What Does It Mean That Jesus Died for Our Sins?

Excerpt from Father Neuhaus´ "Death on a Friday Afternoon"

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NEW YORK, APR. 11, 2001 (Zenit.org).- As an aid to prayer during Holy Week, ZENIT presents an excerpt from "Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross" (New York: Basic Books, 2000), by Father Richard John Neuhaus.



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With remarkable frequency I run into people who admit that, when it comes to this business about the cross and crucifixion, they just don´t "get it." Some of these people are lifelong and devout Christians, others are inquirers and still others are devout unbelievers for whom the bloodiness of Good Friday is just one more reason for not being a Christian. ...

Preachers, televangelists and billboards beyond number proclaim, "Jesus died for your sins." Christians piously nod their heads in assent, as well we should. But what does it mean to say that Jesus died for our sins? Why was it necessary? Or was it? And which sins in particular? And how can it really make any difference in the real world today that a good man died a horrible death two thousand years ago? What does it have to do with the lives we have to live and the deaths we have to die? ...

Christians call them the Triduum Sacrum, the three most sacred days of the year, the three most sacred days of all time when time is truly told. The first, Maundy Thursday, is so called because that night, the night before he was betrayed, Jesus gave the command, the "mandatum," that we should love one another. Not necessarily with the love of our desiring, but with a demanding love, even a demeaning love -- as in washing the seat of faithless friends who will run away and leave you naked to your enemies.

The second day is the Friday we so oddly call "good." And the third day, the great Vigil of Resurrection conquest. Do not rush to the conquest. Stay a while with this day. Let your heart be broken by the unspeakably bad of this Friday we call good. Some scholars speculate that "Good Friday" comes from "God´s Friday," as "good-bye" was originally "God be by you." But it is just as odd that it should be called God´s Friday, when it is the day we say good-bye to the glory of God. Wherever its name comes from, let your present moment stay with this day. Stay a while in the eclipse of the light, stay a while with the conquered One. There is time enough for Easter.

By these three days all the world is called to attention. Everything that is and ever was and ever will be, the macro and the micro, the galaxies beyond number and the microbes beyond notice -- everything is mysteriously entangled with what happened, with what happens, in these days. This is the "axis mundi," the center upon which the cosmos turns. In the derelict who cries from the cross is, or so Christians say, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. The life of all on this day died. Stay a while with that dying.

Every human life, conceived from eternity and destined to eternity, here finds its story truly told. In this killing that some call senseless we are brought to our senses. Here we find out who we most truly are, because here is the one who is what we are called to be. The derelict cries, "Come, follow me." Follow him there? We recoil. We close our years. We hurry on to Easter. But we do not know what to do with Easter´s light if we shun the friendship of the darkness that is wisdom´s way to light. ...

Good Friday brings us to our senses. Our senses come to us as we sense that in this life and in this death is our life and our death. The truth about the crucified Lord is the truth about ourselves. "Know yourself," the ancient philosophers admonish us, for in knowing yourself is the beginning of wisdom. To which the Psalmist declares, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." The beginning of wisdom is to come to our senses and to know the fearful truth about ourselves, that we have wandered and wasted our days in a distant country far from home. We know ourselves most truly in knowing Christ, for in him is our true self. Or so Christians say. His cross is the way home to the waiting father. "If you would come to your senses," he says, "come, follow me."

The ancient Christian fathers spoke of the Christ event as the "recapitulation" of the entire human drama. In this one life, all lives are summed up; in the eternal present of this one life, the past is encompassed, the future is anticipated and the life of Everyman and Everywoman is most truly lived. "I am the way, the truth, and the life," he said. Not a way among other ways, not a truth among other truths, not a life among other lives, but the way of all ways, the truth of all truths and the life of all lives. Recapitulation. It means, quite simply and solemnly, that this is your life, this is my life and we have not come to our senses until we sense ourselves in the life, and death, of Christ. This is the "axis mundi."

"When I came to you," writes St. Paul to the Corinthians, "I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." Stay a while. Do not hurry by the cross on your way to Easter joy, for we know the risen Lord only through Christ and him crucified. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity to be found on the far side of complexity. The only joy to be trusted is the joy on the far side of a broken heart; the only life to be trusted is the life on the far side of death. Stay a while, with Christ and him crucified.

We contemplate for a time the meaning of Good Friday, and then return to what is called the real world of work and shopping and commuter trains and homes. As we come out of a movie theater and shake our heads to clear our minds of another world where we lived for a time in suspended disbelief, as we reorient ourselves to reality, so we leave our contemplation -- we leave the church building, we close the book -- where for a time another reality seemed possible, believable, even real. But, we tell ourselves, the real world is a world elsewhere. It is the world of deadlines to be met, of appointments to be kept, of taxes to be paid, of children to be educated.

From here, from this moment at the cross, it is a distant country. "Father, forgive them, for they have forgotten the way home. They have misplaced the real world." Here, here at the cross is the real world, here is the axis mundi.

We are bringing it home, dragging it all behind us: the deadlines and the duties, the fears of failure and hopes for advancement, the loves unreturned, the plans disappointed, the children we lose, the marriage we cannot mend. And so we come loping along with reality´s baggage, returning to the real -- the real that we left behind when we left for what we mistook as the real world. "I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ´Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.´" I am no longer worthy to be called your son. I am no longer worthy to be called your daughter. And Christ our elder brother takes the baggage and hoists it upon his shoulders, adding this to all that on the cross he is bearing and bringing home. "Father, forgive them, for they knew not what they were doing."

"Come to me," he had earlier said, "all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest." Bring me your baggage.

"Father, forgive them." For whom does he pray forgiveness? For the leaders of his own people, a fragile, frightened establishment that could not abide the threat of the presence of a love so long delayed. For pitiable Pilate, forever wringing his hands forever soiled. For the soldiers who did the deed, who wielded the whip, who drove the nails, who thrust the spear, it all being but a day´s work on foreign assignment, far from home. And for us he asks forgiveness, for we were there.

On the Sunday that begins Holy Week we read the passion story and come to the part where the crowd shouts, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" That part is read by the entire congregation, for we were there. The old spiritual asks, "were you there when they crucified my Lord?" Yes, we answer. Yes, we were there when we crucified our Lord.