to achieve a lost immortality by looking as Ted Bundy did, into the eyes of those we kill and persuading ourselves that in that moment when the light of life fades we are like gods. We attempt to overcome our finite hopelessness by doing good works, and advancing humankind through the achievements of our efforts and our minds.

But in the end, we are but dust. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

God does not force us. He doesn’t reach down and re-invent us back to our lost innocence.

That is not cruelty as some claim. It is love and longing. Love, to be love, must be freely given. Our love for Him must be ours to give or withhold, or it is not love at all.

So God led us gently over long years and slow changes to the moment when He stepped into our history as one of us in order to offer us a Way. Jesus had to die because by dying He became the ultimate sacrificial lamb, the complete propitiation for our sins. He made it right by offering Himself in lieu of us on the altar of life and death.

He was our Passover lamb and Calvary was the ultimate and final Lord’s Passover.

If that is true, then what is the meaning and the necessity of the Resurrection? Wasn’t dying on the cross enough to redeem us?

The answers people give are all true. The Resurrection demonstrates that Jesus is God. The Resurrection is a sign of the resurrection that awaits all of us who accept Him and go through the open doorway of redemption that He represents. He is the Way in a literal and absolute manner. We enter into the Kingdom through Him.

But I think there is another ultimate meaning to the Resurrection. Calvary wasn’t the only way that God could have restored us to Himself. It was the only way He could do it and leave us free.

The Resurrection was the great undoing of that curse we cursed ourselves with in the garden. If you eat of the tree of knowledge, you will surely die. 

You will not die, Satan told us, and left out the word “today.”

We believed the lie, and the curse of death, real death that is separation from the Light, entered humanity.

The Resurrection broke that curse. God Himself entered into death, took on the curse, and experienced its depths. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, Jesus cried from the cross as He experienced the cold annihilation of The Alone in its absolute form.

I’ve have written about The Alone that we inflict on one another with our cruelties. But that Alone, which is a foretaste of the pit of hell, is nothing but a foretaste. The real hell, the true Alone, is complete separation from God.

We experience shades of this hell in the bitter blackness of our sinfulness. I have lived a bit of it, both in things I’ve done and things that have been done to me. The pleasure people take in hurting other people is a dark thing that swallows their own humanity.

We can cast other people into The Alone with our rapes, tortures, murders, greed, gossip and pretentious claims to superiority. Every time we do this to another person, we experience a bit of the cold blackness that such actions come from.

The curse of the fall is our daily experience, and that curse is death. The Resurrection broke that curse. God entered into our cursedness and experienced its shattering consequences. He, Who knew no sin, became sin for our sakes.

Then, on the third day, He shattered the curse like a glass by breaking death itself. He cast off death and arose from the grave.

This was different in every way from miracles such as raising Lazarus or the little girl or the young man who was being carried to his burial place. The difference is that He didn’t stand outside death and undo it for a time, He entered into death and dissolved it for all time.

Physical death is a huge thing to us. But to God it appears to be almost trivial. Jesus raised people from the dead as easily as taking a drink of water. Little girl arise, He said. He took pity on a mother’s grief at her son’s funeral procession and raised the young man with a word. Lazarus, come forth He commanded and Lazarus walked out of his tomb.

Physical death isn’t the great divide that it is to us to One who sees both sides of the experience, to the One Who created life in the first place.

The Resurrection isn’t another casual raising of someone from the dead so that they will die again in a few years. The Resurrection is an everlasting casting off of ultimate death altogether.

Eat, and you will surely die. 

You will not die … today.

I am the Way … all who believe in Me will never die. 

The Resurrection is the end of death. It is the Way out of getting what we deserve.

And it leaves us free. We can accept Him and love Him … or not.

Love is not love unless it is freely given.

Remember: Thou Art Dust

And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth … 

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust …

I am going to die.

You are going to die.

Public Catholic has enough regular readers that it is a statistical certainty that at least one of us, perhaps more, will die this year.

Our souls, as the Scriptures say, will be required of us.

We have unbelievers who post on this board who tell us that nothing awaits us when we close our eyes on this world, that we will simply drift into the nothingness of non-existence, go back to the dust from which we came, and cease.

Our ending, according to them, will be our end.

But this, quite simply, is not true. I doubt very much that the nonbelievers who say it actually believe it. They use it as a ruse to hide behind when dealing with the existential miseries that their bankrupt philosophy imposes on them. It is an odd and sad outlook on life that finds its comfort in a studied hope for annihilation.

The truth is, there is no death for us. We are immortal beings who will live on past our bodies. Most of us sense this in a deep and incontrovertible way that can either comfort or torment us, depending on what we do with this innate knowledge of our own natures.

God is real. I have felt and known Him. I experienced His Presence in my life as an inpouring of love that I neither expected or sought.

But — and this is something that so frightens unbelievers that they invariably become angry when you say it — the devil and his evil are also real. It is not fashionable to say that. I’ve had members of the clergy chide me and tease me for believing it. But I do not doubt the reality of a malicious personality that hates the light and craves annihilation. I have felt his presence, too.

“If you eat of the fruit, you will not die” he told the woman, and like all really effective lies, this one was partial truth. You will not die … today. That was the truth of it. Turn your back on God. Defy Him. Do your own thing. And you will not die … today.

God lies, Satan told the woman, just as he tells us today. God lies to you when He says “Thou shalt not kill, lie, steal, commit adultery or covet.” He doesn’t mean it when He says “Put no other gods before Me.”

He lies. Because he doesn’t want you to have the pretty things of this world, to be able to enjoy the sexual pleasures He created for you, to live as you choose with your own free and preeminent will. He lies, and you are a fool for listening to Him.

Because you are not dust. You are the Lord of creation, the master of your fate, the god of your own life. There is nothing to fear because there is nothing that matters. At the end of our days, there is nothing but nothing. We stop. And we rot. We are carrion meat that walks for a time. So we should, again as the Scriptures say, eat, drink and be merry.

Like all effective lies, this one contains a bit of truth mixed in with the untruth. “Eat and you will not die … today.”

“Ignore God now and there will be no reckoning … today.”

Because you are dust, and you will die, regardless of how you live. You can run ten miles a day and your heart will still stop at some unknown time in your future. You can eat spinach and beans and forego fast food and steak, but your arteries will still cease to pump blood on some day you don’t know yet.

You can break every moral precept in the Scriptures, and you will not die … today. You will live for a time and you may even appear to triumph over those who do not indulge their darker natures as you do. There will be no reckoning … today.

But God is real. He gives us every opportunity to turn to Him and live life His way. He lets us choose. He sets before us every day life and death, and He lets us freely choose which of these we want.

That is what Lent is about. It isn’t a matter of giving up candy or foregoing wine for forty days. It is not about wearing ashes on our foreheads like religious jewelry or meatless Fridays.

Lent is about conversion. It is about renewal by means of awareness that we need to be renewed. The penances of Lent are signposts to guide us to a knowledge that we are but dust and we have sinned, but that we are also immortal beings who will one day stand before the God Who made us.

Lent is a time of turning again to the roots of our being. It is going back to the garden and acknowledging that we too “are naked and ashamed” before God. We, too are, to paraphrase St Peter, “sinful men and women.” But instead of crying out as Peter did, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” We can say, “come close to me Lord, for I am your broken child.”

The difference is the cross. The difference between despair and trust is the certain knowledge that we are bought at a terrible price and we do not have to be masters of our own fate. We do not have to feel our way blindly through life with no idea of what is right and wrong. We do not have to die an eternal death. We can have life, and have it abundantly. Because of the cross.

Lent is a time of penance and reflection in which we take an honest look at ourselves and our tawdry righteousness. Lent is for turning back to the One who can save us from ourselves. We are preparing to go to the cross where we will stand in solidarity with the rest of humanity, united in our sinfulness and our great need of Him and His redemption.

Lent is not about giving up candy and meatless Fridays. It is rather our gentle foretaste of Gethsemane.

Immaculate Conception: The Door Opening

The Immaculate Conception is the door opening on our salvation.

It is God the Father, preparing the way for the birth of God the Son by first preparing a holy mother for Him.

The idea that God chose to enter the world as a helpless baby, born to a young girl and her carpenter husband in a backwater province of a conquered nation goes against everything we know and believe about what makes a person important.

We live in a world where might makes right and the biggest and meanest get to make all the rules. This disregard for the little people of the world was even more pronounced in that long-ago day when Our Lady was conceived. This tiny spark of humanity, who was destined to become the bearer of the hope of all humankind, was, if possible, even less important to the worldly world than her baby son would be at His beginning.

She was, after all, a girl in a world that to this day regards little girls as less than worthless. She was that half of humanity which was often exposed at birth and left to rot. Even today in large swaths of what we call civilization, baby girls are aborted because they are girls, and if they are born, killed shortly afterwards. Girls in these cultures often get less food, little education and almost no support in their development as people. They are subjected to brutalities ranging from female genital mutilation, to child marriages, rape and battering.

And yet, God chose, with every possibility possible at His disposal, to come into our world through the motherhood of a young woman. God entrusted Himself to a mother from His conception to His eventual death on the cross. It was a woman who gave Him life and who nurtured, shaped and reared Him into young manhood. This does not take anything away from Joseph’s contribution. Fathers are just as important as mothers. But today we are considering the one person who was with Jesus from conception to grave, and who then was there at Pentecost when the Church was born.

Mary is the mother of us all, the essential human contribution to the undoing of the curse of the Fall. She was prophesied at the Fall and she will be there at the real end when Jesus comes again.

And it began with her conception, when God re-created the lost innocence of Eden in a new Eve who would give birth to the salvific Child to undo our transgressions. This great re-wind started then, in her Immaculate Conception. It was the long-awaited door opening. This feast day is our chance to go back and re-learn what has been given to us by a young girl who, conceived without sin as the original Eve had been, did not falter in her mission as that earlier Eve did, but remained sinless until her own death.

God gave us Mary, and Mary, through her obedience and faith, gave us His son.

She is not, as some traditions try to treat her, a mindless incubator we bring out for Christmas pageants and then forget the rest of the year. Our Lady is woven into the story of the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. Everything that is wholly human about Our Lord comes from and through her. She gave us her Son, first at His birth and then later at Calvary; and He in turn, gave us His mother.

The Immaculate Conception is a door opening on the end of hopelessness and death. It is a cell-sized point of light shining in the darkness of our own devices. Mary, Our Mother, began the way we all did, as a single cell made in the image and likeness of God.

Christ’s humanity is her humanity. Her dignity is our dignity. She is our mother for the ages.


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