Many years ago, a friend’s teenage daughter did what a lot of kids unfortunately do at some point: she got drunk.
That evening, the fictional trip to the mall was actually a rendezvous with a few neighborhood youth, who had managed to pilfer several bottles of liquor from their parents’ cupboards. In the woods near the railroad tracks, the teens chugged the cheap spirits and congratulated themselves on their “freedom” — until a police car pulled up, and my friend’s daughter, already overcome with nausea, vomited on herself.
Racing to the police station after hours of anxiety, my friend found herself enraged, relieved and everything in between. Instinctively, she threw her arms around her bedraggled daughter, who looked up in misery and protested, “But Mom, I’m covered in puke.”
“You’re still my daughter,” my friend countered, tightening her grip.
Although you likely won’t see such an image in stained glass, the picture of my friend holding her wayward child, soiling her own clothes in the process, evokes something of the mystery we celebrate in Christ’s suffering and death. Ours is a God who clasps us to himself despite the “polluted rags” in which we as sinners stand before him (Isaiah 64:5), longing to be made clean and whole.
Nowhere do we feel this embrace more strongly than at the foot of the cross, that place at the center of time, where Christ took upon himself all that was broken and hateful in us, and “himself bore our sins in his body” (1 Peter 2:24; cf. Isaiah 53:4-6).
So often we gloss over those words, failing to grasp their full meaning, which theologians have debated for centuries. How exactly did Jesus’ death secure our salvation?
Some have argued that it paid the debt incurred by our sin, or that it served as a ransom to buy us back from the devil to whom we had sold ourselves. Others have stressed that Christ took upon himself the punishment that our sins merited; his wounds made plain the evil to which we had assented, and the price that we should, but could not, pay.
We do well to wrestle with this mystery, rather than rattle off Scripture and creed with no thought for the profound realities that we tread upon like thin ice, plunging into their depths only in moments of loss or epiphany.
Yet for all our striving, perhaps the answer here is both simple and infinite: “It is love ‘to the end’ that confers on Christ’s sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation, as atonement and satisfaction” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 616).
We have been loved to the end of ourselves, and beyond — to our worst, and not abandoned, but instead offered oneness with God. We have no defense, but rather an infinite hope in a parent’s relentless love, just as my friend’s daughter learned that summer evening in her merciful mother’s arms.
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