Q. I have been a Catholic all my life, but I have never really understood why Jesus had to die for our sins. Couldn’t God have just forgiven us? (Eagan, Minnesota)
A. Your question is one that has occupied theologians over the entire history of Christianity. I side with your position: God is God, and he could have done anything he wanted.
What is clearly the church’s teaching (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 615) is that “Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.” But whether that atonement had to occur in the way that it did has been a matter of theological debate.
One theory, sometimes referred to as “substitution,” “satisfaction” or “ransom” theology, was championed by St. Anselm in the 11th century.
He believed that Christ’s sacrificial death was necessary in order to liberate humanity from sin and restore communion with the Father, that the blood of Jesus was “payment” to God for human sin. (The manner of Christ’s death reflected Old Testament sacrifices, where a lamb was burnt in offering and then later consumed by the worshippers.)
Anselm’s theology prevailed, even though it was challenged by scholars such as Peter Abelard, a contemporary of Anselm, who insisted that Christ’s death on the cross had been an act of love, not payment.
Even St. Augustine, 700 years before, had reservations and asked in his “De Trinitate”: “Is it necessary to think that being God, the Father was angry with us, saw his son die for us and thus abated his anger against us?”
A fair number of modern-day scholars, too, find the satisfaction theology bothersome because of the way it images God. What kind of loving God, they argue, would demand such horrific suffering from his own Son in order to secure divine justice?
What seems to me a reasonable explanation is this: God decided to send Jesus to live among us, to be fully human so that he could teach us and show us the ways of the Lord. Once he became human, death was inevitable; and because his teaching challenged both the religious and secular authorities of his day, a violent death was likely.
So we are, in fact, redeemed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but we are not compelled to believe that God deliberately willed the suffering of his Son. Jesus asked at Emmaus (Lk. 24:26): “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
Yes, it was necessary — but not because God willed it to happen exactly in that way.
Q. Recently we moved to another military parish. For the last four weekends, the priest here has been doing a book study for the homily — not breaking open the word of God. (On the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, there was a baptism during Mass. But instead of talking about the Gospel and the baptism, he talked about the book.)
Am I wrong? Isn’t the homily supposed to be used for explaining the Scripture readings as they relate to our lives rather than discussing a book about how to be a better Catholic? (Name of city withheld)
A. I agree with you; but more important, you have the law on your side. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the prefatory “guidebook” for the priest-celebrant) says in No. 65 that the homily “should be an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.”
The purpose of the homily, then, is to relate the biblical passages assigned for that day’s Mass to the challenges that that particular congregation faces in daily living. (One professor of homiletics — the quote is variously attributed — said that a priest should prepare his homily with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other.)
To bypass the Scripture readings — especially for four Sundays — in order to speak instead about a different book (however worthwhile) seems hard to justify.
What the priest could do, though, is to use some of that book’s themes and stories to illustrate the day’s Scriptures and recommend that the congregation follow up by reading the book at home.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.
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