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Random Tragedy to Loving Sacrifice Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Saturday, 31 December 2011

A Note to Readers: For the early risers who read this column
yesterday, our apologies. Because of a programming glitch, it was published briefly instead of Austin Ruse's regular column. We corrected the error as soon as possible, but several hundred of you got to it a day early. In any event, now you have the can have the pleasure of going back and reading Ruse on anger. All of us at The Catholic Thing also want to take this opportunity to wish all of you a Very Blessed New Year:  -- Robert Royal

Shortly after I became Catholic, someone asked me: “Okay, so some guy died 2000 years ago. What does that have to do with me?  

Good question.

Consider, if you would, the following thought experiment. Say you are walking along a city street and a man walking next to you is struck by a stray bullet and killed instantly. The man has suffered what seems to be a random tragedy. What can you do?

Now let’s say that the police investigate and discover that the bullet was meant for you; that it was fired by a certain group of people with whom you chose to become entangled but shouldn’t have. What seemed like a random tragedy is now no longer entirely “random.” It is a tragedy for which you bear a certain responsibility. But what can you do?

Let’s say that, upon further investigation, the police discover that the man struck by the bullet didn’t just “happen” to be there. It turns out that he had put himself in the way of the sniper’s bullet purposefully, precisely to save you. Now the randomness of the tragedy is completely gone. The bullet was aimed at you, and the man acted consciously to save you. But why?

One possible answer is that the man no longer cared about living, and decided to sacrifice his life for yours. That’s possible, I suppose, but let’s assume that the events of the man’s entire life showed every indication of caring about life very deeply. So why would he give his life for yours? The only answer could be:  he cared about you more than he cared about his own life. But why? It’s hard to say.

Let’s say – just to increase the intrigue – that the police now find out that the man who took the bullet for you was, unbeknownst to anyone, your father. For complicated reasons having to do with the nature of his work, you never knew your father was still alive. But as it turns out, not only was he alive, he had been constantly monitoring your progress in life:  checking up on you, sending money into your adoptive parents’ bank account to pay for things, advising them on good schools, and all the rest. 

Let’s suppose that, in a way reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, this man has been behind just about every good thing that had happened in your life. He had dedicated his life to helping other people and finished it helping one person he loved most:  you.  And it was indeed precisely this love, as it now turns out, that had caused him to be on that street at that moment to take the assassin’s bullet meant for you.

          Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck (1432)

Thus what you had assumed was a random tragedy, now turns out to have been a selfless sacrifice of love – a love so great that this man was willing to sacrifice his own life for yours, even though he was entirely aware that the bullet was the result of your bad decision to associate with some very bad people. Now what?

Cute story. But now here’s my question. If such a thing were to have happened to you – if you found out that there was a person who loved you so much that he had been willing to sacrifice his life for yours – would it change anything? Would it change the way you live your life? Would it put things into focus or bring any greater clarity? 

Now let us consider the death of a man on a cross, one of many thousands executed by the Romans. It’s a random tragedy. Let’s imagine that this punishment was meant for you, because of choices you and your friends had made. Now it’s a tragedy for which you are at least partly responsible. Now let us say that the man in question knew about your bad choices, and yet he still accepted the death meant for you. 

Why? Let us say, just to finish our little thought experiment, that everything about this man’s life spoke of love and life and hope and caring for others, so much so that no other conclusion could be reached than that he had selflessly loved you more than his own life. What began as a random tragedy and upon later realization had become a grim responsibility would now have been transformed into a quite different sort of responsibility. You’ve now had your life given back to you. What will you do with it?

If you thought that the Lord of the universe – that being who keeps all the stars and planets in their motions, who created every quark and gluon and lepton and who holds every black hole and quasar and galaxy as if in the palm of His hand – if you thought that that was the one who had become an actual human person precisely in order to take a bullet meant for you because of some bad decisions you had made, and that He had actually died for you, that is to say, in your place, would it change the way you live your life? Would it cause you to think about your life differently?

It might, of course, cause you to despair. How can I live up to that sort of responsibility? But what if you thought that the love that sacrificed itself for you was, in fact, still alive, still at work, both in the world, and, potentially at least, in you? What if it were only a question of reaching out, ever so gently, ever so tentatively, and just touching it? Would you?

Would any of it make any difference to you, for the kinds of choices you make from that point on, for the way you think about your life, in the way you choose to live your life?

Well, that’s pretty much the question of Christianity, isn’t it? And worth pondering as you make your New Year’s resolutions – and every day of your life.

Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. He is also the 2011-2012 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. 

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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Manfred, December 30, 2011
"Cute story". The reason I am Catholic is because the God-man said to me through the Church which He founded that He gave his life for me so that I have been given the opportunity to either share in His Eternal Life or reject it. Through His Grace, the choice of eternity in either Heaven or Hell is mine. His death on the Cross won that dichotomy. P.S. Pope Benedict has said that one reason we know the Church is Divine is that It has survived millions of Sunday sermons.
written by Grump, December 31, 2011
Sidney Carton gave up his life for Charles Darnay in the fictional Tale of Two Cities; others have done so in real life wars and other circumstances.

Thus, while I understand your parable, I cannot understand it fully, i.e., that Christ sacrificed himself for all of mankind. He claimed to do so, and his followers claimed it. But evil still exists in the world and man has not changed one iota from his sinful nature. And, yes, I've read the "explanation" in Romans numerous times and the logic eludes me.
written by Tony Esolen, December 31, 2011
Hi Grump,

Aye, but Sydney Carton is Dickens' hero "recalled to life," as the book puts it. It's an Easter novel. It all builds up to the stunning authorial interruption at the end: "I am the Resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, even though he die, yet shall he live."

The sacrifice of Jesus is not like the sacrifice of other men in similar circumstances. Or, to put it more precisely, the sacrifice of other men in similar circumstances is like, in a shadowy and imperfect way, the sacrifice of Christ. The differences -- and I'm speaking from the point of view of Christian theology, naturally: Jesus was innocent of all sin; Jesus was abandoned by the very people whom he came to call; Jesus spoke with moral authority, calling all men to a complete transformation, in his own name; Jesus made himself entirely vulnerable, in the open wound of love -- and as much as I admire Socrates, there is nothing in Jesus of any aloof sense of superiority over his persecutors -- "aloof" is entirely wrong, since he is dying for love of them, and says, "Father, forgive them,for they know not what they do." Jesus entered into the abyss of dereliction, of godforsakenness, as no mere man ever has, or ever could ...

And the world has and has not been transformed. Jesus Himself said, "When the Son of Man comes again, will He find any faith on earth?" There is no sense in the NT that the spread of the Church would turn everything into roses. It rather says that the battle will continue, and even sharpen. And yet -- since the first Easter, the world HAS seen things it had never seen before, things that to this day it does not see except where the word of Christ has spread. This is one of those things that are too big and too near to see ...
written by Grump, December 31, 2011
Thanks, Tony, for a sliver of enlightenment. Indeed, Jesus was a unique individual.
written by Manfred, December 31, 2011
We must bear in mind that Christ, as God, is a Divine Person with Divine and human natures. Therefore, He knew BEFORE THE EARTH WAS CREATED who would be saved and who would be condemned. His apostles, disciples were disapppointed and shocked at His execution. Christ wasn't as He knew how it would turn out. Read again the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, and the Parable of the Sower. I don't see anything honky-dory there, do you? The Three Groups who hear the Word of God and eventually abandon It while one group flourished? The Tares thrown into the fire at the End of the World are the souls of the condemned.
Catholicism is truly for adult people as only they can cope with the Truth of It. That is why there are so many problems today, viz. Modern Man is "different" from the Man who was Catholic during the previous 2,000 years. Nonsense.
written by Randall B. Smith, December 31, 2011
The author replies and asks again:

If you had reason to believe that someone loved you so much that he had died for you, would it change the way you live your life? If you had reason to believe that this man who had given his life for you was God incarnate, would it change the way you look at the world? If so, how? Has it actually changed your life?

All I'm asking is that we not get so caught up in stating "positions" that we forget to ask the fundamental questions; such as "What difference would this make if the Gospel message were ACTUALLY true?" And in a related vein, there is this: "If the authorities in my country were executing Christians for their faith, would there be sufficient evidence for anyone to put me on trial?" Or would my friends easily be able to save me by saying in all honesty: "No, no, he's not a Christian; he just talks that way to annoy people."
written by debby, January 01, 2012
to quote St. Therese, "i believe in Love."
yes, He makes ALL the difference every day of my life.
Love does not require that we (adult people) "cope with the truth". as a matter of Scripture, i believe He said we must become as children. children of the Father. children who trust that Love will be each person's personal Judge. Love who created each person and knows each heart.
no, we are not any different in nature than those born far before the Incarnation. but let us hope that we ARE different in response since Emmanuel has come! and as we have been told, "God is no longer above us, God is no longer against us, God is WITH us. with US." (loosely paraphrased From Blessed Aelred's epilogue Sermo in Annuntiatione translated by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis)

we no longer need live with an "us against them" world-view. we can choose to live in union with Emmanuel.
but then, that does require that we love our neighbor and not look down on them.....those we suppose cannot cope. could it be that they are wounded and we have not offered the remedy?
my New Year's resolution: i pray i "take a bullet" for the one standing next to me who cannot take another blow, that his or her cross will be lighter for the love God grants thru me, that Jesus comes to the rescue using my life if He so chooses. and i will continue to pray for a man named Grump that i cannot wait to meet in Heaven one day.
thank you for this article Randall. and your response as well Tony.

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