Seventeenth Conference on the Most Sacred Heart
Fr. Henry Brinkmeyer
The malice of sin is objectively infinite, illimitable; and as we advance with our studies, we realize in fuller measure what a fearful injury is done to God by every mortal offense. How appalling is the revelation that sin is without bounds, without limits, indeed infinite. The question then arises: How can the sinner ever obtain his forgiveness, how can he ever undo the evil he has wrought? When the angels committed their first sin, they were probably hurled at once into the abyss of hell without a moment's time for repentance. Man pollutes his soul with mortal sin, with many sins, sins that cry to heaven for vengeance, and he still lives, because God wishes to spare him and therefore gives him time for repentance. Here many questions present themselves for solution.
Why did not the Most High spare the angels? Why does He spare man? Could He have immediately abandoned the human race after the fall of Adam? Could He have eternally punished the race because of the guilt consequent upon the first sin? Could He forgive sin absolutely without demanding any reparation, and inflicting any punishment? Or could He forgive sin without requiring full satisfaction? For example, could He have pardoned the sinner after the sinner had cancelled only a part of the debt contracted? In other words, was it absolutely required that sin be fully atoned for, before God could pardon it?
These questions are deeply interesting, and, in all ages, have offered a broad field of inquiry to the Catholic philosopher and theologian. For our present purpose it is needless to discuss these points. The fact is that God did not abandon the human race, nor does He forgive sin without satisfaction, nay, He requires ample satisfaction. Saint Thomas explains why it is more becoming that God should not forgive sin without having received due satisfaction for it. It is evident that His infinite justice is manifested pre-eminently by demanding reparation and restitution. His infinite mercy is manifested more strikingly, because to pardon without reparation is not so honorable to the sinner as to pardon him after he has paid his debt. His infinite wisdom is also manifested, in a higher degree, because to pardon man only after fitting reparation has been made is more humiliating to Satan who first lured man into sin, and whose forfeited place man is to occupy. The divine justice, mercy and wisdom all render it more becoming that sin should not be pardoned, unless the malice of sin, the injury done to God by sin, is fully repaired.
But how is this to be accomplished? Can man ever undo an infinite injury? Man's life is like a flower that blooms for awhile, then withers and falls to the dust. He lives today, tomorrow he is seen no more. And his mind is so feeble, his will so fickle, his heart so frail, his powers so finite; can the finite ever propitiate the Infinite?
Evidently, man can never - singly or collectively - give adequate satisfaction for even one grievous sin. If man cannot, no creature as mere creature can, for every creature is finite. Consequently, only a being equal to God can repair completely the injury of sin. But on the one hand, God alone is infinite; He alone is equal to Himself. There is none like to Him: all things are before Him as if they were not, all things are absolutely His, there is nothing that was not made by Him. And on the other hand, God cannot apologize to Himself, He cannot suffer, He cannot change; as He was from eternity, so He always is; He cannot deny His own sovereign, infinite majesty, yet He is the one offended. Apparently, therefore, an adequate reparation for sin seems impossible. Yet God's justice, mercy and wisdom fitly require complete satisfaction for sin: moreover, He has signified that without this complete satisfaction He is unwilling to forgive.
There was only one thing possible in this overwhelming difficulty. If the offended God demanded full satisfaction, it was necessary that He Himself should become a creature, that He should remain God, and at the same time assume in His personality a created nature, that in His created nature He should render the Godhead honor, praise and obedience, and thus atone for His creature's guilt. And therefore "The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us." He was bruised for our sins and wounded for our iniquities; He was as a worm trodden under foot, the outcast of His own people, the lamb who opened not His mouth when He was led to the slaughter. By His wounds we are healed, by His bruises we are saved, by His blood we are ransomed from eternal perdition. And in heaven all the multitude which no man can number, the angels and the saints, the ancients and prophets, standing before the throne and in sight of the Lamb, clothed in white robes and with palms in their hands, all cry aloud:
To Him that sitteth on the throne and to the Lamb, benediction and honor and glory and power forever and ever because Thou wast slain and hast redeemed us to God in Thy blood, out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
Here again many questions might be raised and many difficulties proposed. One reason why the satisfaction of our Lord was so perfect is because it was so entirely free. All His sufferings were voluntarily borne, His death voluntarily embraced, because His whole human nature and all the laws that governed it were entirely under His command. It is true, the martyr's sufferings are also voluntary, but, as has been frequently stated, while the martyr is being tortured, he cannot help feeling the pain that fire and sword inflict upon him: the wounds are made, the members are cut, the nerves and bones laid bare. But at any moment our Lord could have suspended the pain, removed the nails from His hands and feet, and descended from the wood of the cross. Hence, as was said before, His sufferings and death were doubly meritorious because so absolutely free.
I lay down My life. No man taketh it away from Me: but I lay it down of Myself, and I have power to lay it down: and I have power to take it up again.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter because He willed it. Yet that very freedom of His atonement offers a striking difficulty. The eternal Father commands His Son to suffer. Jesus Himself said: "This commandment I have received from My Father." It was necessary, then, for our Lord to obey: had He disobeyed the mandate, sin would have been committed. But an obedience which is necessary appears to lose much of meritoriousness; it can furnish satispassion, can it offer satisfaction? For satisfaction, an act must be free. Here is a difficulty. Thank God, as Cardinal Newman has so luminously remarked, difficulties and doubts are not correlative: a thousand difficulties do not authorize one doubt.
But the question before us does present a difficulty. How is it answered? Theologians offer various solutions, but the best answer is apparently this simple one. The will is not free because it has the power to commit sin. God is free, yet He can never be unholy; the Blessed in heaven are free, still they have not the power of again yielding to temptation, they are confirmed in their love of God. The possibility of doing wrong is, as philosophers express it, a defect of liberty, a defect which is essential to every free creature while in a probationary state. Our Lord assumed our human nature, but not this defect, since it is a blemish incompatible with His holiness as Man-God. He was free then, absolutely free, but His sanctity and His love of His Father would never permit Him to go counter to that will. Propterea exaltavit ilium Deus, "for this reason did God lift Him up," factus est, obediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis, "because He was obedient unto death, even unto the death of the cross."
Another reason why the satisfaction made by our Lord was so perfect is found in the intense, universal and peculiar sufferings He endured. First, in the intensity of His sufferings. Saint Thomas gives four reasons for maintaining that the pains our Lord endured in body and soul were the most acute that man can suffer on earth. They can be summed up perhaps in this one reason as signed by St. Bonaventure, that our Lord's body and soul were divinely framed for suffering, and that He permitted each power to act and endure independent of every other; it was because of this, we know, that He refused to take the wine and gall offered Him on the cross: He wished to die naturally in the full consciousness of all His excruciating torments.
Secondly, His sufferings were quasi universal. Saint Thomas shows how our Lord suffered at the hands of prince and pauper, priest and Levite, Jew and Gentile, man and woman; how He suffered in all His members and in all His senses; how, finally, He died struck by His Father, by men spit upon, mocked, bereft of His very clothing: the outcast of His people, as a worm trodden under foot.
Thirdly, His death was peculiarly shameful and accursed. The Mosaic Scriptures even had said: "He is accursed of God that hangeth on a tree!" By the fruit of the tree sin had come into the world: He was to make restitution for sin, and therefore had Himself suspended to the tree of the cross, restoring what had been robbed; according to these words of the Psalmist, "Then did I pay that which I took not away."
Can we marvel that the saints call the crucifix the book which they never weary of studying and from which they learn all wisdom? Jesus dead upon the cross is the measure of the malice of sin, of our personal sin. That blood-shedding, that agony, that fearful death: all is truly, really our work. Oh, if His Passion had never been repeated since the consummatum est on Calvary's Mount! It is renewed each time a soul yields to mortal sin. Yet the arms of Jesus are ever open to embrace us, His head is ever inclined to give us the kiss of peace, His ear is ever ready to hearken to our woes. When we weep, His loving Heart becomes our blessed retreat, when we tell Him of our guilt, His gentle voice breathes in the calm, "Go, penitent hearts, and sin no more."
Ah, loving Saviour! How merciful is Thy heart for us. Standing beside Thy cross, we ask: What may we do to prove our love for Thee? Heart ever-tender and compassionate! Filled with infinite love, broken by our ingratitude and pierced by our sins, accept the full oblation that we now make to Thee. Take us, Lord, with all our hopes, our joys, our griefs; draw us ever nearer to Thy wounded side and teach us all Thy blessed ways.