Truly this man was the Son of God.
There have been many famous sacrifices. The sacrifice of Iphigenia caused favorable winds to send Agamemnon’s ships to Troy. The sacrifice of the daughters of Erechtheus founded Athens, their story immortalized in the circumambient interior frieze of Iktinos’ Parthenon. After their defeat by Hannibal at Cannae in BC 216 the Romans sacrificed two Gauls and two Romans by burying them alive in a cell beneath the Boarium in order to plead the blessing of the gods upon the defeated city.
Each of these, each now considered unjust and savage, had an object then considered noble. It has commonly been believed that it is noble to die for one’s country, whether at Remagen Bridge or as a Kamikaze. Saint Paul wrote that “very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person; though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die” (Romans 7:5).
Christ’s sacrifice, although having every aspect of that natural nobility intrinsic to self-giving was more than any of these for it was the death of the Son of God for the cosmic purpose of the salvation of souls and of the whole world, and as such, with His glorious resurrection was the central and essential event in human history. Jesus says of the Eucharist: “It is my flesh given for the life of the world” (John 6:51). Like every true sacrifice it was chosen. Jesus said,”I lay it down, no man takes it from me” (John 10:18). Jesus’ sacrifice was not chosen by man but by the man who is God in obedience to the will of the Father. Somewhere near the altar of every Church there will be an image, a crucifix, depicting the sacrifice of Him through whom all things were made so that all who would believe might have eternal life.
What the crowd saw was blasphemous pretension, “He called Himself the son of God.” (Matthew 27:43) The soldier standing by the cross said “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:53). Between these two moments human possibility and the destiny of the cosmos had changed forever, for the Second Person, inseparably, personally, united with the human nature of Christ, had offered Himself. In the words of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, “If anyone does not confess that the Word of God suffered in the flesh and was crucified in the flesh…, let him be anathema.” It has been remembered that John Henry Newman, preaching on the passion of Christ in the University Church, stopped for a silent moment, then resumed with the words, ”I bid you recollect that this was God.”
In our post-revolutionary world the attacks on this truth have been persistent and partially effective. There have been scholarly proposals that Jesus was a revolutionary or a misguided prophet and claims that He never called Himself the Son of God. Recently a German archbishop proclaimed the news that Jesus did not die for our sins but to show His solidarity with us. The picture of Jesus as a righteous suffering man has always moved imagination to imitation, and rightly so, and in the eleventh century Peter Abelard formalized this intuition as the moral influence theory of the atonement. But the Church has always taught that these theories, obvious or subtle, even the best of them, were often errors by omission. What they do not say is that the Son of God sacrificed Himself for us.
The distinguished historian John Lukacs summed up the career of the Church in the world with the words: “The Church is always in trouble.” Persecution is its most favorable environment, but when that is wanting it moves into the ways of the world. The thirteenth-century European bishops were great landlords. In an aristocratic age bishops and cardinals did not question their right to princely households. Whether these conditions were good for their episcopal souls may be doubted, but their love of magnificence effloresced in the building of Chartres and the painting of the Sistine ceiling.
Our leveling age promotes confusion tending toward imaginal squalor in design, mirrored in an uncanny way in the egalitarian Christ our brother, who died to display his solidarity with humankind. The artefactual results may be, are, regrettable, but the depredation upon souls is sure, for the democratic temper inevitably moved toward a practical atheism, practical because it is enacted even if it is not professed. Christ is indeed truly our brother, but he is as well always the One before whom Thomas falls down with the words, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).