Project Canterbury

Selfhood and Sacrifice
The Seven Problems of the Atoning Life

Addresses on the Words from the Cross

By the Reverend Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1932.

'CONSUMMATUM EST!' quoth Christ, and comsed for to swoon
Piteously and pale, as prisoner that dieth.
The Lord of life and of light then laid His eyes together;
The day for dread withdrew, and dark became the sun.
The wall of the temple to-clave, even in two pieces;
The hard rock all to-rove as (if) it quick were,
And dead men for that din came out of deep graves,
And told why that tempest so long time dured;
"For a bitter battle," the dead body said,
"Life and Death in the darkness--the one for-doth the other,
But shall no wight wit witterly who shall have the mastery
Ere Sunday, about sun-rising," and sank with that to earth.

WILLIAM LANGLAND, The Vision of Piers the Plowman.
Passus XXI (revision of 1393?)


"It is finished."--ST. JOHN 19: 30.

WHY are there so many incomplete and unfinished lives? When the priest is engaged upon the last rites there comes home to him again and again the fact that the tragedy of human lives is so often their non-fulfilment: a promising person, with so many advantages and prospects, seems to have accomplished so little; another life in the term of its activity but half-disclosed the possibilities never brought to fruition; another's career was constituted apparently of a succession of frustrations--fine things hinted at, suggestions of amazing capacities and powers, noble aspirations evaporated, and then--the grave. One can still find in a certain type of funerary inscription a formula oft-repeated over the resting-place of those who died before reaching the threescore and ten. "Cut off in the prime of life." The same verdict with the same words would probably have been uttered by people who write such epitaphs on the life of our Lord. Thirty-three years in the world, possibly three years all told of His public ministry, recorded in a few oddments of memoirs, yet at the end He could say. "It is finished."

Like children called in from play we complain that it is too soon to go to bed. Few men who have made much of life are willing to surrender it, as are very few of those for whom it would seem to have offered little. With characteristic tenacity we hold on when it is full time to let go. We hold on to infancy into childhood, to childhood when we should be growing up into adolescence, to adolescence when we should be ripening into adulthood--and then, to existence in this world when the time shall have come for the next stage of our journey. There are two chief thoughts about our lives as compared to our Lord's that we do well here to contemplate: (1) the reluctance really to grow up which most of us show, and (2) the consequent lack of ability to lay hold of all our resources for the business of living. In our Lord's life and career we have the example of full human maturity: His was the Perfect Life. Let us compare and contrast His art of living with our own, in these two respects.

The one note of His babyhood and the one note on His boyhood are recorded by St. Luke: "And the Child increased and grew strong, being filled with wisdom, and God's grace was upon Him" (2:40); and the episode in the temple when He met our Lady's reproachful inquiry with the question: "Wist ye not that I must be in My Father's house" (or "about My Father's business")? (2: 49)--after which St. Luke concludes with the words "and Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man" (2:52). At every stage of His youth there was free unstunted growth, and at an early age--entirely too early for the ideal of the typically fond parent--He became emancipated. There was much wisdom in her who was full of grace before she became His Mother. We hear little of her in the gospels, but every incident, phrase, word, or action is of great significance. Concern she showed, for example, but there is no sign of that hysterical solicitude, that overwhelming preoccupation with the child that marks unwholesome motherhood. The little dialogue at our Lord's First Miracle at Cana in Galilee is most illuminating: "His Mother says to Him: 'They have no wine.' And Jesus says to her: 'My dear, let's not be disturbed about it. I shall take care of it in due time.' His Mother says to the servants: 'Whatever He says to you, do it'" (St. John 2: 3-5). There is no trace of rebuke here, only of reassurance. There is no sign of displeasure on His part or sense of being snubbed on hers. These are two free, full personalities, simple, limpid in purity of intention, and devoted with utter completeness to their respective vocations. There was no shock of growth in the childhood, boyhood, and young manhood of Jesus. His development was free, normal, and wholesome. Small wonder if modern Christian mothers should like to learn our Lady's ways!

If we put to one side the sentimentality with which we have invested the mother-child relationship, and true our outlook by the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth, we can learn much that sheds light on our own difficulties. We see in Jesus' early ministry no signs of either reluctance or precipitate haste: a young man He was, yet astoundingly mature. In new situations He was never caught off His guard; never was He surprised by an emergency or nonplussed by a situation. He had no favorites and no prejudices. He saw all men with a steady impartiality of forthgiving goodness. There were, of course, profound differences in the ability to receive what He gave. As Fr. Congreve once said in answer to the question, Why was St. John the "Beloved" Disciple; did our Lord have favorites? "It was," Fr. Congreve replies, "because he allowed our Lord to love him more than did the rest." Yet the rule of giving, not in proportion to desert but in proportion to need was the canon of His dealing with men: St. Peter because of his clamorous need received much; of St. John, transformed into serenity from having been one of the Sons of Thunder, we hear little in the way of special treatment. Detached, yet not aloof; identified with, yet felt as completely different from, His followers (as is shown by that very early comment in St. Mark 10:32); poised and balanced, yet not untouched by our infirmities--what a picture of a complete human person! Claiming naught and asserting less about Himself, teaching not by indoctrination but by enabling others to see their own truth for themselves, causing most wonder to those who best knew Him, tender and compassionate, yet austere and stern in His teachings, universal in the scope of His sympathies, yet effortlessly giving Himself without reservation to all and sundry who levied on Him--this is He, the Man of God, and Son of Man, who is our model. Now He was fearless, courageous, bold, and defied convention--again He was amenable, retiring, meek, and conformed with whole heart to the terms of life: serenity, charm, courage, and poise--how do we all need this endowment for the business of living!

As we grow up we attach ourselves to our environment and are with great reluctance urged to let go and take the next step. Many of us carry on into adolescence traits of babyhood and childhood; in fact, a great number of so-called grown-ups aren't much more than overgrown children. If in the statue of Laocoon the sons are pictured as miniature adults, in our lives today all too many of us are magnified children. The unwillingness to let ourselves go on into the next stage of development is a marked characteristic of innumerable Christians, for many of whom Christianity is the surrogate for home and childhood. Yet again and again our Lord says to us: "Friend, go up higher," and with cowardly humility we prefer to stay where less responsibility attaches to our post.

This way of growing up makes difficulties innumerable for us in later life. We are often puzzled in trying to understand why some such apparently unselfish parents have such selfish children. The answer is not hard to give, for a really greater degree of unselfishness on the part of the parents would have made for an independence of the child in which selfishness would be too difficult to be worth the price. It is so often like our Lord's attitude to Pharisaic legalism. His indictment was that it didn't go far enough! A child who has had a bad start off from "fond" parents (who, we are told, unconsciously want to dominate and retain the child as a dependent) has a bad time of it making a satisfactory adjustment to the work-a-day world, and a no less bad time of it getting on with God. Such a person is put to play the game of life with loaded dice. It is hard to see just what's the matter, where to begin to correct the trouble, and where there is responsibility and where not. There are odds against a person so cribbed, cabined, and confined by a wrong upbringing ever being able fully to realize--or even guess at--his own possibilities. So much inner friction has to be overcome, as if to say that eighty per cent of effort is expending within the self, while but twenty finds its way out for direct applications on the life-task.

Then we turn from ourselves to sec our dear Lord: where He is serene, we are "hot and bothered"; where He shows imperturbable poise, we go off the deep end; where He watches, helps, encourages, we are tempted to blame, indict, and criticize; where He shows fearlessness, we are full of fears; where He goes on His course with calm security and unflinching awareness of the facts, we back and fill, reverse, get panicky, jump ahead in spasmodic and ill-considered bursts of energy. No wonder we say: "Finished? No--not half done! Give me time!" No wonder He could say: "It is finished."

Our fears and our lack of faith and love, our preoccupations with self--and remember how completely lacking in the portrait of Jesus in the gospels is any trace of self-consciousness--and our discordant, jangling, inharmonious selves seek for compensations and satisfactions by way of balancing the ledger. We are so concentrated on our little part in the orchestra of life that we fail to hear the full harmony. It is as if we thought we were solo instruments in the music of the spheres, and were called upon for a steady performance. With even a little sense of humor we could preserve a better balance and proportion in our outlook on life. After all, we really are not responsible for the whole world--or even for our family, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens. There are limits. We do have a limited responsibility, however, for we belong to the Society of God--Christ's Mystical Body. We often teeter back and forth on a see-saw between two extremes--overestimate of our place in the scheme of things, and underestimate of that' place. It is hard to establish an equilibrium, yet just that balance is of the essence of the adventure of Christian living (as we have seen in another connection). We're not called upon to complete all the possible jobs in life to which we may be inclined to direct our energies. For each such job has its place in an ordered hierarchy of action, within the Body's functioning. The "lust of finishing" is often a dangerous deceit and a subtle temptation. What we do in time has a different perspective in Eternity, and the significance is quite differently estimated. A small essay of Descartes has proved of greater value than whole libraries of more polished and perfect works.

It depends entirely upon our fundamental viewpoint. For whom are we living--ourselves, or God? For what are we living--this world, or His Kingdom? A life work that has an ordered place in an ultimate scheme of things may be complete though unfinished, and finished yet incomplete. One can easily see that sundry tasks complete in themselves and finished are but beginnings: the more they are brought to an end with finality, the harder job will the next man have to unravel them, so as to carry on the work. If we are really living for God and for His Kingdom, then the quality as well as the character of the work of life will bear this reference somewhere. If the Catholic gospel is Catholic in every sense, its sweep will include all human activities which are not sinful. There can therefore be a true sacrament of work, as well as a consecration of the art of working.

How, then, may we be taught to remedy the discrepancy between our lives--which so often seem so futile and footling, so cramped and circumscribed, so frustrated and unsatisfactory--and the life of our Lord? Is His model so inaccessibly remote from our imitation that in putting us to shame it really demoralizes us by its dazzling achievement and triumphant efficiency? No--a thousand times, No! He was Man, remember. His humanity was not a mere shell in which Godhead disguised itself. He was God in human terms, without reservation or suppression. It was not an act in drama in which He played a part. It was not an object lesson, this life story of Jesus, Son of Mary. Perhaps if we could make vivid and explosively real to ourselves what His humanity means, we should find ourselves vastly assisted for our job in living. The Word did not take on impaired humanity at the Incarnation. He assumed our nature with all its limitations. The center of personality, the ego, the self, was the Eternal Son, functioning in human nature, complete and entire. It is this which is our way toward healing, this humanity of our Lord. It is His Manhood by which we can attune ours, if we take it into ourselves, appropriate it, and make it our own. Think what it means that God intimately shares our experience, not only as God but as Man also; that this is not only a past fact in history but a present fact as well. It is as immediate to the believer now as to our Lady at the Cross. Deity become man makes men's experience perpetual. Do not think of the Incarnation and Passion and Resurrection in the past tense: the Passion still goes on, the agony still is borne, the words are still being said, the consummation is still being wrought.

What Jesus did for us He must now be doing in us. How is He to achieve this transformation in us? How can we become less like what we are, and more like what He would have us be? First, make conscious effort constantly to quicken the picture of His Example for your life. You cannot do this without reading your Bible. Apply every faculty of mind--memory, reason, will, affections--toward the active appropriation of that standard for yourselves. If you have opportunity and can generate the interest to do so, get yourself a good commentary on one of the gospels, and a good Life of Christ. Ponder and think over that life in the light of your difficulties, your questions, and the best and wisest thought of our present day. The ideals of many a pedagogue and moralist find no other expression in reality than in the Person and Work of Jesus, Son of Mary.' Secondly, intensify your sacramental life. Use the opportunities and means of grace with effective discrimination and consistent application to your needs. Every new thing you learn should make each Confession, each Communion, each time you assist at Mass more luminous with meaning and potent in effect in your life. Thirdly, insist on growing. His Gospel is epitomized in the Johannine summary: "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." Where you discover blind-spots and insensitive areas in your soul, quicken and revive the life there; by every effort within you, do not let the current of life trickle down into sluggishness. Bad spiritual circulation is as dangerous a symptom as bad circulation is for the body. When necessary enforce growth, if you resent and repel the idea: cruel kindness is to be preferred to cruel neglect. When you lay hold again and again of the power of the Blessed Sacrament, the very transfusion of His perfect humanity unto you; when you find the Lord of life ready and desirous to dispel fears, break the chains of preoccupations, give you courage, open and enlighten your eyes to see, and move your will to do--and you cooperate, opening wide and wholly the very inmost part of your personality to His influence--then life will come in successive waves and impulses of vitality unto you, flooding, transforming and empowering you for the end which Jesus had for Himself: "I came . . . not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me" (St. John 6:38; cf. 5:30).

We all seek adjustment and harmony with our environment. God is the chief fact in that horizon. No partial harmonization of life can suffice, for restlessness will mark our days, as St. Augustine said of old: "Thou hast created us for Thyself, and the heart is unquiet until it come to rest in Thee." No narcotizing and no opiates are used in the spiritual surgery of Jesus the Physician. He heals, not by delusion but by the revelation of the real. The believer who has won his way to the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free is as ardent a realist as he is a passionate idealist. All reality is, after all, only in God. To discuss "reality" apart from Him is an utterly inadequate thing, so distorted will be our perspective. Our perspective, then, not only contains but it is entirely governed by God. As His is the only viewpoint that matters, so He it is who matters most of all. It is a question of perspective: "It is finished" had reference to the Father's Will, the fact of supreme importance. The foreshortened perspective of this world's view is so partial as to be wrong, distorted, and ultimately untrue.

With God in view and the Kingdom as the goal of action and effort, every believer's life on earth must be but the visible arc of an invisible (and infinite) circle. Each Christian's life must needs suggest and hint at more than it outwardly achieves: it has its most vital references not to the here and now, but to the Eternal. Were a Christian's life here so entirely complete, finished, and perfect as to be so recognized in the world, that very fact would tell against its eternal significance. You cannot be complete--and still be the part of a larger whole! A work cannot be finished in this life, according to the canons of this world, and possess that significance which relative to the Eternal it must needs bear to be fully Christian.

The world, then, acted consistently in wondering how our Lord's words could make sense: "It is finished." A three-year ministry ending in failure, and He could describe it as "consummated"! From God's point of view the mission of the Incarnate One as Man was now "finished" indeed. What disobedience bad destroyed, that obedience had restored. The same nature which had sinned had now made amends. The capacity of that nature now for the first time stood revealed. What humanity is capable of is manifest for all men to know: fearless, forthright, unperturbed, serene conquest in the face of all the opposition men can bring. Men cannot nullify what man's nature can achieve. What has once been achieved is once for all accomplished--in one sense. In another sense, the Passion but initiated the process of redemption which is reenacted in every believer. You and I are the cause of the Passion; yes, it goes on even now in us. The process must carry on to its fulfilment: until it is, in verity and fact, "finished" in you and me. His Atoning Work must continue in the same Body, though Mystical, through the same Body, though sacramental, and by the same Person, both Priest and Victim. In the Passion we shared, for as John Donne said more than three centuries ago: the Blessed Virgin

"... was God's partner there, and furnished thus
Halfe of that sacrifice, which ransom'd us."

In that Passion with us He now shares, until He speaks the words through our lips: "It is finished."

As the need is always present, so the Passion is always pleaded. In each sinner there is Christ set up on Calvary, in each soul is re├źnacted its agony. Each sin we commit "crucifies again to ourselves the Son of God and puts Him up on the pillory of shame" (Hebrews 6:6). In His Church the Lord Jesus is reborn, re-offered, raised again, and imparts the Spirit. His Body lives by His Spirit, and in each of us today there should be an ardent re-appreciation of that fact. We all fail and come short of His will whose Spirit dwells in us, but we can this day resolve not so completely to fail again. We shall take courage from His example. We shall resolve not to have these lives of ours terminate their earthly course in futility and frustration, where His perfect life is not only shown us as a moral but imparted to us as power. There is nothing impossible with God. Nothing which sin is or does, nothing which would seem to bind forever, nothing which malice, hatred, or ignorance can effect, can separate us from that Power of Love, and that loving Power which is the Life of Jesus. That complete and perfect life we must assimilate into ourselves, not by will alone but also by desire and thought. We must expect transformation, and trans-valuation of our standards. He can change us who cannot change ourselves, and it is His verdict only which can rightly say: "It is finished."

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