Continuing our Holy Week meditations, led by the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, we reflect today on the suitability of the Passion. While the Passion was not strictly necessary (for God could have saved us in many ways), there are many things about it that make it fitting; in addition, it heals our misery.
In his Summa Theologiae (Part III, Question 46, Article 3), St. Thomas lists five teachings that flow from the Passion of Christ. St. Thomas’ words are shown below in bold, black italics, while my lesser comments appear in plain red text.
In the first place, man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love Him in return, and herein lies the perfection of human salvation; hence the Apostle says (Romans 5:8): “God commends His charity towards us; for when as yet we were sinners … Christ died for us.”
If but one drop of the Lord’s blood would have been sufficient to save us, why did He shed all of His blood? One answer is that it was what He had to give. He emptied Himself of everything but love because that is what true lovers are willing to do. Love is extravagant.
This should stir not only our love but also our gratitude. When the Lord bids us to celebrate the Eucharist “in memory of me,” He does not do so in some self-serving or egocentric way. He does not need us to remember what He has done; it is we who need to remember.
For me to “remember” is to have deeply present in my mind and heart what the Lord has done for me so that I am grateful and different. This is a work of the Holy Spirit and those who lay hold of it are different. Grateful people are more hopeful, confident, and serene because they have known and experienced the providential love and mercy of God. And being more serene, hopeful, and confident, they manifest other virtues such as joy, generosity, and forgiveness. To receive this gift of remembering is to be astonished at the Lord’s lavish love and mercy and to be grateful, joyful, and different.
Secondly, because thereby He set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion, which are requisite for man’s salvation. Hence it is written (1 Peter 2:21): “Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps.”
There is so much to learn of virtue from Christ’s Passion. It is a study in humility, which is the antidote to pride. Ultimately, we are saved more by His humility and obedience than by His physical sufferings. Indeed, St. Thomas remarks elsewhere that if Christ had suffered everything He did but had not willed it, we would not be saved. It is His obedience that undoes Adam’s disobedience. Cassian said, “We are saved by the human decision of a divine person.” Isaiah said, “He suffered because he willed it” (Is 53:7). Jesus said, “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down freely” (Jn 10:18). And going forth from the Last Supper to His Passion, Jesus said, “The world must know that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. Arise, let us go forth” (Jn 14:31). Thus, trusting and obeying the Father, Jesus saves us in love and thereby gives us an example to follow.
Thirdly, because Christ by His Passion not only delivered man from sin, but also merited justifying grace for him and the glory of bliss, as shall be shown later (III:48:1; III:49:1 and III:49:5).
In other words, we are not simply saved from sin, we are equipped for holiness, so that we may be fit for Heaven.
St. Thomas elaborates on this later: Grace was bestowed upon Christ, not only as an individual, but inasmuch as He is the Head of the Church, so that it might overflow into His members; and therefore Christ’s works are referred to Himself and to His members … [Now] it is evident that whosoever suffers for justice’s sake, provided that he be in a state of grace, merits his salvation thereby, according to Matthew 5:10: “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’s sake.” Consequently, Christ by His Passion merited salvation, not only for Himself, but likewise for all His members (ST III, Question 48, Article 1).
While the concept of merit troubles many a Protestant, St. Augustine, the great foe of Pelagianism, well states that in crowning our merits, God is actually crowning His own gifts. In this, God shows us the extent of His love: that He allows His gifts to become our merits (See Augustine, eorum coronando merita tua dona coronas Domine, Commentary in Psalm 102,7:PL 37,1321-1322).
Fourthly, because by this man is all the more bound to refrain from sin, according to 1 Corinthians 6:20: “You are bought with a great price: glorify and bear God in your body.”
Considering the high price of our salvation can be a motivation to respect the work wrought in and for us. St. Peter elaborates this: live your lives in reverent fear during your temporary stay on earth. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life you inherited from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:17-19).
Fifthly, because it redounded to man’s greater dignity, that as man was overcome and deceived by the devil, so also it should be a man that should overthrow the devil; and as man deserved death, so a man by dying should vanquish death. Hence it is written (1 Corinthians 15:57): “Thanks be to God who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It was accordingly more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ’s Passion than simply by God’s good-will.
When one has caused harm, it is very healing to be a part of the healing. And while we could not hope to ever come close in repairing the damage (only God can do that), it is encouraging that our five loaves and two fishes are important to the Lord. This shows our dignity and our responsibility. We got into trouble through a man, a woman, and a tree. In a poetic justice of sorts, we get out of trouble in the same way: a Man (Christ, who obeys), a woman (Mary, who gives her fiat to God’s saving work and plan), and the tree of the Cross.
Thanks be to God for these teachings and for inspiring our teacher, St. Thomas, to place them before us!