A mystery stands at the center of Christianity, that is, the Paschal mystery of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. These events are so important because through them, God’s plan of redeeming the human race was accomplished once and for all time.
At this time, the part I want to focus on is the passion of Jesus, or as the Apostles Creed says, that “Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.”
So, first we need to recall the historical reasons why Jesus was condemned to death. We learn from the scriptures that Jesus was first accused of acting against the Law of Moses. Jesus did not come to abolish the law of the old covenant, but rather to fulfill it by giving it its proper and complete meaning.
Jesus was also accused of being hostile toward the Temple in Jerusalem, but here too we see in the scriptures that Jesus venerated the temple and called it “the house of his Father” (Jn 2:16). Moreover, his prophecy about its destruction and subsequent restoration was a prophecy expressly about his own body, which would become the definitive place of God’s dwelling among us.
Finally, the greatest accusation against Jesus was that he contradicted Israel’s faith in one God. However, this is something Jesus never did. Rather, he revealed the truth that he is, himself, God made man. Yet, because the Jews in the Sanhedrin refused to believe him, they condemned Jesus as a blasphemer who deserved be put to death.
It must be remembered, however, that Jesus’ passion and death were not simply the result of the political and religious circumstances of the time. Rather, they were a central part in God’s plan to save sinful humanity. This means that every sinner, that is, every human being, is responsible for and is the real cause of Jesus’ death; thus, one would be wrong to impute exclusive guilt upon all the Jews living at the time, or to their descendants. Indeed, if anyone is more guilty of Jesus’ death, it is every Christian who, after knowing Christ’s redemption, continues nevertheless to delight in sin. Ultimately, then, sin is the reason why Jesus experienced his passion and death, and yet he freely endured these evils to fulfill God’s loving plan of salvation.
This plan came about “in accordance with the scriptures,” (1 Cor 15:3) as St. Paul says. For example, in the Old Testament, especially in Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant, we see that God would send a man who would take on humanity’s sin and so bring about reconciliation. Isaiah said, “…he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (Is 53:5). Thus, by Jesus offering himself to the Father on the cross, he revealed through his humanity that divine and perfect love which desires the salvation of everyone.
Furthermore, Jesus’ sacrifice, which contained this divine love, was also anticipated at the Last Supper. Here Jesus both symbolized and made really present his free self-offering when he said “This is my body which is given for you” (Lk 22:19) and “This is my blood… which is poured out for you” (Mt 26:28). At this event, then, Jesus instituted the living memorial of his sacrifice which he in turn called his apostles to perpetuate as priests of the New Covenant for he said to them, “do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:24).
Further, during the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus fully accepted his passion and death for our sins. Despite repugnance and horror, which brought him to say, “Father if you are willing let this cup pass from me” Jesus, nevertheless, became obedient unto death and said, “yet not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42).
From here Jesus was betrayed by the kiss of Judas and brought before the Jewish and Roman authorities, who condemned him to death. As the drama of his sacrifice unfolded, Jesus experienced the cruel torture of Roman scourging, was mocked with a crown of thorns, and was made to carry the cross on which he would be crucified. Yet during his passion, which culminated in his crucifixion and death, Jesus freely offered himself as the perfect and final sacrifice for sin, meaning that through his paschal sacrifice he endured and made reparation for the entire evil of humanity’s sins.
Because of Jesus’ perfect love, to the very end he reconciled all of humanity with the Father and opened the way to communion and friendship with God. And yet, we too must carry our cross. Jesus said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). It is only by being united with Jesus’ cross that we can enjoy the fruit of his redemption in heaven.
Finally, let’s consider Jesus’ burial and his descent into hell. After Jesus gave his life on the cross, he experienced the condition of real death, that is, the separation of his soul and body, both of which were, nevertheless, still united to the second person of the Trinity, the Word. Because of the continued union of Christ’s deceased body with the eternal Word, it did not undergo corruption when it was buried in the tomb, but rather his body dwelt there in anticipation of the resurrection. Moreover, Christ’s soul, also united to the eternal Word, descended into hell, that is, the abode of all the dead, or in Hebrew, Sheol. In this realm, which is different from the hell of the damned, Jesus gave the light of the gospel so that the just souls there who were awaiting a redeemer would at last find salvation. Through Jesus’ passion and death he conquered both death and the devil, and opened for all who would follow him the gates of heaven.
To summarize then, despite the many historical reasons for Jesus’ condemnation, his passion was ultimately brought about because of our sins, and yet he freely accepted his suffering on the cross as the means for our salvation. Indeed, this saving event of Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament.
Further, at the Last Supper Jesus expressed and made really present his sacrifice on the cross. After his suffering Jesus experienced real death while his body lay in the tomb and his soul descended among the dead.
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