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.

The Old Dragon Misogyny and the Resurrected Lord

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It goes on all evening, begins in the church parking lot with a tub of lumber set to burn and is full of screaming babies and non-Catholics who watch the rest of us with dazed embarrassment as we kneel, stand, bow, greet and respond.

It is the Easter vigil, and I love it.

The Easter vigil is the liturgy, done large. We plow through the Scriptures, from the Creation to the cross and right on to the resurrection. It is a lesson in where we came from and whither we are tending. It takes us from the garden to the cave where Christ the Risen Lord first revealed HImself.

Jesus didn’t reveal Himself to just anybody that Easter morning. He chose, as He always does, the people who will say yes to Him.

People willing to keep on saying “yes” to Our Lord were few indeed that First Easter. The ignominy of His death hung like fog. He had fallen so low that one of the criminals who died with Him joined the crowds in mocking Him. Crucified — hanging naked between two thieves; tortured, and humiliated on a hill called The Skull — the defeat of their hero seemed absolute.

I don’t think that the women who came that first Easter Sunday were motivated by any residual belief in His messiahship. They came to that grave for the same reason they stayed at the foot of the cross when everyone else ran way: They loved Him.

They loved Him more than they feared the Romans or the Pharisees. They loved Him past any concerns they might have had of being put out of the Temple. They loved Him beyond their natural modesty about seeing a naked man hanging from a cross and right through their repugnance toward what they must have expected to find in that grave:  the carrion stink of a body that had been lying dead for three days.

They loved Him with the love of women and they stayed beside Him with the courage of women when the men ran away. 

I have worked with 90 men for much of my working life. It has taught me that men have greater physical courage than women. They respond to physical threats more quickly and more aggressively than women. We can do it if we have to, but we have to work ourselves into what comes naturally for men.

On the other hand, women have greater moral courage than men. Women are more willing to stand alone for someone they love than men; much less likely to run away from social approbation and less likely to be bulled by the crowd into going along with something they know is wrong. Men can exhibit the moral courage that comes naturally to women, but they have to work themselves into it.

The women who stood at the cross and who came to His grave were teachers to the men in those days of His death and resurrection. They were showing them the kind of moral courage it would take to build His Church.

It is no surprise that He revealed Himself as the Risen Lord to women first. They were the ones who said yes. 

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It is also no surprise that the first Apostle was a woman. Mary Magdalene was the one He chose to carry the good news of His resurrection to “Peter and the others.” She was His Apostle of the Good News, signifying forever that women are co-inheritors of eternal life and purveyors and proclaimers of the Gospels the same as men. 

The human race is not male. The human race is not female. The human race is male and female, created each and every one of us in the image and likeness of the living God.

Jesus may have created the priesthood male, but He did not put women outside the circle of grace. He did not intend for women to be passive witnesses to the on-going drama of Kingdom building. He meant for them to be at the heart of it. 

I was disturbed by the callous misogyny and easy patronizing of women that I encountered in the comboxes of a blog I wrote a few days ago. As usual when something upsets me, I talked it over with my husband. He gave me wise advice that you will see acted out on this blog in the next few days. He also made an observation that I think bears repeating today: People who hate women, hate humanity, he said. 

Misogyny is a lie and lies are always the devil’s first weapon against us. Misogyny is a curse enacted on all of humanity. It is the first curse of the Fall. Misogyny is the human race, warring against itself. It is us, attacking our own life-bearers.

Cultural misogyny made Jesus’ choice of messengers a compelling statement. In those days, the testimony of women was not legitimate testimony. Yet the scriptures rely on it in the Gospel description of Jesus’ burial. “Both Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting across from the tomb, watching,” it says.  Women are the witnesses cited for this most important event in human history.

Jesus first revealed HImself as the Messiah to a woman, and not just any woman, but a member of the outcast Samaritan tribe; a sinful much-married woman who was living with a man who was not her husband. She came to the well to draw water alone instead of with the other women, probably because they thought her so disreputable that they wanted nothing to do with her. This sinful woman was the first one to whom He revealed that He was the Messiah, the son of the living God.

The Disciples’ reaction was typical then — and now — they “were surprised that He was talking with a woman.”

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So, there is a symmetry and a message in the Risen Lord revealing Himself first to a woman, and the choice of Mary Magdalene to tell “Peter and the others” of His resurrection.

“Those who are forgiven much, love much,” he said. Many people believe that Mary Magdalene was the woman who was taken in adultery. Whether this is true or not, there is no doubt that she loved much

This woman was the Apostle to the Apostles. The first bearer of the Good News that is the fulcrum of human history. On that first Easter morning, she was the first and the only Apostle.

Women are human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. Jesus came for women as much as He came for men. He died for women as well as men. He gave the Eucharist to women as well as men.

He instituted the priesthood to serve all of humankind, young and old, weak and strong, sinners and saints, men, and yes, women.  That is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets we read in the Easter vigil.

It is the snake, the old dragon misogyny, crushed beneath His foot. 

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The Tomb

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As evening approached, Joseph, a rich man from Arimathea who had become a follower of Jesus, went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. And Pilate issued an order to release it to him. Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a long sheet of clean linen cloth. He placed it in his own new tomb, which had been carved out of the rock. Then he rolled a great stone across the entrance and left. Both Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting across from the tomb and watching.

The next day, on the Sabbath, the leading priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate. They told him, “Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while he was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’ So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day. This will prevent his disciples from coming and stealing his body and then telling everyone he was raised from the dead! If that happens, we’ll be worse off than we were at first.”

Pilate replied, “Take guards and secure it the best you can.” So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it.

I Forgive You. Now Don’t Do It Again.

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My husband and I go to the Vigil Mass at our parish. Our pastor delivered a fine homily yesterday. It was based on the Gospel story of the woman taken in adultery.

He made a point that I’ve often thought myself, that the woman in this story was set up. You catch someone in “the very act” of adultery by being there. This outrage of the scribes and pharisees, which included demands that a woman be stoned to death, was fake outrage. 

The pharisees were so zealous to entrap Our Lord that they were willing to entrap and murder this poor woman along the way. I’ve always thought that the man with whom she had been caught in “the very act” of adultery was probably standing there with them, stones in his hand, ready to throw.

Such is the “mercy” of legal beagle clerics who care more for the trappings of religion than they do for the call to holiness that applies to every single person on this planet. They are so intent on following “the rules,” so focused on, as Jesus said, “cleaning the outside of the cup” that they leave the inside, which is their own souls, “filthy — full of greed and self-indulgence.”

I know because I’ve done it that human beings are capable of convincing themselves of anything. We can convince ourselves that we are holy. We can convince ourselves that our “personal morality” is, in fact, actual morality. We can make ourselves believe that our obsessions and fixations on the appearance of things truly are more important than their substance. We can, as these teachers of religious law did, forget our own sins and focus on the sins of others to the point of stoning them to death.

Today’s Gospel story has often been used against Christians by people who do not believe in Jesus and who do not follow Him. They confuse its meaning to say that we should go along with them in claiming that their sins are not sins and that, in fact, there is no sin. They want to twist the story to mean that their “personal morality” is, in fact, actual morality.

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I don’t think that is what Jesus meant when He said, “Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” The scriptures record the tantalizing but unexplained fact that Jesus knelt and wrote in the dust while He was speaking.

What was He writing? Was He perhaps writing the name of the man who had been with the woman when she was taken “in the very act?” Perhaps this man was the one making the demand that she be stoned. We don’t know. All we do know is that something happened that doesn’t often happen and these men became convicted of their own sins instead of the woman’s.

They dropped their stones and walked away.

This was not mercy on Our Lord’s part. It was the act that precedes mercy, which is to convict of us our own sins. We can not receive mercy for sins that we do not admit. We can not be forgiven without an understanding on our part that we need forgiveness.

The pitiful scribes and pharisees did not stay around to get the mercy they needed. They did not say, as Peter did, “have mercy on me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” They dropped their stones and went away to plot other evils for other days. They were temporarily foiled in their evil, not converted to the light.

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But the woman, the sinful, terrified woman whose death would have been nothing more than a means to an end for these sin-sick priests, what became of her? Again, we don’t know for sure. Was she the Mary Magdalene who stood at the foot of the cross and who was the first one to see the risen Christ? Many people think so. Was she the woman who kissed Jesus’ feet and washed them with her tears while he was at dinner with a Pharisee? Maybe.

All we know for sure is what Jesus said to her. I do not condemn you, he said. Now go, and sin no more.

He didn’t tell her that what she’d been doing, how she’d been living, was right. He didn’t tell her that she was without sin. He told her, “sin no more.”

That is God’s mercy. It is the mercy that does not lie to us by letting us slide past the reality of our sins. But it is a mercy that also doesn’t equate us with our sins. We are more than the evil we do. We are the errant children of the living God Who will always forgive us when we go to Him in humility and remorse for what we have done, but who will never do us the great disservice of telling us that what we’ve done is ok.

God tells us, like I told my own children, “Don’t do it again.” Don’t run in the house and break the lamp. Don’t hit your brother with a stick. Don’t commit adultery, lie, cheat, steal, rape or kill. Don’t do it again.

That is the mercy of God. It  is not the namby-pamby self-referencing whatever-is-popular-is-not-a-sin mercy our culture teaches us to demand of Him.

To obtain God’s mercy, we have to do more than put down our stones and go away to plot more evil. We have to want to change. Because, when it comes to our sins, He will always tell us, “I forgive you. Now don’t do it again.”


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