Today’s first reading brings us many weeks ahead, to Pentecost (will we be allowed to celebrate it together?).
We meet Peter in the midst of the Temple addressing the congregation and explaining to them the phenomenon of Pentecost. He explains that what happened in Jerusalem was nothing else than the fulfillment of the Scriptures. The Acts of the Apostles have been written by St. Luke, the author of the Gospel for today and we can see a theme that unifies both readings – an explanation that the events of the Passion, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Our Lord are not events isolated in history, but events foretold in the Old Testament that are a part – and the centre – of the plan for the salvation of our Creator. Peter starts with Psalm 16; when David, the supposed author of the psalm, said “you will not abandon your holy one to see corruption” he could not have been speaking about himself, since his body must have corrupted. Peter concludes that David must have been speaking about the Messiah.
The significance of today’s second reading is so great that it found its expression in the following article of the Catechism:
CCC 622 “The redemption won by Christ consists in this, that he came ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mt 20:28), that is, he ‘loved [his own] to the end’ (Jn 13:1), so that they might be ‘ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [their] fathers’ (1 Pt 1:18).
We find here the mention of the death of Our Lord as ‘ransom’. Ransom is a difficult word; in particular in the Middle Ages, when being kidnapped and redeemed by the payment of a ransom sum of money was a contemporary reality, theologians were wondering to whom was the ‘ransom’ mentioned in today’s second reading paid.
The "theory of ransom" was developed in particular by Origen in the 3rdcentury. In his understanding, Adam and Eve became captives to Satan and sin at the fall, followed by all of their offspring – the entire world. In order to bring salvation to the human race, Jesus had to die to give Satan his due price of blood, buying back humanity. However, Jesus did not remain dead, in the clutches of Satan, but rose back to life, defeating Satan and the death he brings to the world. Ransom theory was widespread until the 11thcentury, when Anselm of Canterbury argued against it strongly. Origen was one of the great theologians, but here, he missed the mark.
The Catholic Encyclopaedia states: “This curious notion, apparently first mooted by St. Irenæus, was taken up by Origen in the next century, and for about a thousand years it played a conspicuous part in the history of theology... A protest was raised by St. Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century, as might be expected from that most accurate of the patristic theologians. But it was not till St. Anselm and Abelard had met it with unanswerable arguments that its power was finally broken.”
The Catholic teaching today does not accept ransom theory in its original form. In the Catholic understanding, the death of Jesus on the Cross is primarily an act of love which defeats our slavery to sin and unites us with God in salvation. On the other hand, for the majority of Protestant theologians, the Cross is primarily an event in which our punishments are taken up by Christ.
The death of Our Lord should therefore not be understood as a ransom paid to Satan (or God or anyone else), for “out of love for this Father and for men, whom the Father wants to save, Jesus freely accepted his Passion and death. … Hence the sovereign freedom of God’s Son as he went out to his death.” (CCC 609).
Pope Benedict explains in his Introduction to Christianity the reconciliation of the Cross as something God does for us in Christ, and not something done to restore the divine order, much less God’s honour. For him, the cross reveals our weakness but it also it tells us to glory in our weakness because God Himself has shared in it, descending from His Heavenly throne to live amongst us and die with us – but not out of an absolute necessity, but as a Revelation to the Church and as a testimony to the true nature of His love, which is self-sacrificial. Therefore, it is in order that the true nature of love, humility and obedience could be revealed that required hat Calvary be a sacrifice which was “the expression of that foolish love of God’s that gives itself away to the point of humiliation”.
God's merciful love is the cause, not the result of what happened at Calvary.
By Fr Tomas
Illustration © Jan Hearn 2020