The assignment: Drawing from the doctrine of atonement expounded by Anselm, Aquinas, and Dr Margaret Turek’s Atonement, you are to give a homily on this subject to adult parishioners.
GOD HATES SIN. It’s perhaps an uncomfortable claim for we are aware that we sin although, perhaps, we tapdance around that awareness so as not to disturb ourselves much. Because God loves his creation and because sin has marred the beauty God gave us he has destroyed the power of sin to destroy us. This is the doctrine of atonement.
That word, atonement, may make us as uncomfortable as a discussion of sin. This discomfort may be related to the same tapdance of avoidance though: only if we are sinners do we need atonement. Pope Benedict has suggested that we trivialize sin and thus downplay our own need for redemption – and so we also trivialize the action of Christ on the Cross. (Atonement, 13.)
Today, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart opens up our meditation on Atonement as an act of love. Let’s take a look at the alternative prayer offered by Liturgy of the Hours for Morning Prayer (Vol 3, p. 639)
Father, we honor the heart of your Son
broken by man’s cruelty
yet symbol of love’s triumph,
pledge of all that man is called to be.
Teach us to see Christ in the lives we touch,
to offer him living worship
by love-filled service
to our brothers and sisters. Amen.
We’ll move through bit by bit.
The heart of your son, broken by cruelty…
The cruelty mentioned in the prayer is our rejection of God. That rejection is sin in its totality. There may be individual sinful actions, but sin is a rejection of God and the love and dignity he offers us (Atonement, 51, 89ff). We are made for God and we only find our full happiness in him. Sin is any attempt to find or root our being elsewhere. Sin wounds us and our neighbor, but all sin is, primarily, a rejection of God. Any step away from that fullness – our proper end – is sin because we step away from God himself. (See also, Catechism ¶1849, ¶1850). Sin is real. This rejection of love is the cruelty spoken of.
God allows us to experience the results, the natural consequences of our sin (Atonement, 52). We suffer a loss of God, of a proper relationship with others and the world, and – eventually – we suffer death. Even these consequences wound God who wants so much more for us.
St Anslem starts us on this journey, asking “Why God Became Man?” Seeking to explore answers to Jewish and Muslim critics in his day (late 11c). In our rejection of infinite love, we incur (and continue to incur) an ongoing infinite debt that corrupts even our attempts to repay it. Anselm teaches that it required a human person to pay our a human debt, else humanity would have been beholden to whoever paid for us. Yet it needed to be God who did so because it was an infinite debt and only an infinite God could have paid it. So, uniting God and Man in himself, God the Son dies on the Cross to pay the debt of all humanity. In this action, he purchased us for himself and we are beholden only to God – as it should be. We can most clearly see the wounding of God’s heart on the Cross, and yet we can see something else as well. We need to see deeper into this action than just “purchase”: for in the act of atonement on the Cross, indeed the entire Incarnation, God the Holy Trinity has done something unexpected (Atonement, 130).
The Church sees love’s triumph in the Crucifixion. Even on the Cross – where we “did something to God”, it was a death by his own initiation, his own handing-over as the Eucharistic prayers say. God’s sovereign action is always the initiator (Atonement, 29): even our own actions are not mere reactions to God’s love but an act of his grace engendering in us a response. God is love. All that he does is because of the love that he is. Even his hatred of sin – his passionate hatred of the distance we ourselves have placed between us and him – is his love in action. Like a human lover, this puts God in a vulnerable position, at risk of being hurt by our rejection. But, unlike a human lover, God keeps pushing forward in love despite being wounded (Atonement, 35). Remember that Jesus is God the Son. He is showing us the love of the Father in this action on the Cross. What we see in Jesus’s love for us is his filial imaging of the Father’s love for us. Like Father, like Son! As the Father allows us to wound and slay the Son, the Heart of God breaks in the depth of his love for us. And his hatred for sin manifests as we slay his Son, the engendered response to his love rises in us, becoming the restoration of our relationship with him. (Atonement, 106)
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.
And so, the prayer says the heart of Christ is the pledge of all that man is called to be. We are called in the Son of God to contemplate the Father. We are called to share the love of God. But there is more. Our heart must become like his: ours must be broken, too.
We are called, in the closing words of the prayer, to see Christ in the lives we touch, to offer him living worship by love-filled service to our brothers and sisters. We are called to serve others, and to risk in that action the same rejection that he risks; our hearts will also be broken by cruelty as we call others to the divine plan of love. (Atonement, 222 ff)
Participating in the infinity of God’s action, we become humans paying human debt fully. Our pain, our suffering, in Christ, becomes part of the ongoing action of Atonement. Speaking at Fatima, Pope Benedict said, “entrust to him every setback and pain that you face so that they become – according to his design – a means of redemption for the whole world. You will be redeemers with the Redeemer, just as you are sons in the Son.”