Steve Skojec April 10, 2017
As a result of H. Reed Armstrong’s recent article on the influence of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac on the thinking of the contemporary Church, I found myself perusing an analysis of von Balthasar’s “Delirious Hope that All be Saved” by Dr. Christopher Malloy, professor of theology at the University of Dallas.
In the midst of that essay, one particular paragraph stood out, because it jogged my memory about something almost entirely unrelated:
And as for the related claim that Jesus took on our sins themselves – not simply the punishment due to them – here we have Balthasar coming very close to supporting, if not outright supporting, the notion of penal substitution. Perhaps Balthasar avoids claiming the Christ truly became guilty, thus freeing himself from Luther’s blasphemy on this matter. But his assertion that Christ takes on damnation itself cannot square with the truth of hell. Hell is a place of sinful alienation, a place of aversion from the divine good. But Christ cannot become averse to the divine good. (On this topic, see Thomas Joseph White, “Jesus’ Cry on the Cross and His Beatific Vision” Nova et Vetera 5 (2007): 573-581.) The Catholic view regarding Christ’s act is that it was atonement, a vicarious act of satisfaction. By his loving obedience, Christ offered the Father a satisfaction sufficient for the forgiveness of infinitely many persons. Thus, he died for all. However, one must receive the fruit of this redemption by being justified in order to benefit from it.
I went immediately began searching the Internet to find Francis’ own words on this topic, which I recalled reading near the beginning of his papacy. I found the first instance here, at Vatican Radio, from June, 2013:
What is reconciliation? Taking one from this side, taking another one for that side and uniting them: no, that’s part of it but it’s not it … True reconciliation means that God in Christ took on our sins and He became the sinner for us. When we go to confession, for example, it isn’t that we say our sin and God forgives us. No, not that! We look for Jesus Christ and say: ‘This is your sin, and I will sin again’. And Jesus likes that, because it was his mission: to become the sinner for us, to liberate us.
Further searching turned up another instance at the invaluable website, The Denzinger-Bergoglio (TDB), taken from the pope’s morning meditation on March 15, 2016:
And this is the Mystery of Christ. Paul, when speaking about this mystery, said the Jesus [sic] emptied himself, humiliated himself and destroyed himself in order to save us. And (what’s) even stronger, ‘he became sin’. Using this symbol, he became a serpent. This is the prophetic message of today’s reading. The Son of Man, who like a serpent, ‘became sin,’ is raised up to save us. […] the story of our redemption, this is the story of God’s love. If we want to know God’s love, let us look at the Cross, a man tortured, a God, emptied of his divinity, dirtied [stained] by sin. But at the same time, he concluded, a God who through his self-annihilation, defeats forever the true name of evil, that Revelation calls ‘the ancient serpent’.
Sin is the work of Satan and Jesus defeats Satan by ‘becoming sin’ and from there he lifts up all of us. The Cross is not an ornament or a work of art with many precious stones as we see around us. The Cross is the Mystery of God’s annihilation for love. And the serpent that makes a prophecy in the desert is salvation, it is raised up and whoever looks at it is healed. And this is not done with a magic wand by a God who does these things: No! This is done through the suffering of the Son of Man, through the suffering of Jesus Christ.
This strange imagery was therefore already fresh in my mind when it came to my attention that the pope had revisited this theme yet again in his morning meditation on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. The following excerpts are taken from a larger translation by Andrew Guernsey of a text as published in L’Osservatore Romano:
[T]he Pope stated, referring to the passage from the Book of Numbers (21:4-9), “Jesus reminds us of what happened in the desert and which we heard in the first reading.” It is the moment when “the weary people, the people who cannot endure the path, turns away from the Lord, speaks evil of Moses and of the Lord, and encounters those serpents which bite and cause the death.” Then “the Lord says to Moses to make a bronze serpent and raise it, and the person who suffers a wound of a serpent, and that looks at the one of bronze, will be healed.”
“The serpent,” the Pope continued, “is the symbol of wickedness, is the symbol of the devil: it was the most cunning of the animals in earthly paradise.” Because “the serpent is the one that is able to seduce with lies”, he is “the father of lies: this is the mystery.” But then “we have to look at the devil to save us? The serpent is the father of sin, the one that made humanity sin.” In reality, “Jesus says, ‘When I am lifted up, everyone will come to me.’ Obviously this is the mystery of the cross.”
“The bronze serpent healed,” said Francis, “but the bronze serpent was a sign of two things: the sin done by the serpent, the seduction of the serpent, the cunning of the serpent; and it was also the sign of the cross of Christ, it was a prophecy.” And “this is why the Lord tells them: ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am.’ “So we can say,” the Pope affirmed, that “Jesus ‘made himself the serpent,’ Jesus ‘made himself sin,’ and he took upon himself all the filth of humanity, all the filth of sin. And he ‘made himself sin’, he made himself to rise up so that all the people might look at him, the people wounded by sin, us. This is the mystery of the cross and Paul says it: ‘He made himself sin’ and he took the appearance of the father of sin, the cunning serpent.”
“Those who did not look at the bronze serpent after being wounded by a snake in the desert,” the Pontiff explained, “died in sin, the sin of murmuring against God and Moses.” In the same way, “those who do not recognize the strength of God, who made himself sin to heal us, in that man who is lifted up, like the serpent, will die in their sin.” Because “salvation comes only from the cross, still from this cross on which God made himself flesh: there is no salvation in ideas, there is no salvation in good will, in the desire to be good.” In reality, the Pope insisted, “the only salvation is in Christ crucified, because only he, as the bronze serpent signified, was able to take all the venom of sin and he healed us there.”
“But what is the cross for us?” is the question posed by Francis. “Yes, it is the sign of Christians, it is the symbol of Christians, and we make the sign of the cross, but we do not always do it well, sometimes we do it so so … because we do not have this faith in the cross,” emphasized the Pope. The cross, then, he stated, “for some people is a badge of belonging: ‘Yes, I carry the cross to show that I am a Christian.’ ” And “It’s fine,” but “not just as a badge, as if it were a team, the badge of a team’; but [rather], said Francis, “as the memory of the man who made himself sin, who made himself the devil, the serpent, for us; he debased himself up to the point of totally annihilating himself.”
Christ made himself the devil?
The odd thing here is how close Francis actually is to the traditional teaching on the matter, but with a gut-wrenching twist. In the above-cited post at TDB, the Church’s understanding of this mystery is perhaps best explained in these excerpts from St. Thomas Aquinas…
– ‘He made him to be sin’, that is, ‘the victim of sacrifice for sin’
– ‘He made him to be sin’: that is, ‘he made him assume mortal and suffering flesh’
– ‘He made him to be sin’: that is, ‘made him regarded a sinner’
– In Christ there was no proneness towards evil, much less could there be sin
And St. Augustine:
What are the biting serpents? Sins, from the mortality of the flesh. What is the serpent lifted up? The Lord’s death on the cross. For as death came by the serpent, it was figured by the image of a serpent. The serpent’s bite was deadly, the Lord’s death is life-giving. A serpent is gazed on that the serpent may have no power. What is this? A death is gazed on, that death may have no power. […] Meanwhile brethren, that we may be healed from sin, let us now gaze on Christ crucified; for ‘as Moses,’ says He, ‘lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believes in Him may not perish, but have everlasting life.’ Just as they who looked on that serpent perished not by the serpent’s bites, so they who look in faith on Christ’s death are healed from the bites of sins. But those were healed from death to temporal life; while here He says, ‘that they may have everlasting life.’ Now there is this difference between the figurative image and the real thing: the figure procured temporal life; the reality, of which that was the figure, procures eternal life. (Saint Augustine of Hippo. Tractates on the Gospel of Saint John, XII, 11)
This Word of God made flesh and dwelt amongst us. […] This was the way in which, though immortal, he was able to die; the way in which he chose to give life to mortal men: he would first share with us, and then enable us to share with him. Of ourselves we had no power to live, nor did he of himself have the power to die. In other words, he performed the most wonderful exchange with us. Through us, he died; through him, we shall live. The death of the Lord our God should not be a cause of shame for us; rather, it should be our greatest hope, our greatest glory. In taking upon himself the death that he found in us, he has most faithfully promised to give us life in him, such as we cannot have of ourselves. He loved us so much that, sinless himself, he suffered for us sinners the punishment we deserved for our sins. How then can he fail to give us the reward we deserve for our righteousness, for he is the source of righteousness? How can he, whose promises are true, fail to reward the saints when he bore the punishment of sinners, though without sin himself? Brethren, let us then fearlessly acknowledge, and even openly proclaim, that Christ was crucified for us; let us confess it, not in fear but in joy, not in shame but in glory. (Saint Augustine of Hippo. Sermon Guelf 3 from the Office of Readings, Monday of Holy Week)
The shift is subtle, but perceptible. Christ did not literally become sin, or a sinner. Christ bore the punishment for our sins, taking on mortal flesh so that he could redeem us from sin. Christ did not literally become the devil, or even take on the form of the serpent. In Numbers 21:5-9, we see the origin of this imagery:
And speaking against God and Moses, they said: Why didst thou bring us out of Egypt, to die in the wilderness? There is no bread, nor have we any waters: our soul now loatheth this very light food. Wherefore the Lord sent among the people fiery serpents, which bit them and killed many of them. Upon which they came to Moses, and said: We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and thee: pray that he may take away these serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to him: Make brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: whosoever being struck shall look on it, shall live. Moses therefore made a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: which when they that were bitten looked upon, they were healed.
Christ, like the bronze serpent of Moses, took the form of that which brought death to his people — the form of Adam. He was then raised up in the form of that which caused the evil, like the bronze serpent was raised up, to heal us of our sins. TDB cites Theophylus of Antioch as quoted by St. Thomas on this theme:
See then the aptness of the figure. The figure of the serpent has the appearance of the beast, but not its poison: in the same way Christ came in the likeness of sinful flesh, being free from sin. By Christ’s being lifted up, understand His being suspended on high, by which suspension He sanctified the air, even as He had sanctified the earth by walking upon it. Herein too is typified the glory of Christ: for the height of the cross was made His glory for in that He submitted to be judged, He judged the prince of this world; for Adam died justly, because he sinned; our Lord unjustly, because He did no sin. So He overcame him, who delivered Him over to death, and thus delivered Adam from death. And in this the devil found himself vanquished, that he could not upon the cross torment our Lord into hating His murderers: but only made Him love and pray for them the more. In this way the cross of Christ was made His lifting up, and glory. (Theophylus of Antioch quoted by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea on Jn 3:14–15)