A NEWBORN BABY, we are told (by Mr Google) has about 1 cup of blood. An adult human has about 1.5 gallons. In the Middle Ages may in Europe became fascinated with how many drops of blood that might be. How many drops of blood were shed by Jesus on the Cross? This quest became quite the source of many devotions. 28,430 is a good figure, but not believable: Mr Google converts 1.5 gallons to 113,562 drops. I imagine the number of drops would be closer to the 1.5 gallon total rather than only 5 cups or so, but I may be wrong. Perhaps drops were bigger then. ANYWAY, the point of this fascination seems to be the mechanics of the atonement. How exactly did it work? What is the process whereby Infinite God became Finite Man while remaining Infinite God in order to redeem Finite Man? And, once the Great Reduction had begun, how did the Finite Man, who was also Infinite God, effect so great a salvation?
Earlier I had to write an essay on the theology of atonement. I think it was actually a bit to scholarly for a homily, although, perhaps, it was a homily for a well catechized small group at a daily Mass. I pretended it was the Feast of the Sacred Heart which allowed me to take many things as read. But I’ve been meditating on these things since then. I want to unpack the central paragraph in that post.
On the cross, Jesus was made to be “sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21) and by allowing the perfectly pure Son to experience the natural consequences for our sins God restored us to him. This is the masterstroke against sin, for by the cross those consequences of rejection, pain, and even death become the pathway of the Father’s love to us. (Atonement, 129, footnote 97) As Jesus surrendered perfectly to God’s will, even the worst parts of our world of violence and sin become ways in which God can (and does) reach us. The Eastern Church says Christ has “trampled down death by death.” That’s why the Sacred Heart, wounded by cruelty, is the symbol of love’s triumph.
When I was in 5th Grade or so, my friend Andy received a Magnavox Odyssey for Christmas. You played the games by placing plastic overlays on your TV. They adhered because of the static electricity. If you took the overlays off, you just had lighted blobs on your TV. There were six cartridges but it played 21 games by means of the overlays. Adding different graphics to the screen (on the overlay) changed what the lighted blobs appeared to do on your TV. There was, for example a “hide and seek” game that, depending on the overlay, was either a first person shooter, a haunted house, or a fox and hounds. The basic program was only two lighted blobs. But add a different overlay and you’re in a new world suddenly.
“Changing the overlay” is the way I want to look at atonement. I’m not talking about mechanics or how many drops of blood, but rather life, itself.
Since Eden, mankind has been cursed with three things: dysfunctional relationships, nature that will not cooperate to give us food, and pain in things that should be natural processes. Eve is cursed with “pain in childbearing” but that – coupled with Adam’s ‘sweat of his brow’ – seems, by analogy, to indicate all the pain in the world. All the things we love that can cause us pain – even good things.
In the fallen world, all human beings experience all these things. There are times when “everything sucks”. Life just is that way. All the time – even when it’s good. It’s filled with injustice. There are times when it’s impossible to even do the right thing without hurting someone else. We’re left picking the lesser of two evils even when we’re grocery shopping. How is the world like this? We broke it in the fall. How can it be fixed?
In the Incarnation, God became one of us. God became man. God – the infinite, eternal, radiant IS – became finite. One cell. Two cells. Four cells. Eight cells. God. Not even able to speak or form thoughts. God. Sixteen cells. And after 4 or five days, Implanting in the wall of the Uterus. Embryo. God. Nine months later, between blood and water, God gasping and panting. And then screaming as all babies do. Then crying, wetting himself and his parents. The manger. Cow dung. Fleas, probably, but maybe not. God. Dirty diapers, falling over while learning to walk. Giggling parents as he does embarrassing things while the grandparents are here. God. Awkward physical changes. Voice cracking at Bar Mitzvah. Parents moved. Blushing as he talks to a girl. Yeshiva classmates whose parents can count to 9 and gossip. God.
This continues on for 30 or more years.
Everything that we can think of, from economic downturns to political oppression. From rude neighbors to parties on the block, from games in the back yard to friends’ weddings and more. God has done it all.
Just like you and I – but without sin.
And then things get dark. And God does that too, without sin. Pain. Grief. Rejection. Betrayal. Loss. Depression. Blood. Wounds. Death. God.
The colored blobs are the same. God has changed the overlay. The game now leads to eternal life instead of death.
God has not even changed the system’s wiring or engineering. What we had, we’ve always had. What happens is what has always happened. But if we go through with God’s pattern now, the end result is entirely different.
That’s the atonement. The music is the same. The dance steps are the same. But now the end is glory.