IN the three words WAY, TRUTH and LIFE, Our Lord sums up what He is. In the same three words we may summarize what He did. He opened to men the WAY of salvation, gave them the TRUTH by which they might know the WAY, and the LIFE by which they might travel it.
The TRUTH He gave by way of doctrine and law. Doctrine as to the great realities of existence, and law to tell us how we should act given what these realities are. He teaches of God and of man, the breach between God and man and how it must be healed, the purpose of life, heaven and hell, the kingdom He is to establish and the laws of the kingdom - what things we must do, what things we must avoid, what food we must eat.
He not only taught us about the food we must eat, but He saw to it that the food should be provided. The WAY, He had come to open, could not be walked just by the natural strength of man; it called for energies of action and resistance which the natural life cannot supply. Men needed a higher principle of action, a higher LIFE, the Supernatural LIFE. Without this new LIFE they could neither live in heaven hereafter, nor so live here as to attain heaven. At the beginning of His ministry He told Nicodemus that man must be born again, that is born into this new LIFE, by baptism: He established baptism, and set His apostles to baptizing. After the feeding of the five thousand He told the multitude that they should not have LIFE in them unless they ate the flesh of the Son of Man and drank His blood: and He established the Blessed Eucharist and so gave His apostles the power to feed men with His Body and Blood. Neither the TRUTH, which gave knowledge of the WAY and of how to conduct oneself on the WAY, nor the LIFE, which gave power for the WAY would have meant a great deal, if the WAY itself were not open. The map, the rules and the food for the road would have been merely tantalizing to a race of men to whom the road itself was closed. The reopening of the road was the act that would give meaning to all the rest of His immeasurable activity.
The WAY was closed because the race of men was not at one with God; Heaven was for the sons of God, and the WAY was closed to a race which had fallen from sonship into servitude. Christ opened the WAY.
He offered Himself as a sacrifice to God for the sin of the race. That was the thing He had come to do, and it gave meaning to every other thing that He did.
The prophets of Israel had said that it would be so, but their message had made no apparent impact on the mind of their people. Our Lord said it again and again, even more clearly, with almost as little impact. At the beginning, in His conversation with Nicodemus just quoted, Christ had foreshadowed the cross: “that the Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert for the healing of the stricken Israelites” (Jn. 3:14). Near the end of His ministry, just after the glory of Palm Sunday, on the very threshold of the Passion, He uses the same comparison: “If only I am lifted up from the earth, I will attract all men to myself.” (Jn. 12: 32) St. John comments, “He prophesied the death He was to die.” (Jn. 12: 33)
In between the first conversation with Nicodemus and Palm Sunday, He had more than once spoken of the same thing to Scribes and Pharisees, but in language so veiled that they can hardly be held blind for not grasping His meaning. They had asked Him for "a sign", and He answered: “The generation that asks for a sign is a wicked and unfaithful generation, the only sign that will be given it is the sign of the prophet Jonas. Jonas was in the belly of the sea-beast three days and three nights, and the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Mt.39-40.) Earlier to the Jews challenging Him for a sign He had used language more cryptic: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19). His hearers thought that He was referring to the great temple in Jerusalem, and in this sense His words were quoted against Him at His trial and hurled at him in derision as he hung on the Cross. As St. John comments, “He spoke of the temple of His body.”
If His language to outsiders was veiled, what He said to His apostles was quite clear and literal. Yet, they seemed to have understood Him no better. On three occasions, Our Lord told them in great detail just what must happen. At the great scene at Caesarea Philippi when Our Lord had named Peter as the rock upon which He would build His Church, He told the Apostles that He must go up to Jerusalem. There, after bad treatment from the chief priests and elders and scribes, He must be put to death and rise again on the third day. (Mt. 16:21). In Galilee a little later He told them the same thing with the added detail that He was to be betrayed (Mt. 17:21). Just before Palm Sunday, the first day of the week in which all these things were to be accomplished, He gave them the most detailed statement of all: “Now we are going up to Jerusalem: and there the Son of Man will be given up into the hands of the chief priests and scribes, who will condemn Him to death; and they will give Him up into the hands of the Gentiles, who will mock Him and spit upon Him and scourge Him and kill Him: but on the third day He will rise again.” (Mark 10:33-34): on which St. Luke comments: “They understood none of these things.”
Some of these things they should certainly have understood. Christ's death as a willed sacrifice might well have been mysterious; but the leaders of the Jews plan to kill Him was all but certain. From the great mass of prophecy, they singled out certain elements to construct what we may call the orthodox hope of Israel. His teaching, embracing and transcending the whole of prophecy, was a challenge and a denial of their hope. The Kingdom, He talked of, was not the Kingdom they dreamed of. His own personal claims were plain blasphemy, if He was not God: not believing Him God, they naturally took Him for a blasphemer. His scorn for them in the line of teaching and conduct on which He had embarked, meant that they would desire His death.
His action was the logical consequence of His whole grasp of reality, as their reaction was the logical consequence of their partial grasp. Once they made up their minds to kill Him, in the natural order they must succeed. The only question was whether God would prevent them doing the thing they planned. God willed not to prevent them. He knew they would, kill Christ, and He would use their act as the occasion of the salvation of the race of man.
With Palm Sunday past, things moved rapidly to the crisis. On the Wednesday of that week He said to His Apostles: “You know that after two days the paschal feast is coming; it is then that the Son of Man must be given up to be crucified.” He ate the paschal supper prescribed by Jewish law with His Apostles. He then went on to make them the priests of the Eucharistic meal; so that until the end of the world men should receive His own Body and Blood.
The institution of the Blessed Eucharist tends to fill the mind's horizon when we think of the Last Supper. Though it was the towering fact of that night, also at and after the Last Supper we have the greatest mass of teaching that Our Lord ever gave at one time. All four Evangelists give their own account, and all should be studied; but it is St. John who gives us the fullest statement in his wonderful chapters 14 to 17. Our Lord has much to say to the Apostles by way of preparation for the role that must be theirs when He is gone from them, and they must carry on His work. He tells them with no apparent anger that they are all about to desert Him; and that Peter will deny Him thrice that night. He goes on to the greater things to which they are called.
I dispose to you, as
My Father has disposed to Me, a kingdom; that you may eat and drink
at my table in My kingdom, and may sit upon thrones, judging the
twelve tribes of Israel. (Lk.
It was I that chose you, the task I have appointed you is to go out and bear fruit, fruit which will endure. (Jn. 15:16);
You are to be My witnesses. (Jn. 15:27).
All this they shall not do in their own power, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is indeed necessary that Our Lord go to the Father in order that the Holy Spirit may come to them. There is a great deal about the Holy Spirit; and it is natural therefore that Our Lord should give His most extended teaching on the Blessed Trinity.
At this point in the story, when He is within hours of His death, He states so clearly both elements in His mission. We have just heard Him state it as expiation: “This is My blood of the new testament which is to be shed for many, to the remission of sins. (Mt. 26:28). What He says of the restoration of oneness between man and God is as clear: “He prays for all who through the teaching of the Apostles, shall come to believe in Him, that they all may be one as Thou, Father, in Me and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us; that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me ... Father, I will that where I am, they also whom Thou hast given Me may be with Me ... that the love wherewith Thou hast loved Me may be in them and I in them. (Jn. 17:20-22).” This then is the life-formula of the Atonement: men are to be united with Him as He is united with God. “I am in my Father, and you in Me, and I in you.” (Jn. 14:20)
From the upper room Our Lord went with the Apostles to the Garden of Gethsemane, where the whole atmosphere changes most terrifyingly. Mankind, we know, was redeemed by the Passion and Death of Christ; but we tend to leap over the Passion and concentrate upon the Death. What happened in the Garden will cast a strong light upon both. In a sense what happened there is the Passion. There is an immeasurable contrast between the serene mastery of Our Lord at the Supper and the fear and agony here; and the same contrast in reverse, when Our Lord goes out from the Garden to suffer mockery, scourging and nailing to a cross with a mastery as serene.
Matthew, Mark and Luke give very similar descriptions. “He took Peter and the sons of Zebedee with Him. And now He grew sorrowful and dismayed. My soul. He said, is ready to die with sorrow; do you abide here, and watch with Me. When He had gone a little further, He fell upon His face in prayer, and said, 'My Father, if it is possible, let this chalice pass from Me. Only as Thy Will is, not as Mine is.” (Mt. 26:37-39)
“And there appeared to Him an angel from Heaven, encouraging Him. And now He was in an agony, and prayed still more earnestly. His sweat fell to the ground like thick drops of blood.” (Lk. 10:43-44).
A second and a third time He prayed as St. Matthew tells: "My Father, if this chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, Thy will be done."
It is important to grasp the suffering from which Our Lord shrank with so much anguish. It was not simply, nor even primarily, the bodily torments that He was to endure, though He foresaw them in every detail and already felt their horror in His flesh. Other men had been through those torments. The ground of His anguish lay deeper. The prophet Isaiah had foretold it: “Surely, He hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our iniquities. He was bruised for our sin. The Lord hath laid upon Him the iniquity of us all.”
St. Peter, who slept while his Master was in agony, was to say the same thing: “Who His own self bore our sins in His body upon the tree.” (1 Peter 2:24). Our Lord, offering Himself for the sins of the world, not only took upon His single self the punishment those sins have deserved; but in some sense He took the sins themselves, everything but the guilt. Sin repented can still leave a crushing weight upon the soul, even one sin. Christ's soul bore the burden of all the sin of mankind. That was His agony, that was the chalice which He prayed might pass from Him. This is a key to the mysterious phrase of St. Paul: “Him, Who knew no sin. God has made into sin for us.” (2 Cor. 5:21)
Christ Our Lord did not suffer unwillingly or make His sacrifice under compulsion. We have already seen that when, as Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, He speaks of Himself as sent by the Father, there is no implication that the Father has imposed His will upon the Son. For within the Blessed Trinity there is but the one divine will, which is the Son's will as totally as the Father's. Nor does Christ as Man, though He has a true human will, undergo His suffering and death unwillingly. He had already made it clear to His Apostles that He was subject to no compulsion of men: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep ... this My Father loves in Me: that I am laying down My life, to take it up again afterwards. Nobody can rob me of it; I lay it down of my own accord.” (Jn. 10:11-18.)
In the Garden, at the very central point of His agony, He makes it clear that if He is obeying the Will of God, willingly. The only compulsion upon Him was the moral compulsion to carry out an obligation He had already freely accepted. This was the thing He had come for. Earlier, in that same week, there had been some foreshadowing of the shrinking and the anguish of Gethsemane. It was after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Our Lord, having said the hour was come and He must die in order to bring forth fruit, continues: "Now My soul is distressed. What am I to say? Father, save Me from undergoing this hour of trial. And yet I have only reached this hour for the sake of under-going it." (Jn. 12:27). And just before Palm Sunday He had said: “The Son of Man did not come to have service done Him; He came to serve others, and to give His life as a ransom for the lives of many.” (Mt. 20:28)
The weakness in the Garden was the shrinking in human nature from a burden greater than any a man ever had to bear or will again. Christ Our Lord cried to God for help and help was given Him. From that moment there was no return of weakness. It is the Christ of the Last Supper who returns to the sleeping Apostles and tells them: “The time draws near when the Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise up, let us go on our way; already he that is to betray Me is close at hand.” (Mt. 26:45-46) Then Judas came, with a band of soldiers and servants sent by the chief priests and Pharisees, and betrayed his Master to them with a kiss. As they went to arrest Our Lord, Peter drew his sword and attacked one of them, cutting off his ear. Our Lord rebuked him for his failure to understand what was now in process: “Put thy sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup which my Father Himself has appointed for Me?” (Jn. 18:11)
There is no need for the detail of Our Lord's various appearances - two appearances before the Jewish Sanhedrin, and two before Pilate, separated by an appearance before Herod. The accusation the Jews, in their own court, was not the same as that made against Him before the Roman governor. In their court the accusation was that He called Himself the Son of God. This admission settled the matter for them: He deserved to die. “Before Pilate they accused Him of sedition Forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that He is Christ the King.” (Lk. 23:2)
As the night proceeded and merged into the day, He was mocked, spat on, scourged, thorns were twisted into a rough wreath and pressed upon His head. Finally, He was made to carry His own cross to a hill outside the city, the hill of Calvary. There He was nailed to His cross and hung for three hours between two thieves chosen for crucifixion with him. As with the Last Supper, each of the Evangelists gives His own account. We should especially concentrate on the things Our Lord said during the three hours he hung upon the cross. The last word recorded by St. John is “It is consummated.” The last recorded by St. Luke: "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit. " And saying this, He gave up the Spirit. Matthew and Mark both tell us that at the moment of death He cried out with a loud voice.
Christ Our Lord died on the Friday. He rose again from the dead on the third day. What had passed in between? His body, separated by death from the animating power of His soul, lay in the tomb. But what of His soul? He had said to one of the thieves on the cross: "This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). We might imagine that Our Lord's and the thief's soul had gone to Heaven that day. But after His Resurrection Our Lord expressly told Mary Magdalen that He had not yet ascended to His Father. Where then was His soul, what does paradise mean? The English form of the Apostles' Creed says bluntly "He descended into hell" and one might consider the consternation He would have produced, if at moment of triumph over Satan, He appeared in Satan's realm. He did not do this either: the Latin word for hell is " inferos", which means not necessarily the hell of the damned but the lower regions. St. Peter tells us: “In His spirit He went and preached to the spirits who lay in prison.” (1 Peter 3:19). It would seem that Our Lord's soul visited that place of those who had died in the grace of God before Christ's coming. Those awaiting the redemptive act which should open Heaven to them. It is not difficult to see the fitness of all three names - paradise by comparison with the hell of the damned, lower regions, because lower than heaven, prison, because there they must wait although they would rather be elsewhere.
On the Sunday morning, it was the Resurrection of Our Lord, the whole man, body and soul, united and no more separable. This was the conquest of death. By this victory over death, Our Lord's body had put-off corruption and mortality; and was now as immortal and incorruptible as His soul. The destiny which St. Paul sees for us in our resurrection, "that our mortal nature must be swallowed up in life" (2 Cor. 5:4), comes to us only because in His Resurrection it already came to Him. His body was glorified, in the state of a body in Heaven, worthy of union with a soul which is looking directly upon the unveiled face of God.
For forty days more He was upon earth, in repeated though not continuous contact with His followers. He comes and goes with an independence of the restricting power of space, which is not now a miracle but part of the consequence of the glorification of His body. He comes to the Apostles through a closed door. He vanishes from their sight. In all His contact with them He is continuing and completing their preparation for the work they must do once He has left the earth. He gives them power to forgive sins or withhold forgiveness (Jn. 20:22-23), He opens their understanding that they may understand the Scriptures (Lk. 24:45), He gives them the commission to carry His doctrine and His sacraments to all nations to the end of time (Mt. 28:19-20). But none of this activity is to begin until the Holy Spirit has come upon them; and the Holy Spirit will not come until Christ Our Lord has gone to His Father - "for if I go not", He had told them at the Last Supper, "the Paraclete will not come to you: but if I go I will send Him to you". At the end of forty days He left this earth, giving them one more reminder that they should receive the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon them. St. Luke tells us: “And when He had said these things, as they looked on, He was raised up and a cloud received Him out of their sight”. (Acts 1:9) St. Mark's account is as brief: “And the Lord Jesus, after He had spoken to them was taken up into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God.” (Mt. 16:19)
The Resurrection and Ascension belong organically to the Sacrifice He offered for us. The Sacrifice, as it is the offering to God of a victim slain, was complete on Calvary. In the total conception of sacrifice, it is not sufficient. As Cain found long before, for a victim offered to God, it is essential that the offering be accepted by God. The nature of man requires that sacrifice be an action externally visible. The perfection of the sacrifice requires that God's acceptance should be as externally visible as humanity's offering. It is in this sense that the Resurrection and Ascension belong organically to the Sacrifice. By the miracle of the Resurrection, God at once shows His acceptance of the Priest, as a true priest of a true sacrifice, and perfects the Victim offered to Him. Though the Victim was offered mortal and corruptible, it has gained immortality and incorruptibility. By the Ascension God accepts the offered Victim by actually taking it to Himself. Humanity, offered to God in Christ the Victim, is now forever at the right hand of the Father.
This is the significance of the prayer at Mass which comes a little before the Consecration:
"Receive, O Holy Trinity, this oblation which we offer Thee in memory of the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord,"
and of the prayer which follows the Consecration immediately:
"We offer to
God's most excellent Majesty,
the pure Victim, the holy Victim, the spotless Victim:
and we offer it in commemoration not only of Christ's blessed Passion
but also of His Resurrection from the dead,
and likewise of His glorious Ascension."