Lent begins this week on
The accounts of Jesus healing the sick, the dumb, the blind, and deaf are scattered throughout the Gospels. We also find these predictions of His journey to Jerusalem, crucifixion, and death a number of times in all of the four Gospels: “The Son of Man must be lifted up.” The words “lifted up” are what we call a “euphemism,” a pleasant way of saying something not so nice. Our Lord was referring to His death on the Cross, something “not so nice,” both because it would be an unpleasant death, and because crucifixion was the way of death for criminals under Roman law.
Under that law, a more honorable way of death, reserved for citizens of the Roman Empire, and far less painful, was having one’s head taken off with a sword. To be crucified was to be nailed, through the wrists, to a beam of wood, and to be “lifted up” off the ground to hang from a vertical beam of wood. It was not a particularly bloody death, but the victim had to use his arms to pull himself up a little in order just to breathe—this caused an awfully painful feeling in the wrists, and as exhaustion set in the victim became less able to breathe, and eventually died fro asphyxiation. It was a nasty way to go, calculated by the Romans to keep their occupied territories under control by fear of painful death.
The Gospels record this prediction of our Lord’s being “lifted up” at least three times. Our Lord wanted to be sure that His followers knew that this death on the Cross was an inevitable part of the plans for His ministry on earth. By the time of His crucifixion, there would be no doubt that this was not just some accident of history, brought on by some random convergence of human anger—it was the will of God that it take place. Yet, immediately the question comes to our minds: “Why did the Son of man have to be lifted up? Why was such a violent end necessary for our salvation? Why did the Father require the death of the Son?”
Some of the Modernists try to avoid the problem. Some of them claim that our Lord’s crucifixion would have been cruelty on the part of God the Father and could not have happened. Others of them make the absurd claim that their are two different “truths” to the matter; a “truth” of faith and a different “truth” of history. They say, in other words, that the “Christ of history” (that is the “real Christ” in their distorted thinking) did not die on the Cross—but only the “Christ of faith” (whom they hold to be a sort of “symbol” for Christian belief) can be said to have been crucified, and only in the minds of the faithful. That, of course, is foolishness, if not heresy. The death of our Lord was supremely real—both in history and in our Faith—it is even referred to by the Jewish historian Josephus in a history of Palestine written by him for the Romans.
So why was it that “the Son of Man must be lifted up.”?
First of all, it should be obvious that God is not cruel. Cruelty is a vice which corrupts both the intellect and the will, and no vice can be found in God. Rather, one has to view the entire life of Christ, including the crucifixion, as a form of cooperation between the Father and the Son. We know that creation of mankind was a joint work of both the Father and the Son: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... and without Him was made nothing that has been made.” It stands to reason that the redemption of mankind would be a similar sort of cooperative act.
Modern people don’t think much about sin. Even practicing Catholics take it for granted that they can go to Confession and God will forgive whatever they have done. This was certainly not the case just after the sin of Adam and Eve. The insignificant creature, man, had offended his infinite Creator. Not only had he disobeyed God’s command, but he had done so because of the devil’s promise that doing so would make him a “god” himself: “your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.” Because of His supreme dignity, the offense against God was infinite; but man had nothing—no thoughts, no words, no deeds, no possessions, no sacrifice—that he could offer to God in reparation. But God is also infinitely merciful, and He quickly promised to send some One to make amends on man’s behalf: “The woman’s seed ... shall crush the serpent’s head.” It was the plan of God that the Second Person would become a man, like Adam in all things but sin, and offer an abundant reparation.
Still, we can ask, “Why must the Son of Man be lifted up on the Cross?” Was it not enough for God to simply will the redemption of mankind? The answer to that would be “yes.” But God wanted to do more.
The Son of God became man in order to become an everlasting example for mankind. The life of Christ was to be the perfect model for imitation. Everything that mankind would learn through the revelations of the Old Testament would be “fine tuned” by observing and imitating the life of Christ—His love, His compassion, His law, His justice, and every other aspect. The incarnate God has lived among us, both demonstrating what is possible for us, and sharing our frailties—He is filled with compassion not found in Allah of the Moslems, nor even in Jahweh of the Jews—only Jesus has a Sacred Heart.
The Son of God became man in order to establish an everlasting priesthood for the worship, petition, thanksgiving, and propitiation of God. On some small level, God was already accepting the imperfect sacrifices offered to Him by men. We mention three of these men in the Canon of the Mass: Abel, Melchesidech, and Abraham—to these we must add the sons of Aaron, the brother of Moses, who served as priests in the Temple at Jerusalem up till the time of Christ. But the Jewish priesthood was imperfect on two counts: It offerings were mere creatures; cattle and sheep and goats, or various kinds of wheat offerings. This priesthood was also imperfect because its priests had their own sins to atone for. The incarnate Son of God, on the other hand, was the victim of unsurpassable perfection, and the absolutely sinless priest. Even the sinful men who continue His priesthood in the Church, do so in His stead—in every Mass, it is Christ who offers the Sacrifice, and Christ who is the Victim. It is the same Sacrifice of the Cross, which He offers to the Father until the end of time.
The Son of God has chosen to offer Himself as the Victim of His Sacrifice, first of all because nothing else could be perfectly acceptable to the Father. Secondly, He is the Victim in order to inspire us with horror for sin. We must learn to detest the suffering that our sins cause Jesus Christ. We must learn to understand that sin is infinitely ugly, both offending God and distorting man in his very being—so damaging and weakening to ourselves and to our relationship with God that only God can make repairs. Sin is far more than something we can repair with an apology or with restitution to a friend or a stranger, for God is always its primary target. The Cross should always be in our minds, and cause us to loath sin.
In our Lord’s own words, He chose to die for us on the Cross because, “No greater love has a man than he who dies for his friends.” Our Lord died for us because He loves us, and even thinks of us as His friends. That is what we heard about in Saint Paul’s beautiful Epistle. From the crucifixion of our Lord arises an obligation that we love Him in return, and that we love our neighbors for His sake. Faith, hope, and charity are virtues which bring us to eternal life, “but the greatest of these is charity. Why does God love us?—that will have to be a mystery for another time!
Finally, we must recognize that in giving us His divine Son as our High Priest, and in allowing us to partake of the sacred Victim in Holy Communion, God is giving us His very best gift—far better than anything He has created on this world or any other. In turn, the Cross on which He was lifted up should inspire us to do our best for God.
 Parallel Gospel: John iii: 14-15.
 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities XVIII: Chapt. 3, para. 3 www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/josephus/ant-18.htm
 Last Gospel: John i: 1-3.
 Genesis iii: 5.
 Cf. Genesis iii: 15.
 John xv:13.
 1 Corinthians xiii: 13.