Putting the Horse Before the Cart

Quick quiz:  what two characters of the Passion are named in each of the daily Gospel readings that the Church uses in the Liturgy during Holy Week?  The first is obvious—Our Lord.  The second may not be as obvious.  Each account this week chronicles the actions of Judas Iscariot.  Obviously the Church wants us to spend some time meditating upon the role that Jesus’ betrayer played in the Passion and Death of Our Lord.  What usually emerges when most of us do this is a vague feeling that somehow Judas got a raw deal.  It seems that someone had to betray Jesus to get the ball rolling and that Judas was the unlucky someone whom God chose.  After all, wasn’t it prophesied that Jesus would be betrayed by a friend for 30 pieces of silver?

When Peter withdraws his sword to fight for Jesus in the Garden, Our Lord halts him saying, “But then how would the scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass in this way?” (Mt 26:54). This seems to imply that because the Scriptures said that Jesus must be betrayed then He was somehow bound to suffer His Passion. But this view actually puts the cart before the horse. Jesus was not bound in any way by the prophecies of the Old Testament. The prophecies of the Old Testament were bound by how God chose to carry out man’s redemption. God revealed to the prophets of the Old Testament how He would suffer only because He actually suffered in those ways. The betrayal by Judas was only prophesied because Judas did freely choose to betray Jesus. God is infinite in His knowledge and knows all things that happen or could possibly happen. He is omnipotent and therefore not in any way bound by our free decisions. He uses those free will decisions as a means to carry out his intended ends just like we use natural laws like friction to stop our cars. In other words, it was a free act by Judas that led to Our Lord’s death and neither Judas nor Jesus were somehow bound because it was predicted to transpire the way that it did.

Putting the horse before the cart is perhaps one of the most under-utilized theological principles. It is at the heart of the theology of Pope St. John Paul II and it was the point of emphasis of the first words from his pen as Pope: “The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ, is the center of… history.” (Redemptor Hominis, 1). Everything prior to the Incarnation happened so as to ready man for the coming of Christ. Adam failed to run to the Tree of Life in the Garden when he was threatened with death because Jesus would not fail to cling to the Tree of Life which is the Cross. God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac his son only because the Son of God would be sacrificed. God asked for the Passover sacrifices of the Old Testament only because His Son would sacrifice Himself on the Cross. Even the obscure rules of the Old Testaments such as the prohibition of drinking the blood of animals was because we would drink the blood of Christ, the True Sacrifice.

Once we remove any necessity of the Passion and Death of Christ on God’s part, then we can begin to see the sheer goodness and gratuity of God. Saying “God is love” is not meant to be merely a poetic way of saying “He is a really good God.” In fact, satisfaction for sin was not even necessary. St Thomas, citing Psalm 51:6 (“Against you, you alone have I sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done”), reminds us that God could have willed to free man without any satisfaction because it was Himself alone that was offended .  Unlike a human judge who is subordinate to the common good of the community, God has no superior to which He is beholden.  Therefore, He could offer mercy without in any way offending justice.

Christ on the Cross_Dali

In addition to love and mercy, the Cross also reveals God’s wisdom.  While it was entirely up to God how He would redeem man, the Cross, according to St. Thomas, is the most suitable way to bring about man’s salvation because of what it reveals about God’s relationship with mankind.  Primarily, because by Christ’s passion man knows how much God loves him, he is thereby incited to love God in return. There is no other reason for the Cross than to reveal the depths of God’s love for man.

But there is always the temptation to apply Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross to ourselves in the abstract. We take the words of St. Paul in Col 2:20, “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me, and substitute the word “us” for “me.” But it is this conviction that fueled everything St. Paul did and said. Once he came to this realization on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from his eyes and he was never the same. This is what it means to have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. Once I am completely convicted that Christ did that for me personally, once I am completely convicted that God loves me and not just “us,” everything changes. This is why we as Catholics should be so adamant about having Crucifixes all around us. We are in no way denying that Christ is risen. We have crucifixes for the same reason that married people have photos of their weddings—we want to be reminded how much we are loved and how committed our Lover is. Holy Week is a most excellent time to spend gazing at the Crucifix and reminding myself how much I am loved and how committed Jesus is to me. I close with a story that I heard a number of years ago of just how powerful this exercise can be.

There was a group of boys in France who were hanging out in front of a Catholic church during the last days of Lent. They saw a bunch of going in and standing in line, waiting to enter a closet. Each person would enter, come out a few minutes later and then come out and pray. Curious about what was happening they asked and found out that confessions were going on.

They decided to have a little fun and send one of the boys into the confessional and make up a crazy story to try and fool the priest. A young Jewish boy volunteered to go in and immediately started telling his concocted story. The priest, realizing what he was doing, assigned the boy a penance for wasting the priest’s time. His penance was to go into the front of the Church, stand in front of the Crucifix, look at it and repeat these words ten times: “You did that for me and I don’t give a damn!” Figuring he would play along fully with the joke the boy did as he was told. He looked up at Crucifix and started he started to repeating the words. “You did that for me and I don’t give a damn!” After a few times however the words started coming out differently: “You did that for me? And I don’t give a damn?” Finally, he fell to his knees and his words became simply: “You did that for me?”

This boy’s name was Jean-Marie Lustiger. He was received into the Church the following Easter and eventually became Cardinal Archbishop Lustiger.

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