CS Lewis once said that in order to preach the Gospel to modern man, “Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis– in itself very bad news– before it can win a hearing for the cure.” His point is that the Good News of the Gospel must first be understood in its proper context. Unless we first develop a proper understanding of the bad news we will easily miss just how amazing the Good News really is. Therefore to gain a grasp on the fullness of the redemption we have received, we must return to the Beginning to examine the “happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.”
In each of the two creation accounts found in Genesis, the greatness of man’s vocation is captured when God gives him dominion over all the earth (Gn 1:28-30) and when He gives to man the commandment to “till and keep” the Garden (Gn 2:16-17). Man is made as absolute master of his domain. This dominion is conditional on keeping the single commandment he was given. This is in recognition that Yahweh is his Lord. Once the devil enters the scene and tempts Adam and Eve to sin all of this changes. It is the nature of this change that needs to be looked at more closely. Many people miss the meaning and are left scratching their heads when confronted with the problem of evil even after Our Lord’s saving act on the Cross.
To simply say that Adam, as the head of all mankind, forfeited sanctifying grace and left man in a fallen state somewhat oversimplifies things. The problem was not only interior for man. Once Adam and Eve believed the lie of the devil, the Father of Lies replaced God as master. In falling under the yoke of this new master, mankind ceded dominion over all visible creation (including their own flesh) to the Serpent and he became the “Prince of this World” (Jn 14:30). Driven by envy (Wisdom 2:24), this newfound dominion enabled Satan to unleash his wrath on man by means of this world. God limits his power immediately by putting the Serpent on his belly, but He does not fully reverse what was done. Instead He reveals Himself as a deliverer by promising that by His power mankind will prevail (Gn 3:14-15). The bad news is immediately follow by the promise of the Good News (or the Protoevangelium as the Fathers called it). Mankind starts with one enemy (the devil), ends up with three (the devil, the flesh and the world), and is promised the seed of the woman that will enable him to conquer all three.
This distinction is important because it enables us to see what God did in the Incarnation for what it truly is—a rescue mission. This is why the central event in Jewish history is the Exodus. It reveals God as the God Who always comes through. And they anticipated that He would once again come through in a definitive way and many recognized this in Christ. This is why He is so often compared to Moses—the man whom God used to rescue them from Egypt. This is also why when Jesus meets Moses and Elijah on the Transfiguration Mount they speak to him of His Exodus (Lk 9:30). Jesus was to lead the New Exodus.
If we do not grasp this aspect of the Incarnation then we will end up with a distorted image of God. To say that Christ “died for my sins” is absolutely true. But unless we see Christ’s death as “ransoming captive Israel,” we will inevitably paint God as somehow angry because He needs someone to punish. It is not the punishment that reveals the God “who so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son” (Jn 3:16) but the fact that the “Son of man also came…to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). The Greek word for ransom is Lytron which literally mean “redemption price.” This price was paid for the release of captives by family members and it was the oldest brother as the family representative who was responsible to make the payment. It is Jesus, “the firstborn of the dead” (Col 1:18) that pays mankind’s ransom from the devil. He pays it with His own flesh. But “because it was not possible for Him to be held by [death]” the new Adam became mankind’s new representative accomplishing what the Old Adam could not do.
Seeing Christ as our representative and not as our penal substitute also greatly clarifies why there is still suffering (i.e. the punishment for our sin) in this world. If He is our representative then we must participate. We participate most perfectly through the Mass, but also to the degree that our own crosses participate in the Cross of Christ. This is the way that St. Paul understood his own redemption when he told the Colossians that he “rejoiced in his sufferings because they complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24). Christ’s representative sacrifice was perfect, what is lacking is our participation (as an aside, this idea of “vicarious representation” is a recurrent theme in the theology of Pope Benedict if you want to learn more).
This also reveals the great power and goodness of God. He has taken the power of the devil (suffering and death) and made it the means of salvation. The devil is still prince of this world but for those who share in Christ’s resurrected life through baptism his weapons become a source of sanctification and redemption. Only a God who is all good and all powerful can turn evil around and bring good from it.
This idea of using the weapons of the devil is also found in the Exodus story. When the people begin to grumble, God allows the serpents to come among the people and bite them. He commands Moses to make a bronze serpent so that all who were bitten might look upon it and live. The serpents who were a source of death, become a source of life for the Israelites (Num 21:4-9) just as when the “Son of Man is lifted up” all those who gaze upon Him will overcome the sting of the devil. Therefore, as Lent comes to a close, we would all benefit from meditation upon the Exodus story. It is not merely a story that tells what happened to the Jews long ago, it is our story. It is that same God who comes to save us and we are His people awaiting entrance into the Promised Land.