Christ died for our sins, rose for our justification

Father John A. Kiley

In the late 1950s Father Francis Xavier Durwell published a book first in French and then in English entitled “The Resurrection.” The publication was an influential event in the renewal of church theology and church liturgy which would reach its summit (or nadir, some would say) after the Second Vatican Council.

For centuries the passion and death of Jesus Christ were the substance of Catholic devotion. The sacrifice of the Mass, the Stations of the Cross, Lenten penances, a sense of sin, the need for atonement – all these basic Christian beliefs drew their direction and their energy from an appreciation of all that the Savior endured during Holy Week. While Easter and the Resurrection were certainly numbered among the truths of the faith, the popular appreciation of the empty tomb fell far behind the universal fondness for the crucifix. The bloodied crucifix of Good Friday not the empty cross of Easter Sunday was emblematic of pre-Vatican II Catholicism.

Durwell’s book reminded Catholics on both sides of the ocean that Christ did indeed die “for our sins” but he also “rose for our justification.” The Catholic community in the latter half of the 20th century became an Easter people. “Alleluia” replaced “Lord, have mercy,” as the invocation of assembled faithful. Baptized believers shared in the Spirit-filled, resurrected body of Christ. They were as surely alive with the Spirit as Jesus himself had been on Easter morning and as he often showed his glorified self to his disciples. The Catholic world looked forward to a new Pentecost which would arrive just as surely as that first Pentecost when the risen Christ first sent forth his Spirit. “Behold I make all things new,” were words that fit well with the spiritual enthusiasm generated by the recent council and with the secular euphoria that attended the arrival of the “age of Aquarius.” Nowhere was this new liberation from Passiontide more graphically expressed than in those sanctuaries where the customary body of the crucified Christ was exchanged for a representation of the glorified, victorious and unbloodied risen Christ almost obscuring a receding cross. Catholics were basking in Easter glory. Praise had replaced penance in the Catholic heart.

In this coming Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus resolutely proclaims, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him.” These proud words were not spoken at the dawn of Easter morning nor on the mountain of the Ascension nor during the event of Pentecost. The Master uttered these words as Judas left the Upper Room to perform his act of treacherous betrayal. These words were being pronounced just a few hours before blessed Peter would deny any acquaintance with Jesus and before the other ten disciples would flee in cowardly terror.

Within one day Jesus would hang in public disgrace before the crowds he had blessed and embraced so often. In less than 24 hours the Savior would be dead. Yet Jesus understands these sorry events to the occasion for his glorification. The true test of Jesus’ character, the true revelation of his inner essence, the proof of his divine sonship were these miserable hours that led to Calvary and the garden tomb. It is no accident that the crucifix rather then the empty cross or the risen Christ became Catholicism’s most familiar emblem.

Christians still live in the tension of Holy Week. On Good Friday Christ died for man’s offenses. Through this death man’s sins are readily forgiven. Yet every believer still struggles with the appeal of temptation, the tug of sin, the sorrow of relapse. But then, through baptism, every believer is charged with the Easter power of the risen Christ, enlivened by his Spirit, sharing in his resurrection. The Eucharist especially proclaims this Good Friday/Easter Sunday tension within the Christian life.

Undeniably the glorified Christ becomes present on Catholic altars at the moment of consecration. The risen Christ who dies no more descends from heaven to become the church’s sacrament. Yet this risen Christ is sacramentally present as at the moment of death.

Under the separate appearance of bread and wine, the body given and the blood shed sacramentally recall the death of Christ, that great moment of self-giving and self-denial. Amid this tension the Christian works out his salvation with fear and trembling – saved by the death of Christ, fortified by the risen Christ.