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Ignatian Retreat

(July 1974)

Christ's Passion - God's Love

Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We know from reading the writings of the saints and the great friends of God that there are many facets of Christ's Passion which appeal to them and on which they often built an elaborate analysis of the Redemption to make it, as it should be, the cornerstone of all authentic spirituality. But the one aspect around which everything else revolves is our view of the Passion as the most eloquent expression of God's love for man.

If we go back briefly to recall some of the great insights of mystics like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, or prolific writers like Thomas Aquinas and Alphonsus Liguori, remembering the perspicacity they had about God's freedom, we shall better appreciate why the saints saw Christ's Passion and Death as the consummation of divine love in our favor. Suppose we look for just a moment at this mystery of God's love in successive steps.

Step #1 is that God was absolutely free in bringing man into existence out of nothing. He simply did not have to; He chose to do so out of love. We call this the divine freedom of creation.

Step #2 is that God was also not required to raise man to a share in His own divine life. He did not have to make us participators in His own divinity. We call this the divine freedom of elevation.

Step #3 is that after man had sinned, God forgave him. Now the expression "had sinned" has a chronological past-tense sense about it; but remember that with God all things are as one continuous present, so that the "had sinned" refers not only to the first sin of our first parents, but to all the sins including our own which God foresaw man would commit after the fall of Adam and Eve. And foreseeing all this magnitude of sin, He was not required to forgive man. He nevertheless decided to do so—His third divine decision. We call this the divine freedom of reconciliation.

Step #4 is that having decided to reinstate man into the divine friendship, God did the incredible thing of becoming man in His own flesh in order that by suffering and dying, which He could not have done as God, He might do more than forgive us; He could have done that without the Incarnation. But He wanted also to undergo in our stead the penalty for sin that we deserved. He most certainly did not have to do this! His fourth decision we call the divine freedom of the Redemption.

Why did God do it? Why did He go to the extreme of assuming a mortal body capable of suffering and death, and a human soul capable of anguish and pain? He did so out of love. Let us keep reminding ourselves of this: love is that which you don't have to do, which you do because you want to. This teaches us some very mysterious and strange things about love. Love wants to assist those whom it loves at any cost to itself.

Here is the mystery we are somehow trying to fathom. God, we believe, is love. His love was behind His decision to share with us not only His existence, but His very being. There is no compulsion on God's part. There is also no profit or gain to Him in doing what He did. Then man came along and with consummate ingratitude abused the very freedom with which he was gifted to reject the advances of divine love. Not satisfied with forgiving man's ingratitude, God did the unheard of thing of experiencing the punishment that we brought upon ourselves. It is as though we freely volunteered to suffer capital punishment or life imprisonment in place of the criminal who maliciously tried to kill us; it is like a victim generously suffering the penalty for a murderer who made an attempt on the life of his greatest benefactor. All of this is not rhetoric or poetry or sublime literature. It is our faith and it is the truth.

We stand aghast at such boundless goodness, and we are understandably dumbfounded in trying to penetrate the meaning of this mystery of love. But one thing we cannot miss, which God wants to teach us through the Redemption: this is the lesson of what genuine love always means.

When we are speaking this way about the love of God for us, we should know that God is not only our Maker and our Redeemer. He is also our pattern and exemplar. When we are told by Christ to be as perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, we are being told in plain language to imitate God. And consequently, this love of God about which we are speaking, which is the object of our veneration and of our invocation, is also emphatically to be the object of our imitation. We are not only, therefore, to address ourselves to God's merciful love to ask from Him for what we need. We are to also reflect on this love and see what it can teach us so that we might indeed become more Godlike in loving Him in a way comparable to the way He has been loving us.

What is the nature of true love? It must be the way God shows it when He loves: true love is not afraid to suffer. In fact, it expects to suffer as a witness of its love, and is disappointed if loving does not mean some pain. Otherwise, we must ask this question of God, "Why did you become man?", because He could have done all that He achieved without becoming man and, by implication, without suffering.

Here I would like to insert a very pertinent observation about religious vocations. The single most important quality that should be looked for in those accepted by a community, and who are later received as life-long members under perpetual vows, is their sincere love of suffering. Do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that we accept misanthropes whose twisted characters make them prefer pain to pleasure—that would be psychotic—or who mistakenly suppose the more they suffer the holier they will be. There is no necessary connection between suffering and holiness, because it is only suffering sanctified and sacrificed that makes us holy; it is suffering united with the suffering God that makes saints.

Genuine love of the cross with Christ and for Christ is one of the surest signs of the workings of God's extraordinary grace. I believe that because of the failure to look for this gift of the Spirit in our candidates, some communities are paying the heavy price of trying to teach sanctity to people who do not realize, since they lack the supernatural light needed, that to become holy we must become assimilated to Christ; and Christ is the God who suffered. There is no shortcut to sanctity. There is certainly no detour around the cross if we wish to become like Jesus, "who having the joy set before Him" chose (note the freedom) instead the cross.

Our divine Savior became man in order that He might suffer and having suffered in His own physical person, He can no longer do so in His own human flesh and will. Having died and risen from the dead and been glorified, He can no longer taste pain. But that is where we come in. This is the meaning of the Mystical Christ. Our Head has gone before us, showing us what love means. Love means choosing pain out of love for the ones you love. You have to keep using the same word as noun and verb; otherwise you spoil what you are trying to communicate. And He tells us to continue what He began—He on His cross, we on ours. He suffered (past tense). He gives us the rare privilege of not only suffering, which many others do, but of suffering with Him and for Him out of love.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

Transcription of the Ignatian retreat given and recorded on July, 1974
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to the:

Handmaids of the Precious Blood

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