The Catholic faith originates from the old Jewish religion. It is in a sense a continuation of Judaism and as such shares many of the same beliefs. In the old Jewish sacred texts the creation of the world is narrated in the book of Genesis. Genesis teaches that an all-powerful, self-existent, beautiful and infinite being, God, created all things. First, He created inanimate matter: rock, water, air etc; then all living things: vegetation, animals, angels and men, and to angels and men He bestowed not only life but also intellect and the ability to act freely, i.e., freewill.
In the beginning man lived a life of paradise as God had intended. There was no disease, no pain or death upon the earth; life was abundantly happy, and in due course God planned to lift Adam and all his children out of the world and give them the vision of Himself, which is the total fulfilment of heaven. However, Adam, the first man, in a callous pride-filled act of his own freewill, turned from God and offended His infinite majesty. As a result humankind’s relationship to God was damaged, God withdrew many of His gifts to man and the world was thrust out of gear. Man’s intellect became clouded, his memory and will were dulled, and he went to war within, fighting with his own passions (pride, anger, lust, envy, sloth, covetousness, gluttony). God also withdrew His providential gift of painlessness and life without death. Man became subject to disease and suffering, the world became his enemy, beset with danger and constant difficulty, but above all man’s true end, heaven, was now closed.
It is a principle of justice that, between criminal and victim, for amends to be made, the victim must be reimbursed with an amount equal to the crime committed against him. For instance if a watch worth £100 were stolen then for justice to be administered either the watch itself must be returned or the criminal must reimburse the victim with the sum of £100. The dignity of the victim also affects the seriousness of the offence. For instance, to insult the queen of England is more serious than to insult a humble friend or work colleague. This is not because the queen is not human but because she holds an important rank among us, a rank which deserves a certain amount of respect. Now, God is infinite and all-good, therefore the offence committed against Him was in a certain sense infinite, and therefore required an infinite amount of compensation. But of course man could offer no such compensation himself, so what was to be done? God mercifully promised that in time a redeemer would come, i.e., a rescuer, sent by God, who would redeem (buy back) humankind from perdition and restore a right relationship. Catholics believe that Jesus of Nazareth who appeared on the earth some two thousand years ago was that expected redeemer, and because He was the ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ (the anointed one), Catholicism is said to be Christian.
The Unclean Sacrifices of the Old Covenant
A sacrifice is the offering of a victim (i.e., a person or thing) by a priest to God alone, and the destruction of it in some way, to acknowledge that He is the Creator and Lord of all things. A sacrifice may be offered, specifically, to give God honour or adoration, to offer thanks, to beg favours, or to make propitiation (i.e., to appease God).
From earliest times, men offered up sacrifices to God. Everything God created on the earth – animals, vegatation, and inanimate matter – God created for His own glory, but he also created these things for man’s use. Thus men would take these gifts of God, select the most precious among them, and, rather than use them for themselves, they would offer them to God by destroying them upon altars. Among the Jews there were two kinds of sacrifice: the bloody, and unbloody. In a bloody sacrifice, a living animal such as an ox, a lamb, or a dove was slaughtered; its blood was poured out upon the altar and its flesh consumed by fire or eaten. An unbloody sacrifice was the sacrifice of some food such as fruit, wine, or wheat; it was burned up or eaten, and the wine was poured out on the altar.
God gave the Jews detailed instructions on sacrificial offerings (Lev. i. vii.; xvi; xxii.). They had a high-priest, who, acting in the name of all the people would offer morning and evening an unbloody sacrifice of incense, flour, oil, and frankincense. He then offered a bloody sacrifice of a lamb together with food and drink, and on the Sabbath (Saturdays), he offered two more lambs with bread and wine. Hundreds of victims were sacrificed amidst impressive ceremonies at certain times in the year on certain feast. There were four chief feasts, the Pasch (or Passover), the Pentecost, the Tabernacles, and the Expiation. The first three commemorated important events in the history of the Jewish people, while in the latter, the feast of the Expiation (or Atonement), the priest offered sacrifice for his own sins and those of the peoples, and this was the most solemn feast of all. ‘Atonement’ means to make amends, i.e., to be made ‘at one’ (at-one-ment)with God.
The Jews knew that the offerings they made to God could never fully repay for the damage of the sin of Adam. They waited in expectant hope for the coming of the true redeemer, the one whom God had promise. The sacrifices they offered were unclean, i.e., imperfect, but the sacrifice of the redeemer would be spotless, and once offered, man’s relationship to God would be repaired, and the offering of unclean sacrifices would cease.
Jesus of Nazareth & the Clean Sacrifice
For centuries the coming of the Messiah was prophesied by holy men. It was said that He would be born of a virgin, that He would be of the line of a certain king, David, and that He would be born in Bethlehem. The prophecies can be read in full the old Jewish sacred texts found in the first half of the Christian bible. Christians believe that all the prophecies were fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus’s life was recorded by a number of His followers in the decades following His death. Four such biographies were collected together and can now be found in the second half of the Christian bible. These are the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In the gospels, Jesus’s conception is said to have been virginal. This means He had a human mother but no human father. That which in ordinary conception is produced by the action of a biological father, was, in the case of Jesus, produced by a miracle of God. He grew in the womb like any other child, and in due course was born into the world, in Bethlehem. Of the next thirty years of His life we know very little. He was a carpenter in Nazareth, further north in Galilee. Then came the three years of His public life. He travelled over Palestine with twelve followers He had chosen, the Apostles. He preached of God and man, of the Kingdom of God, and of Himself as its Founder. He performed incredible miracles such as raising the dead and healing the sick. His miracles showed that He was in some sense special and that God was guaranteeing the truth of His utterances. But the Jewish leaders of the time had grown corrupt and Jesus was without mercy for their sinfulness. They wanted Him dead, and He gave them the pretext on which, in the name of true religion, they might kill Him. For He claimed to be not only the Messiah but God. Thus upon a charge of blasphemy they persuaded the Roman governor of Judaea to crucify Him. He was nailed to a cross on a hill called Calvary for three hours until He died. He was buried and on the third day He rose again. For forty days more He appeared among His Apostles then ascended into the sky until a cloud hid Him from the gaze.
Christians believe that Jesus was God enfleshed, i.e., incarnate of man. Remember that a sacrifice is an offering and destruction of a victim by a priest to God alone. Remember that for the sin of Adam, an infinite price had to be payed. On the cross, Jesus was both victim and high-priest – he was both offerer and offered – and as God enfleshed, a sinless man, His sacrifice was therefore:
- clean (perfect)
And by it humankind is redeemed.
Until Christ’s death on the cross, the gates of heaven – man’s true end – had been closed. Now they were open, and those who were redeemed could ascend there after their earthly existence as had always been intended before the Fall of Adam. But who were the redeemed? Christ’s redeeming act was truly for all men but not all accept Him and His sacrifice – it is only to those who accept the sacrifice of Christ that are made just in the sight of God.