He Was Like Us in Every Way: the Dignity of Salvation in Christ
In the first reading for the Mass of Wednesday of the 1st Week of Ordinary Time (this past week), we find the writer of Hebrews (probably St. Paul) telling us that the Son “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way” in order to save us. This may seem strange to us, and in fact, it should seem strange. God is God, after all. Certainly he could save us in some other way than by taking our nature to himself in the Incarnation, and going through the suffering of the Passion, dying on a cross. Perhaps we might agree that God was perfectly free to choose any method of salvation he wished, and we simply accept the method he did indeed choose.
But this is not what the book of Hebrews says at all. Rather it says that the Son “had to become” like us “in every way.” Of course we know that in Christ God is like us in every way except for sin. But that’s a big exception! Sin, after all, seems to be the dominant factor in fallen human life. How could leaving sin out of the person of Christ leave him “like us in every way”? But we should remember that in a certain way sin isn’t like us at all. We know this instinctively whenever we do something shameful, especially when we are caught out on it by others. “Yes, I did that or said that, but that’s not who I am! I’m a good person.” In one sense, of course, by our sinning we show precisely “who we are”, namely, that we are sinners. But we also know deep down that we are something better than that, or at least that we are supposed to be something better, and as Christians we know that we are called to be something better, that something deep in our nature is even more fundamental to who we are than our sinfulness. We feel that we are made for goodness and truth and justice, even though we can’t always act in a good way, or always be truthful or just. We want to love greatly even though we know that we are often unable to do so. That desire for moral excellence is in our nature and sin has not destroyed it.
But sin has profoundly harmed our nature such that we cannot save ourselves by our own power. Even here, though, we have an instinct for more than just physical survival. We have an even deeper instinct for moral survival and we think that our dignity demands that we improve ourselves by our own efforts, that we save ourselves. And here lies the beautiful paradox of salvation in Christ: in Christ, we are both saved by God and we save ourselves!
This is, then, just what St. Paul means in Hebrews by the priesthood of Christ. He means that there is one person with a human nature who is able to do what no other human nature could do: live in perfect obedience to God, which means, to love like God loves. Loving in this way is what we were made for. By offering his human nature to us, Christ gives us the chance to really become that good person we know we were meant to be but could never become without his help. In communion with Christ in his humanity, we also touch him in his divinity. It is then indeed God who saves us, but it is also a human nature that saves us. God, we suppose, simply could have waved his hand, as it were, to make our sins go away. But this would not have been true to our dignity as creatures made in the likeness of God’s Image. God saves us in such a way as to really restore and preserve the likeness of that Image in which we were made. The Son is that Image. In communion with the human nature of Christ (through Baptism and the other Sacraments) we are remade in the Son’s likeness and set on the road to becoming what God always meant for us to be—like Him. Our human nature is healed such that we can love like God loves, because in touching the human nature of Christ, we touch the divine nature and are taken up into it.
But there’s more.
Even though Christ is without sin, in his Passion and Death on the Cross he accepted suffering as if he was a sinner. This means that for us who are baptized into Christ’s Passion and Death, that any suffering—even the suffering we undergo because of our own sins, as well as the sins of others (especially this sort of suffering!)—is part of the path of salvation for us. Even for those who have yet to come to believe in Christ, the reality of sin and suffering is forever changed for them too because of the new relationship that human nature has with God in Christ.
And this is the source of our hope, for ourselves, our loved ones, and for the whole world. When we as the Church offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, when we partake of the Eucharist in good conscience having confessed our faults, we are acting in the One Priesthood of Christ who alone can enter into the divine presence. We are really given credit for the perfect work Christ has done. Thus, “as often as we do this” we do it for our sins and for the sins of the whole world.
Now that’s a dignity I can sink my teeth into.
- Fr. Hagan