2. THE SACRIFICE OF CHRIST UPON THE CROSS
1. The sacrifice which reconciled God with man was that which Christ offered upon the cross.
The life of Our Lord upon earth may be said to have been one uninterrupted sacrifice. This sacrifice was commenced at the Incarnation, for then He divested Himself of His divine dignity that was His as Son of God, and took the form of a servant (Phil. ii. 7). He gave up His free will, becoming obedient to His heavenly Father unto death, even to the death of the cross (v. 8). This sacrifice was continued throughout His whole life. He relinquished all earthly possessions; He Himself says: “The foxes have holes arid the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head” (Matt. viii. 20). He often denied Himself the food of the body; for instance, on the occasion of His converse with the Samaritan woman, He said to His disciples, when they pressed Him to take some refreshment: “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me, that I may perfect His work” (John iv. 34). Even when wearied with His apostolic labors He denied Himself rest; we read that not unfrequently He went up into a mountain, and passed the whole night in prayer to God (Luke vi. 12). He willingly renounced honor, saying: “I seek not My own glory” (John viii. 50). He bore scorn and derision in silence, especially when brought before His judges (Luke xxiii. 11). He allowed Himself to be put on a par with murderers, and crucified between two thieves (Mark xv. 27). He suffered a notorious criminal to be preferred to Him (Matt. xxvii. 17). Finally, upon the cross, He surrendered all that He had, even His life itself, for He said: “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down His life for His friends” (John xv. 13). Well might He exclaim immediately before His death: “It is consummated!” The actual sacrifice of propitiation began with Our Lord’s Passion, and ended with His death upon the cross. On the cross He gave His body to be offered up. It was not, it is true, slain, divided and burned with fire like the bodies of other victims, but it was cruelly tortured and deprived of life. While hanging upon the cross the Redeemer might echo the words of the Psalmist: “I am a worm and no man. I am poured out like water, and all My bones are scat tered” (Ps. xxi. 7, 15). It was in reference to this expiatory sacrifice made by the Redeemer that the prophet spoke of the Messias as a lamb brought to the slaughter. When John the Baptist saw Christ approaching, he exclaimed: “Behold the Lamb of God; behold Him Who taketh away the sins of the world!” (John i. 29.) And St. Paul says: “Christ, our Pasch, is sacrificed.”
The sacrifice of the cross is, however, differentiated from every other sacrifice by the fact that in it the officiating Priest is the Victim Himself; also because the value of this sacrifice is infinite.
Christ Himself, as St. Augustine says, was both Priest and Victim. The soldiers were only instruments of which it pleased Him to make use. Had He willed otherwise, they would have had no power at all over Him. This He made manifest on Mount Olivet, for at the word: “I am He,” they fell to the ground. The soldiers could not indeed have been the sacrificers, because by putting Christ to death they did not perform a work pleasing to God, but committed one of the greatest of all crimes. Christ was immolated, because it was His will to be immolated (Is. liii. 7). Not all the sacrifices offered under the Old Testament had power to reconcile God and man; their value was but finite. St. Paul says: “It is impossible that with the blood of oxen and goats sin should be taken away” (Heb. x. 4). These sacrifices could only serve as a means of recalling sin to men’s minds, and awakening compunction; they had no cleansing power. With the sacrifice Christ offered it is quite otherwise.
2. The sacrifice of Christ upon the cross was a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of all mankind, and a sacrifice of superabundant value.
Christ suffered in our stead. Of Him the prophet spoke when he said: “He was wounded for our iniquities, He was bruised for our sins” (Is. liii. 5). Christ, the second Adam, the Head of the human race, suffered for His members. The Good Shepherd gave His life for the sheep (John x. 15). We know by the experience of daily life that vicarious atonement is possible. Not only property, but disgrace or glory may be bequeathed to posterity. A family, nay more, a whole nation, will be proud of a great man born in their midst, and on the other hand, nations are sometimes severely chastised for the sins of a single individual. Original sin has become the heritage of humanity, and in like manner the merits of one man may become the heritage of all mankind. Christ made atonement for the sin of the whole human race, original as well as actual sin. The apostle says: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John ii. 2). Christ is the true Paschal Lamb, the sacrifice of which did not liberate one nation from the yoke of Pharao, but the whole human race from the servitude of Satan. Although Christ died for all, yet all do not receive the benefit of His death: only those to whom the merit of His Passion is communicated (Council of Trent, C. 6, 3). Christ’s atonement was more than sufficient; He suffered beyond what was necessary. A single drop of His blood would have sufficed to wash away the sins of all mankind, for He is very God, and the least of His actions is of in finite value. Christ suffered more than it is possible for any human being to suffer. Hence He cried aloud upon the cross: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
Our Lord suffered so much in order to show how much He loves us, and how greatly God is offended by sin.
A single word of Christ would have fully sufficed to redeem us, but it was not enough to make manifest the love of God. It is because of the great love Christ displays towards us, that we venerate the most Sacred Heart of Jesus. The heart is the centre of the physical life; from it the blood flows into every part of the body, maintaining its vitality. And since there is an intimate connection between body and soul, the heart is spoken of as the centre of the spiritual life, whence all the thoughts and feelings take their rise. Hence we say: “My heart rejoiced, my heart is grieved, etc.” The heart is regarded pre-eminently as the seat of love. When we venerate the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we call to mind His exceeding great love for us, and are stimulated to return love for love. God made use of a French nun at Paray-le-Monial, named Margaret Mary Alacoque, to propagate this devotion. Our Lord appeared to her repeatedly, showing her His Heart pierced by the lance, emitting flames of fire, surrounded by a crown of thorns to signify the pain sinners cause to Our Saviour and surmounted by a shining cross. Our Lord intimated His desire that pictures of this Heart should be exposed for veneration, and promised signal blessings to all who should practice this devotion. He also commanded the festival of the Sacred Heart to be kept on the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi. This day is a most appropriate one, for it was on a Friday that Our Lord by His death gave the greatest possible proof of His love, and His Heart was pierced by the lance. Moreover the Adorable Sacrament of the Altar affords abundant testimony to the love of the Saviour, for as the sun’s rays are focussed in a lens, so the rays of the sun of divine love are concentrated in the Sacrament of the Altar. Hence the feast of Corpus Christi is a special memorial of the love of Christ for man. The devotion to the Sacred Heart, op posed at the outset, as are all works that are of God, spread rapidly over all the earth, and was attended by signal blessings. Another reason why Our Lord suffered so much was that He might be a pattern to us in suffering: “Christ suffered for us, leaving you an example” (1 Pet. ii. 21). He Himself said: “I have given you an example” (John xiii. 15).
3. The graces which Christ merited for us by His death are communicated to us by the means of grace; that is to say, the holy sacrifice of the Mass, the sacraments, the sacramentals, and prayer.
The means of grace are the channels whereby the divine Redeemer conveys to us the graces He merited for us upon the cross. His side was opened that the means of grace might thence flow out. It is because the Church, through the medium of the appointed means of grace, communicates to the faithful the graces flowing from the cross of Christ, that in dispensing them she always makes use of the sign of the cross.
He who neglects the use of the means of grace cannot be saved, in spite of Christ’s death.
Medicine cannot work a cure unless the sick man swallows it. “He Who made thee without thyself,” says St. Augustine, “will not save thee without thyself.” The devil makes strenuous efforts to deprive men of the means of grace. He acts like the General Holofernes, who when besieging the town of Bethulia cut off the aqueducts, in order to reduce the inhabitants through want of water; for he deters the faithful from drinking from the channels of grace, by inspiring them with indifference or aversion towards them.
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