I. Whose Fault was the Death of Christ?
St. Matthew’s Gospel has a sentence that’s generated quite a bit of controversy. When the crowds assembled before Pilate demanded the death of Jesus, Pilate hesitated, knowing He’s innocent. Ultimately, Pilate (being a politician), buckles (Mt. 27:24-25):
When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s Blood. Look to it yourselves.” And the whole people said in reply, “His Blood be upon us and upon our children.”
That final sentence has been a lightning rod of controversy. For ages, Christians used it as an excuse for anti-Semitism. The way the Palm Sunday Mass is currently set up, it’s easy to see why that interpretation is wrong. As I noted yesterday, when the opening Gospel is read, it’s about the crowds with their palms heralding the arrival of Jesus. And during the second Gospel, the Passion of Christ according to St. Matthew, we, the congregation, read the part of the crowd. It’s we who ask for Barabbas, and demand that Jesus be Crucified instead.
The best explanation of this is given to us by Jesus Himself in John 10:17-18, “The reason my Father loves Me is that I lay down My life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from My Father.” In other words, the reason Christ died on the Cross isn’t because of some plot by “the Jews,” or even because of the fickle Jewish crowd outside of Pilate’s palace. It’s because all of us are sinners in desperate need of God’s grace, mercy, and Redemption, and that Redemption comes through the Cross. As He Himself says, Jesus doesn’t have His life taken, but offers it up as a Sacrifice.
Here, Catholics have a unique insight, because of the intimacy we view between the Last Supper and Good Friday. Scripture tells us that Christ is both our great High Priest (Hebrews 9:11) and the Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). He’s both Priest and Victim. At the Crucifixion, we see Him clearly in His role as the Lamb, as the willing Victim. All four Gospels note that He’s slain on Preparation Day (Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:14; John 19:31), the day that the Passover Lamb is slain. But it’s at the Last Supper, where He serves in His priestly capacity offering up His Body and Blood. Remember that simply killing something isn’t the same as sacrificing it. After all, killing animals and cooking them was a daily routine. For it to be a sacrifice, it must be offered up. To offer it up, it was dedicated to God, and quite often, eaten. In eating it, you were reminded of your sinfulness, and the fact that a sacrifice had to be offered on your behalf. So, for example, Leviticus 7:1-6 describes the “guilt offering”:
“These are the regulations for the guilt offering, which is most holy: The guilt offering is to be slaughtered in the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered, and its blood is to be splashed against the sides of the altar. All its fat shall be offered: the fat tail and the fat that covers the internal organs, both kidneys with the fat on them near the loins, and the long lobe of the liver, which is to be removed with the kidneys. The priest shall burn them on the altar as a food offering presented to the LORD. It is a guilt offering. Any male in a priest’s family may eat it, but it must be eaten in the sanctuary area; it is most holy.”
So it is (1) killed, (2) offered up, and then (3) eaten. And more strikingly, look at the fellowship offering (Lev. 7:11-18):
“These are the regulations for the fellowship offering anyone may present to the LORD:
If they offer it as an expression of thankfulness, then along with this thank offering they are to offer thick loaves made without yeast and with olive oil mixed in, thin loaves made without yeast and brushed with oil, and thick loaves of the finest flour well-kneaded and with oil mixed in. Along with their fellowship offering of thanksgiving they are to present an offering with thick loaves of bread made with yeast. They are to bring one of each kind as an offering, a contribution to the LORD; it belongs to the priest who splashes the blood of the fellowship offering against the altar. The meat of their fellowship offering of thanksgiving must be eaten on the day it is offered; they must leave none of it till morning.
If, however, their offering is the result of a vow or is a freewill offering, the sacrifice shall be eaten on the day they offer it, but anything left over may be eaten on the next day. Any meat of the sacrifice left over till the third day must be burned up. If any meat of the fellowship offering is eaten on the third day, the one who offered it will not be accepted. It will not be reckoned to their credit, for it has become impure; the person who eats any of it will be held responsible.”
Note very briefly that the unleaven bread is tied to these fellowship sacrifices. Again, we see the same three things. With both freewill and fellowship offerings, the sacrifice is (1) killed, (2) offered up, and then (3) eaten. In fact, to not eat the sacrifice in that one or two day window renders the sacrifice useless, and it’s just immolated.
Now, with Christ, the same three elements are present, but the order is rearranged. Hebrews 10:12-14 tells us that:
But when this Priest had offered for all time one Sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time He waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one Sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
So Christ as High Priest offered up His Body once for all; and as Victim was slain as a Sacrifice once for all. Those are the first two of the steps Leviticus describes. But the third step is one in which we are intimately involved. Remember that once the Sacrifice was offered and slain, it still must be eaten. Look now at Mt. 26:26-27,
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to His Disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is My Body.”
Then He took a cup, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is My Blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Here, we see the once-for-all event of Jesus offering up His Body and Blood. Notice the timing. This is at the Last Supper, the night before Jesus is Crucified. And here we see Him willingly offering up His Body and Blood, and noting that His Blood will be poured out “for the forgiveness of sins.” This is the High Priestly role that Hebrews 10 is referencing. But He doesn’t just offer up His Body and Blood as a Sacrifice. He also instructs us to “Take and eat” and “Drink from It.” That’s the final part of the Sacrifice of Christ, and it’s this third part which continues forever, because it involves each one of us.
As I’ve explained elsewhere (here and here), on the Jewish calendar, the Last Supper of Holy Thursday, and the Crucifixion of Good Friday are all one day, so this forms a single seamless Sacrifice. And it gets even more fascinating. Typically, the Passover sacrifice is celebrated on two days. First, there’s Preparation Day, where the Lamb is offered up and slain. Then there’s the Passover itself, where the Lamb is eaten. But because the Passover fell on the Sabbath that year (as John 19:31 and Mark 15:42 tell us), some Jews celebrated the Passover a day early, including Jesus and His Disciples. So the Disciples consumed the Passover Lamb, by eating the Flesh and drinking the Blood of Christ, on Passover itself. Meanwhile, Jesus was sacrificed on Preparation Day.
The attempt to blame the Death of Christ on “the Jews” strikes me as an incredible cop-out. We’ve already seen from the above that the all-powerful Jesus Christ was not somehow tricked or overpowered into His Death. Rather, in His Love and Mercy, He voluntarily laid down His Life, offering it up as a Sacrifice. In fact, we see that He offered His Body up at the Last Supper (Mt. 26:26-27), before the Jewish crowds ever called for His Death. (Mt. 27:15-26). Unless we’re going to accuse the Jews of time travel, it’s hard to see how they’re culpable for our great High Priest offering up the perfect Sacrifice.
But why did Jesus offer Himself as the perfect Sacrifice in the first place? Because of our sins. As Romans 5:6-10 tells us,
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
So Paul tells us that Christ died for “the ungodly,” those who had made themselves “God’s enemies.” And right in the middle of this, he explains that he’s referring to us: all of us. So it’s true that a wicked and sinful people were responsible for the Death of Christ, in this sense: Christ loved those wicked and sinful people (me and you) so dearly that He chose Death on a Cross over letting us simply die and get our just desserts in Hell. So the problem with blaming “the Jews” for the Death of Christ is that it’s too limited. It passes the buck for something each and every one of us, Jewish or Gentile, is guilty of.
In other words, in wanting to blame the Jews, we’re committing the exact same cowardly sin that Pilate commit, when he washed his hands, and declared that great lie: “I am innocent of this Man’s Blood.” (Matthew 27:24). He wasn’t, and neither are we. It’s all of us who seek that ourselves and our children be covered with saving Blood of Christ. Since we “know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18-19), then please God, let “His Blood be upon us and upon our children”(Matthew 27:25). After all, He “loves us and has freed us from our sins by His Blood”(Revelation 1:5), and “in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the Blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:13).
I’ll give the last word to Nostra Aetate, one of the masterpieces of the Second Vatican Council:
True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ;(cf. John 19:6) 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.Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church’s preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.