29 May 2011

Cur deus homo?

I went to Confession yesterday.  I go pretty regularly once a week.

You may relax - I am not going to tell you about my sins.  Those of you who know me, know quite enough about them already; the rest really don't want or need to know.

But I did confess sins.  The bare script for Confession - for those of you who are not Catholics and may want to know - is:
  • I confess my sins.
  • I tell God I am sorry (despite a sometimes-vivid Protestant take on Confession, it is not the priest I am confessing to, it is God).
  • Father gives me absolution - prays that "through the ministry of the Church" God may grant me pardon and peace, and that he absolves me from my sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
And then Father gives me my 'penance.'

Yesterday, my penance was (this priest's standard hand-out) was to "pray the Magnificat, or one or two prayers of [my] own."

OK, I wasn't confessing murder or adultery or using masculine pronouns to refer to generic human beings or other serious sins.  No doubt if I had been, my penance might have been heavier.  Nevertheless, what good does my reciting a brief passage of Scripture do?  Is this enough to bring peace between me and God?  Anyway, I thought Jesus had died to pay for all of my sins.  Why do I have to do anything at all?

The title of this post - Cur deus homo? - means "why [did] God [become] man?"  It is the title of a famous essay by St Anselm about the atonement Jesus won for man.  This short post is not the place to discuss the various theories concerning the reasons for Christ's death.  The standard one since at least Calvin - and based, ultimately, on Anselms' book - is that man's sin is like a crime against God (Anselm, speaking in terms of feudalism, thought of it as an offence against God's honour).  That crime requires a penalty to be paid - like paying a fine for your traffic violation.  But in the case of my sin against God - any sin, however small - because God is infinite, the fine is infinite.

I cannot pay an infinite fine.  Furthermore, I cannot pay any fine.  What I 'owe' God is perfect obedience, perfect holiness.  Any good work I do is itself required.  It cannot make up for any failure of mine:
So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. (Luke 17:10)
But Christ is not only a Man; He is God Himself.  His sacrifice on the Cross is of infinite worth.  He is not paying for His own sins; He has none.  He is offering it for mine - and for yours and for those of every member of the human race (unless you are Calvinist, in which case you think He is offering it only for those whom He has chosen to eternal life - but this does not affect the discussion, really).

So He has paid my debt.  I go free.

I think this is a very good analysis - as far as it goes.  Because if I leave it there, then I begin to wonder what my penance is for.

Indeed, I wonder what my motivation for avoiding sin is.  Oh, to be sure, sin makes me unhappy in many cases.  There is no question that living a virtuous life is likely to make me more comfortable even in this life.  But if I want to sin ... why should I not?

And what is that "Magnificat, or one or two prayers of my own" all about?

I do not think the "penal substitution", which is what the above summary is called, view goes far enough.  I think I find most views of the atonement leave me wanting something.  They all have in common, I think, that Christ is over there and I am here and He does something for me, so that I don't have to do it.

I remember, early in my experience as a Catholic, saying to Susan, with some surprise, that I had come to realise that, when a Protestant, I thought that Jesus suffered and died (and, I might have added, lived a holy and virtuous Life), so that I would not have to.  I had, I said, come to realise that I believed that Jesus had lived a virtuous and holy life, had suffered and died (for it is certain that my sin deserves death - God said that at the beginning to Adam and Eve:
...in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (Genesis 2:17)
- that Jesus had suffered and died so that I would be able to.

Then, somewhat later, I discovered that I had read exactly this, in my first year or two (1970-1) as a Christian, in C. S. Lewis's "Mere Christianity."  I won't quote the whole passage here, but you should read it.  It concludes:
But supposing God became a man - suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God's nature in one person - then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God's dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God's dying unless God dies; and he cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.
It is that "in us" of Lewis's that makes the difference for me.  I  share in God's dying.  I share in the way I can.  I share by faith in Him.  I share by living my life as well as I can by faith in Him, by the power of the Holy Spirit that He has given me.  I share by living those sufferings that He sends my way - the natural ones of life, and ultimately that natural one called death - by living those sufferings as in Him - by doing what Catholics call "offering them up."  I share even by my "Magnificat or one or two prayers of my own" - them not because they are great things, but because I believe He has appointed His Church with authority to assign me them as a task.

By these sharings, I share, please God, in His Sacrifice.  And - God grant it! - I will share, even now do share, in the Power of His Resurrection.


John from Canada said...

Seems to me that confession is meant to be a reconciliation between us and Jesus. Reconciliations mean something only if we're prepared to act on them. Hence "penances". Note reconciliations are always risky because what one might be required to do as part of the reconciliation depends not only on what one thinks one should do, it depends on what the other thinks one should do. So it's pretty wise, I think, that the priest gives us the penances. If you feel them "light", then you can always do them especially diligently.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Thanks, John. I was really concentrating on what I thought the meaning of reconciliation was, which is, I think, not just "He is no longer mad at me" but "we are one, again." And however strenuous the penance, it cannot possibly be sufficient for that. It is sufficient, it seems to me, precisely because it unites my penance - little or great - with His infinite penance on our behalf.

I do strongly encourage reading that passage from Lewis, if you have not done so.