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The Mystery of Redemption

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

As we have been doing we will have our master theme, and in this case, have two conferences on the Redemption.

Christianity has meaning only on the presupposition of sin. Mankind, we believe was in need of redemption because mankind had sinned deeply, universally and seriously, even unto death. The gravity of the sin demanded a corresponding price of redemption: nothing less than God becoming man to suffer and die on the cross for our salvation. One of the mysteries of salvation history is how to explain what seems to be unexplainable. For centuries the chosen people had been promised a savior. One prophet after another foretold the coming of the Messiah. Yet remarkably, when He actually came in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, most of His own people rejected Him. Worse still, the leaders of Israel condemned Him to a shameful death on Calvary. Could Jesus possibly be… is it conceivable? Was He the long promised Messiah, the Savior of mankind? Our purpose in this first conference will be to take at least a brief look at this mystery of redemption. In order to better understand the saving mission of Jesus Christ. We might add, this is of paramount importance if we are to follow Christ, as He wants us to, and profit from the graces He won for us on the cross. The Annunciation, Christmas, the flight into Egypt, Christ’s public ministry and finally His death on the cross were centuries in the making.

In the present conference, we shall reflect on the Old Testament expectations of the Savior of Israel. We begin by noting what may be obvious to many people but not everyone. What does the word “Christ” from whom Christianity is derived, what does “Christ” mean? The word Christ is simply the Greek equivalent “Christos” for the Hebrew “Masiah” whose modified English form is of course Messiah. The word literally means “anointed” and was applied in the Old Testament to those who were appointed by Yahweh for special functions among the chosen people. Thus kings and high priests were called “the anointed of the lord.” As the Israelites faced one crisis in their history after another, they gradually came to look forward to a Messiah who was a divinely chosen individual that would lead the Jews to endless freedom and well being; in a word, to salvation. With the dawn of the Messianic Age, the Jewish people were promised a return to the land of Israel. And that through the Jews then, the whole human race would be converted to the Messiah because the Jews had accepted their savior. As we know, Jewish Messianism was not uniformly understood, by all the people of Israel. Those who read the prophets, carefully, and honestly, tried to be faithful to the Mosaic Law. They had no illusions about what the forthcoming Messiah would be. Or how He would redeem the children of Abraham. As much as they desire to be delivered from their Pagan oppressors, they intuitively sensed that their deliverance was not to be mainly from political oppression, but from moral evil and their hoped for salvation would be somehow beyond the grave. These believing Jews had enough passages in the Old Testament to guide them in that direction. Thus the Exodus was not only a single historical event for the believing Jews, and we must keep repeating “for the believing Jews”, Exodus symbolized what Yahweh intended for His people beyond time into eternity. God, they believed, frees His people not only from the slavery of Egypt, but more profoundly from the slavery of sin. “I am Yahweh.” He said. “I will deliver you from slavery and I will ransom you by mighty acts. I will adopt you for my people and I will be your God.” A holy people and a ransomed people became for the prophets, equivalent terms. The prophet Jeremiah dates the Covenant from the time when Yahweh delivered His people from the bondage of Egypt.

Built into this spiritual understanding of redemption, were two closely related concepts: deliverance from sin, and union with God. We will spend this whole conference on the Old Testament understanding of salvation. Because on a correct understanding of what the ancient prophets meant when they foretold a savior, depends a correct understanding of who Jesus, (the savior who came), really means.

By the time of the second Isaiah the prophets dwelt on the notion of a redeemer whose work of salvation was prefigured by the Jewish liberation from exile. More than once in the Psalms the forthcoming redemption is anticipated. There was a redemption that took place from Egypt. There is a redemption that will take place when the Messiah finally comes.

Psalm 130,
For with the Lord is kindness and with Him is plenteous redemption for He will [future tense] He will redeem Israel from all its guilt.”

The prophet Ezekiel stressed the complete generosity of this redemption for sinners. Moreover, even as Yahweh declares that “deep within them I shall plant my law.” He goes on to explain, what He really intends to do. “I will put my spirit in you.” Having taught the theology of grace, perhaps some fifteen times for two semesters each year, I never tired repeating and making as clear as I could to my students that Savior, Salvation, Redemption mean two things. They do indeed mean deliverance from sin, removal of guilt, forgiveness. That, if you wish, is the negative side of redemption. But Savior and Salvation and Redemption also and mainly mean the conferral of grace, the making of a person holy: In a word, union with God. And without dwelling on what may seem to be a theological subtlety, let me tell you, it was right here that in the sixteenth century, the Christian world was split in two. The bottom line of Protestantism, is the denial; the simple rejection that Christ did anything else but remove sin. There is no question of holiness or sanctity and less still of growth in holiness by cooperating with the grace of God. That’s why by the time that Martin Luther died in 1546, all, and the word is all, monastic and religious institutions had been destroyed. Religious life, whatever else it means, means a life of holiness and growth in sanctity. Those who are specially consecrated to God, are not only dear Lord, to avoid sin, Christ is not only their savior from guilt and sin and Hell: His spirit sanctifies. Christmas has two vastly different meanings to a Catholic and to the heirs of the Reformation. To a Catholic the coming of Christ is indeed redemption from sin, but it is also the dawn of such outpouring of grace, with prospects of sanctity as was never possible before the All Holy One became a human child.

Having said this, that there was among the ancient Jews, the anticipation of a Messiah or Savior who would redeem His people from their sins and sanctify them, both sides. The one without the other is Protestantism. But, alongside of this exulted and correct understanding of the Messiah to come there was another very earth bound conception of the Savior of Israel. Not unexpectedly as the Jews were taken captive by one Pagan nation after another. The Assyrians, the Persians and just before the Messiah actually came, the Romans. God made sure, He made absolutely sure that when the Messiah actually came, the Jews would be the subject people of a Pagan nation. That’s the divine logic. But for so many of the Jews, instead of correctly looking forward to a Savior from sin and for sanctity, many Jews (and judging by what happened to Jesus, it seems most of the Jews) rather looked forward to an eventual leader of Israel. Who would liberate his people not from sin and for sanctity, but from worldly oppression by a Pagan nation and from the pain of being an enslaved people. Not long before Jesus actually came there was a positive plague of one would-be-messiah after another. And after Jesus came, for centuries Jewish historians recall the series of false messiahs who arose at various stages since the dawn of Christianity. There was David Allroy in the twelfth century, David Rubani in the sixteenth century, Shabatai Savee in the seventeenth century, Jacob Franz in the eighteenth century, and the last thing you would expect me to say: and Karl Marx in the nineteenth century. The most revealing definition of Communism that we Catholics have is the definition of the late Pius XI in his encyclical on Atheistic Communism. He identifies Communism as Utopian Messianism. And today’s Catholic Church is being plagued and shaken to her foundations by so-called Liberation Theology. Whose goal is exactly, exactly that of those Jews in the time of Christ who were looking for a secular leader to deliver His people from the trials and suffering and oppression and poverty in this world. In modern times Jewish believers are still waiting for the coming of the Messiah. They speak of His coming as the end of days. This is the basis of the so-called Zionist Movement, well Marxism, begun by the Apostate Jew Karl Marx. The Zionist Movement also in the nineteenth century was inspired by nationalism and socialism to substitute faith and a personal messiah with the prospect of restoring Palestine as the Jewish homeland. That what happened in the first century of the Christian Era would be reversed in modern times: That the Jews would once again have their Promised Land. In the mean time, so-called Reform Jews those are the left end of the Jewish spectrum, they replaced the idea of a Messiah who was a single person with a hope of a Messianic Age.

As we close this unusual conference on the hopes of a Savior in Israel before Christ and since Christ. We should note that the present state of Israel, founded in 1948, has become an embodiment of both these aspirations of the descendents of those Jewish people who rejected, as we Catholics believe, the true Messiah. The state of Israel has identified in its constitutions, is called with apologies for giving the Hebrew which in English means “the beginning of the ultimate and universal redemption,” unquote. We Christians who believe that when Christ came into the world that was the beginning of the ultimate and universal redemption. We are indeed looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. But for us, it will be His Second Coming. His first coming has already been achieved. It is not surprising then, just true to form, that with the nativity scene just recently built on the White House grounds in Washington, there should be such an outcry of rage by those who believe that the Messiah has not yet come, but is still to arrive.

Let’s close with a prayer. Lord Jesus, we who believe that You, the beginning of the ultimate and universal redemption have already come. Deepen our faith in Your coming. Strengthen our hope in Your second coming. So that believing You came in Bethlehem and living up to what You want Your followers to do, we shall look forward in joy to Your second coming when You call us into eternity. So that the Christmas we commemorate, will also be the Christmas we anticipate. Jesus we believe You have come. We trust You will come. Help us to believe in You and look forward to possessing You. Amen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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