A sacrament, as we learned from our catechism, is a visible sign of grace that does what it signifies. Its efficacy is bound up with its signification. Subvert the sign and you subvert its power (for efficacious natural signs, too, like the marital embrace).
The Passion of Our Lord is similar. The holy doctors teach that it would have been sufficient for Jesus to have shed a single drop of blood, for all of the sins of all of humankind to be forgiven – if he had so chosen. Yet, rather, he freely chose to endure his Passion. And why? Because of what was thereby expressed.
“To satisfy the divine justice,” St. Alphonsus Liguori writes, “it would be enough for him to have suffered any pain; but no, he wished to submit to the most galling insults and to the sharpest pains, in order to make us comprehend the malice of our sins, and the love with which his heart was inflamed for us.”
Like a sacrament, then, the Passion has an essential aspect of a sign. Our Lord freely chose that our redemption would be accomplished by this specific means, which was at the same an expression of both the gravity of sin, and the depth of God’s love.
But to be intelligible, signs need a language and context. So, here arises an interesting question: What conditions were necessary for God to have been able to fashion a sign like this? It’s not so easy.
Follow me here. Suppose that God had wanted to apply a remedy for sin immediately after Adam and Eve had fallen. How could he have repaired things at the start, while expressing the correct truths?
Surely Adam and Eve needed to understand the gravity of sin. They looked upon eating the fruit as something slight, maybe even good (“to become like God.”). As for God’s love, they suspected, as the Devil suggested, that maybe God didn’t have their best interests at heart. What could God have done, right then, to save them, precisely through helping them understand?
He couldn’t have sent Jesus Christ just then. How would Jesus have come into existence? If through being born to Eve, this would have expressed, rather, the levity of sin. Suppose that Jesus was created de novo, a mature man, perhaps fashioned like Adam out of mud. But then why should Adam and Eve ever have believed that this third being, although like them, was God?
And how would this new being manage to die for them? If he killed himself, this would express the wrong things. But Adam and Eve didn’t seem particularly inclined to torture or kill anyone themselves. So, presumably, if Jesus were to die for their sins, God would need to create another being de novo (this one not God), somehow representing themselves, tasked with torturing and killing him.
The material, rational creation at this point – Adam and Eve, and then another pair of rational creatures, one tasked with torturing and killing the other, the other tasked with accepting it – if it expressed anything all, would teach that torture and murder are now part of Creation, and that God can be malicious.
Do you see my point? We take for granted that the Lord’s Passion, as depicted by a crucifix, signifies as it does. It’s only through something like a miracle, however, or many miracles, that it can do so. This marvel – that it signifies and that its signification is itself God’s work – has been sensed intuitively by millions of converts, who have recognized divine power already in “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
If what happens to Jesus is to express anything about us, he needs to be one of us: he needs to be born of a woman, and yet in such a way as to make a new start. If it is to express something about the gravity of sin, what happens to him has to be a clear expression of our sin.
But since to sin is to go astray, he needs to be tortured and put to death exactly because everything good and strong about us has gone astray – our best expression of administration (Rome), our best expression of the priesthood (Judaism), our best expression of popular acclaim (the festival crowd), our best expression of friendship (his disciples).
For it to express something about God’s love, he needs to be identifiable as God. He needs to be placed in a tradition that has established incommunicable signs for God, such as a name, “I am,” and incommunicable acts of God, such as forgiveness and rescue (the pascal lamb). If it is to express the ultimate form of love, it has to be a genuine giving up of his life for us. That is, he must be fully open to being put to death, while doing nothing to precipitate or recklessly cause it.
And then the whole thing needs to be presented “in the manner of a sign.” Not everything is like that. If I separate my pointer and middle finger by accident, or in the dark, I cannot signify “victory” or “peace.” If I do so as if inadvertently, although in plain sight, it is not yet a sign – someone needs to see that I am intending to convey something.
And just try getting executed as a madman by public authorities and see if you succeed in “saying anything” at all. Another miracle, then: the crucifixion occurred within the short time when the great secular power of Rome and the great spiritual power that was Israel coincided in one place. And another miracle: it was for Rome to provide the final condition and seal.
Jesus was not simply crucified but crucified publicly, “under Pontius Pilate.” In “the fullness of time,” Pilate, through his use of those three great instruments of meaning, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, as a public act made it clear to all that this death of the King of the Jews was intended as a sign.
*Image: The Crucified Christ by Diego Velázquez, 1632 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]
You may also enjoy:
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s A Design of Eternal Salvation
Charles Péguy’s The Work of Salvation