We Christians tend to see the crucifixion as a horrible event, and the resurrection as that which rectified everything. This is actually true. It is totally true, in fact. But there’s a mysterious line in Revelation that seems to say that something of the crucifixion precedes even creation itself. Revelation 13:8 speaks of Jesus Christ as “the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world.” [footnote] There are many translations but I think this is the best translation considering the Greek ἀρνίου τοῦ ἐσφαγμένου ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου, translated by St. Jerome as agni qui occisus est ab origine mundi. [/footnote]
What does it mean that the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world? Didn’t He die out of love for us sinful humans? Yes, but the pattern of self-emptying is the very life of the Blessed Trinity. God-the-Father eternally engenders God-the-Son who returns the perfect gift of Himself to the Father, and the love that exists between them is God-the-Holy Spirit, the personalized bond of perfection. This happens in eternity, long before creation (or better written: outside even the willing of creation.)
Dr. Brandt Pitre frequently says, “The cross does in time what the Trinity does in eternity.” What he means is that if you want to know what the Trinity looks like on earth, look at a crucifix. Granted, it is true that only the second person of the Trinity became man. Only God-the-Son became the son of Mary who suffered on the cross. But Jesus also said, “Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father.”—John 14:9. I’m not saying that the Father suffered on the cross (the heresy of Patripassianism.) I am saying that when we look at the crucifix, we should see something more than simply guilt for our sins. We should see the full love of the Trinity on earth.
In the resurrected but pierced heart of Jesus we see the eternal patterns of the pouring-out, the Lamb slain before time and in time. We see what it looks like when God’s infinite love collides with man’s sin, a murder that is both the most beautiful and horrible thing on earth. But in the crucifixion, we also see the Lamb who, in some mysterious way, was “slain from the foundation of the world,” even before Pilate got his hands on Him…before I got my hands on Him. How? Because God Himself is a pouring-out of Three infinite persons, and He has programmed creation to be self-gift; even plants sacrifice themselves in order to live, to promote, to procreate, to make thrive a whole ecosystem.
Every joy in the Christian life is stamped with the Cross. Every sadness retains a preview of the resurrection. This is why bargain love will not lead to heaven. A bargain is defined as the most benefit at the least cost. For example, the teaching of heaven in Islam is bargain-love: A Muslim man gets an endless harem of women for one single act of suicide bombing if he takes down certain enemies for Allah. This sounds like a high price to us lukewarm Westerners, but it is not. It is a bargain: one act of pain for endless pleasure.
But God did not set up the universe like this. He set it into a cycle of perpetual sacrifice where he who dies in peace and love, ironically gets to live, because such is the life of the Trinity before time which we enter at death. Most people fashion contraception or onanism a mortal sin because of arbitrary rules. But the sin of contraception or onanism (Genesis 38) reverses the patterns of the eternal pouring out upon oneself in selfishness. It reverses the pattern of generosity that was set before time in the heart of the Lamb, revealed fully on the cross. It simply won’t fit into heaven.
Reckless love is not a sweet-ideal but the pattern of our souls because we are made in God’s image and likeness. And who is God? A Trinity of three persons who live a life of eternal, sacrificial outpouring. The only difference for us is that on earth, this is in a wayward state of both joy and sorrow. But the loss of life is the same pattern as eternal life. For example, on the Feast of the martyr St. Lawrence (who was burned alive by Roman soldiers), St. Leo the Great wrote to the torturers, “That which can die passes by degrees beyond the reach of your tortures, and when Lawrence departeth to heaven, you and your fires are conquered. The love of Christ could not be overcome by the flames, and the glow that scorched the outward man was colder than that which burnt in the inner.” I think we could say that heaven is the exact same sacrificial outpouring as martyrdom, without the pain.
Thus, sacrifice is not a zero-sum game or even a matter of quid-pro-quo theology. God has programmed the universe so that the biggest losers become the biggest winners. Because of what is offered to us at the crucifixion (not only salvation, but a new life of love in suffering), sacrifice of oneself in love now becomes gain because of the cross. In fact, Jesus turned all human relations into a losing of one’s life for others, but especially for God. We know this because it was always this way with the Trinity before time, “slain from the foundation of the world.”
Withdrawing your heart, your money, your body, your life from generosity becomes loss in the new Divine Economy of grace because the cross is now the life of the Trinity on earth. Acts of generosity and self-sacrifice would still be inspirational on YouTube in a non-baptized soul, but of no eternal merit. That is because baptism catches us into the very life of the Trinity, and allows us to join our joys, prayers, sorrows and sacrifices to the infinite merits of the sacrifice of Calvary, re-presented in every Mass. [footnote] St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that good works done in sin—original sin or mortal sin—although not meritorious towards a higher level of glory in heaven, are rewarded by God on earth. St. Thomas Aquinas would probably hold the greatest of these would be the grace to repent and believe. [/footnote] In a baptized body-soul, the smallest act of love can become incorporated into the infinite value of the Paschal mystery. If the Annunciation brought Divinity to humanity, then the Ascension brings our humanity to Divinity, nestled right into that very heart slain from the foundation of the world. His Resurrection revealed that charity, when spent His way, is not divided but multiplied. [footnote] In Matins of the old Divine Office for the II-class Feast of St. Lawrence St. Augustine also wrote “If you love your life too well, then you hate it; if you hate it with a holy hatred, then you love it. Blessed are they that, lest they should so love their life as to lose it, actually hate it, so as to keep it.”—St. Augustine. [/footnote]
I’ve wondered for a long time how Jesus’ helpless suffering on the cross could possibly “disarm principalities and powers” (a reference to demons being defeated like war criminals in Col 2:15) The answer is that Christ’s love simply outshined the darkness, as it always did in heaven, but now on earth. The above icon is of the Christians who had their heads sawed off with knives by ISIS on the shores of Libya. Their reward was heaven, but again: Heaven is the exact same sacrificial outpouring, without the pain. Heaven began long before their final breath, as forgiveness and perseverance is final participation in this love that lasts forever, that will always outshine the darkness.
Oh Lord Jesus, Your Church shows that Love is the Triumph of the cross when the world thinks it has won!