Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

(April 9, 2004)

Many people ask the question: Why did Jesus have to die? We know of course that death is common lot of all human beings. Although we share that fate with other animals, for us the experience is different because we can see it coming and it causes us worry, even anguish. As Christians, we have always believed that the bitterness of death results from original sin, that is, man’s rebellion against God. We live in a state of disorder: alienated from the Source of our being, we are unable to bring order to our own passions. Human history (and our daily newpaper) gives sad testimony to that disordered state of affairs.

Rebellion (disobedience) set us against God – and continues to do so. To put things aright would require an act of perfect obedience. The Passion movie has a powerful scene which illustrates this truth. On the way to Calvary, Jesus falls under the weight of his cross. The Blessed Virgin rushes toward him. Turning his bleeding face toward her, he says, “See, Mother, I make all things new.” Jesus’ obedience is the new creation.

Love requires sacrifice. I remember when I was a seminarian on home from vacation. I needed a car to attend a gathering. My dad had just purchased a new car. It was his pride and joy. I asked him, “Pa, can I borrow the car?” I could see a look of anguish on his face. He could have mentioned to me the time I put a dent in one of his other cars, but he did not. Instead he said, “OK, here are the keys. Drive carefully.” It was an act of great love because it involved considerable sacrifice.

Jesus’ death on the cross was the greatest act of love, not because it was necessarily the worst physical suffering any human being endured (although it is hard to imagine greater physical pain) but because it involved the greatest sacrifice. As God, Jesus took upon himself every human offense. In doing so, he fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy, he was “crushed for our sins.”

Christians in this country have many faults, but we have at least gotten the message that Jesus died for our sins.* This is no small thing. When you think about it, one of the important things any of can do is accept responsibility for our own actions. Some people predicted that the Passion movie would provoke anti-Semitism, that Christians would come out of the theaters ready to put the blame on the Jews. That did not happen. Most Christians sat in stunned silence. Many interiorly confessed their sins and later received the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Newspapers reported that some even went to the police to confess crimes of burglary and murder. A Norwegian neo-Nazi named Johnny Olsen, after watching the Passion, admitted to bombings he had done in the 90’s. You and I may not have done things so notorious, but we know the truth. Our sins put Jesus on the cross.

As we venerate the cross this evening, we acknowledge our sins. We thank Jesus for bearing our guilt. We take our hurts, anxieties and resentments to the cross. The cross we show us which battles really matter – and who has the final victory

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Final Version

*As George Weigel brings out, this is the longstanding Christian teaching:

The settled teaching of the Catholic Church — which does not date from the Second Vatican Council but was vigorously expressed by, among others, the 16th century Council of Trent — is that the sinfulness of all humanity was the cause of the death of Christ.

Nevertheless, the Second Vatican Council does have a forceful assertion which we need to reflect on, especially during Holy Week:

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ;(13) still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone. NOSTRA AETATE #4

Spanish Version

From Archives:

2009 Good Friday Homily: He Learned Obedience
2008: According to Your Word
2007: He Took Our Suffering to Himself
2006: The Hour of Divine Mercy
2005: The Conversion of Barabbas
2004: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?
2003: The Host
2002: Testimony of Bishop Dolli
2001: Blood From His Side
2000: Vicarious Suffering
1999: Old Testament Fulfilled
1998: He took our place (Example of St. Maximilian Kolbe)

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin (Holy Week, Sharon & Unborn Victims of Violence Act, Seeing The Passion a Second Time)

From Fr. Frank Pavone: You Wouldn't Even Ask:

If a candidate who supported terrorism asked for your vote, would you say, "I disagree with you on terrorism, but where do you stand on other issues?" I doubt it.

...Such a position makes no sense whatsoever, unless one is completely blind to the violence of abortion. That, of course, is the problem. But we need only see what abortion looks like, or read descriptions from the abortionists themselves, and the evidence is clear. (USA Today refused to sell me space for an ad that quoted abortionists describing their work because the readers would be traumatized just by the words!)

Passion Play by Holy Family Youth Group

The Scandal no one talks about

Kerry's Annulment

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