“‘Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. . . . The throne formed by the cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.’”
What happened yesterday, at Calvary, touches and transforms all of history, including the past. There is nothing in the human condition that Jesus did not share, and there is nothing in the human condition that Jesus did not redeem.
• This day of rest is also an opportunity to reflect upon the nature of the atonement that Jesus effected yesterday by his obedient death on the Cross. Few aspects of Christian doctrine are more misunderstood than the doctrine of the atonement. In its liberal-Protestant forms, mid-20th-century Christian theology was so put off by the idea of the divine wrath and the atoning death of Christ that it ended up stripping salvation history of its cosmic and redemptive drama; such smiley-face Christianity was famously parodied by H. Richard Niebuhr in these biting terms: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Traces of this biblical hollowness can be found in various Christian communities today, again because of a misunderstanding of the doctrine of atonement.
In Jesus of Nazareth — Holy Week, Pope Benedict XVI explained the true doctrine of the atonement, not in terms of a divine vengefulness that must be appeased, but in terms of a divine love that must be displayed and a divine image that is thereby restored. Benedict was not hesitant in describing the horror of the Cross, a horror that was in fact beyond anything we can imagine: “In Jesus’s Passion, all the filth of the world touches the infinitely pure one, the soul of Jesus Christ and, hence, the Son of God himself.” But now, there is a difference: “While it is usually the case that anything unclean touching something clean renders it unclean, here it is the other way around — when the world, with all the injustice and cruelty that make it unclean, comes into contact with the infinitely pure one, then he, the pure one, is the stronger. Through this contact, the filth of the world is truly absorbed, wiped out, and transformed in the pain of infinite love. Because infinite good is now at hand in the man Jesus, the counterweight to all wickedness is present and active within world history, and the good is always infinitely greater than the vast mass of evil, however terrible it may be.”
Here, Benedict suggested, is the answer to the charge often made against the Christian doctrine of atonement: that “it must be a cruel God who demands infinite atonement.” Such a doctrine, the critics charge, disfigures the image of God; it must be abandoned. Precisely the opposite is true, Benedict replied. The evil and injustice that disfigure the world also distort and disfigure the image of God; we cannot see God clearly through “the filth of the world.” This distortion cannot be ignored; it has to be dealt with. And that is exactly what God does: “[The doctrine of atonement] is not a case of a cruel God demanding the infinite. It is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation, and in the person of his Son takes the suffering upon himself. God himself grants infinite purity to the world. God himself ‘drinks the cup’ of every horror to the dregs and thereby restores justice through the greatness of his love, which, through suffering, transforms the darkness.”
In the silence of this day, the Church ponders the good news that some considered a folly and others a stumbling block, but that nonetheless changed the world: In the crucified Christ, now in the tomb, the eyes of faith see, not absurdity and not divine vengeance, but the ultimate demonstration of divine love.
— George Weigel is the Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. This essay is adapted from Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, co-authored with Elizabeth Lev and with photographs by Stephen Weigel, which will be published by Basic Books in November.