Growing up as a Catholic I had always been taught that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, but as I got older I wondered why his terrible suffering and death were necessary for my personal sins, which I knew I needed to confess, but which were certainly not on the same scale as those of someone like Hitler.
It was not until I attended a retreat in my early thirties that the penny dropped. The Holy Spirit revealed the Person of Jesus Christ to me, which was altogether different from learning about him in religion classes, important as that was. The Holy Spirit is sent to “witness to Jesus” (see Jn 15:26), and he does so in a way that surpasses our natural understanding. Since he is spirit, he speaks to our innermost being, our spirit, Person to person. The Holy Spirit opens our minds to comprehend Christ’s death and Resurrection:
“He makes present the mystery of Christ” (CCC 737).
The understanding that the Holy Spirit gives of the death of Christ on the cross includes a realisation of our own sin, but amazingly, the Holy Spirit does it in such a way that, at the very same time, we experience his consoling love. This is what is called “the light of divine Revelation”.
Only the light of divine Revelation clarifies the reality of sin… Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognise sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. (CCC 387)
What is sin?
Sin is a refusal to hear the word of God: “Quite frequently in both the Old and in the New Testament, we find sin described as a refusal to hear the word…and thus as being closed to God who calls us to communion with himself” (Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini 26). Primarily, sin is about man’s relationship to God, his creator:
To try to understand what sin is, one must first recognise the profound relation of man to God, for only in this relationship is the evil of sin unmasked in its true identity as humanity’s rejection of God and opposition to him. (CCC 386)
We need to go back to man’s beginning, to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, which describes the creation of the first human beings and their relationship to God.
The origin of sin
God has revealed himself as a Trinity of Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The trinitarian God created us in his image and likeness. In Genesis, we read that God said, “Let us make man in our image, in the likeness of ourselves” (1:26), so we, too, are “trinitarian”: spirit, soul and body, as Pope Benedict XVI explained, quoting Scripture:
“May the God of peace himself”, St Paul writes, “sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th 5:23). We are, therefore, spirit, soul and body. We are part of this world, tied to the possibilities and limitations of our material condition, while at the same time we are open to an infinite horizon, able to converse with God and to welcome him within us.
(Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Vespers 27th September 2010.)
The Church teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, shared in God’s divine life: they were in a state of “original holiness” because God is holy. “The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him” (CCC 374).
Since they were in the image of God’s own nature, they were therefore “imperishable” – immortal (see Ws 2:23). As long as they remained in the “divine intimacy” of communion with God, they would never suffer or die (see CCC 376).
Obviously, this description of human beings in the state of “original holiness” and living forever is not what human beings experience now. So what happened to change all of that? Using what St John Paul II referred to as a “symbolic narrative”, Sacred Scripture tells us about the separation of man from his life of union with God through the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “The account of the Fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man” (CCC 390).
The story tells us that God in his perfect love placed our first parents in the Garden of Eden, a paradise. God told them they could eat from any of the trees in the Garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad: “From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die” (Gn 2:17).
What was God telling them? All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in God (Col 2:3) who shared his entire being with his children, Adam and Eve. The Church has always taught that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is Wisdom personified, which Jesus himself confirmed when he identified himself as the Truth (see Jn 14:6). If Adam and Eve chose to seek “wisdom” apart from Wisdom himself, they would be separating themselves from God, who is also eternal life. In other words, they would die. God was merely warning them of the consequences of such a choice.
The figurative language in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden shows the devil as a serpent:
The serpent said to the woman, “You certainly will not die!”…The woman saw that the tree was…desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Gn 3:4, 6)
We know from Scripture and the teaching of the Church that the devil is the archangel Lucifer, who was created good by God but who rebelled against him, was thrown down to earth and “deceived the whole world” (Rv 12:9). Jesus called the devil “the father of lies” and “a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44-45).
By their choice to disobey God’s word and believe the lie of the evil one, our first parents consciously separated themselves from God, their source of love, holiness, wisdom and eternal life. This separation is referred to as “the Fall” – man’s fall from grace: “Grace is a participation in the life of God” (CCC 1997). Pope St Paul VI explained that the devil is “the wily, fatal tempter involved in the first sin, the original sin [which was] the profound cause of death because it involved detachment from God, the source of life.” (Pope Paul VI, General Audience, 15th November 1972)
Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience towards God and lack of trust in his goodness. (CCC 397)
In that sin, man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, and against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good. Created in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully “divinised” by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God”, but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God”. (CCC 398)
By our first parents’ sin, the devil acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free. Original sin entails “captivity under the power of him who thenceforth had the power of death, that is, the devil.” (CCC 407)
The fatal consequences of sin
The Catechism describes how “Scripture portrays the tragic consequences of this first disobedience”:
- Adam and Eve…lose the grace of original holiness.
- They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image…
- The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed.
- The control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered.
- The union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination.
- Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man.
- Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”.
- Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true… Death makes its entrance into human history. (CCC 399, 400)
“Disfigured by sin and death, man remains ‘in the image of God’…but is deprived ‘of the glory of God’, of his ‘likeness’…the Spirit who is ‘the giver of life’” (CCC 705, author’s emphasis).
Without the life-giving Spirit of God dwelling within them, fallen human beings are spiritually dead. Since they are no longer in union with Wisdom himself, “Intellectually they are in the dark, and they are estranged from the life of God” (Ep 14:18). Therefore, “Sin brought man to a lower state, forcing him away from the completeness that is his to attain” (Gaudium et Spes 13). Every human being is born in this state.
“How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? …“By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature they would then transmit in a fallen state… a human nature deprived of original holiness” (CCC 404).
The late Fr Ian Petit, OSB, addressed this unfortunate human condition:
That there is something wrong with human nature is fairly obvious: the good we plan to do often ends in failure. We like to blame this on the star we were born under, or on the fact that our mother made a negative remark to us. We resist admitting that the fault may lie within us, and much time is spent searching for a cause, hoping we can find a remedy. Today many courses are offered to help us look into the mystery of ourselves and some of our peculiarities. These may have value in aiding our understanding of why we do this or feel that, but the trouble is that the various wounds we may have received in childhood are not the real cause for our behaviour, for long before these wounds happened we were already wounded. These hurts have only added to the trouble already there.… The story of the Fall is not to be taken literally… What we are being told is that Satan tempted Eve to live by her own intelligence rather than by what God said. She was being tempted to live independently from God. The fact that she obeyed has radically wounded human nature. (Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM cap and Ian Petit, OSB, Another Gospel? Current Theories and Practices which Obscure the Good News (Proclaim Publications).)
When, by God’s grace, I grasped the reality of the human condition, I realised that, just like every other human being, I too needed to be restored to God’s original plan for human beings, to be fully human as God intended. So the question is: “How can the fallen human being free himself from his sinful condition, from death and the domination of the devil, and be restored to union with Eternal Life himself?” The answer is that he cannot. God himself had to rescue us.
This blog is extracted from our book The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Every time the Mass is celebrated something astonishing occurs: the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross is made truly present. Drawing on Sacred Scripture, the Catechism, and the words of saints and popes, this book explains how the Sacrifice of the Mass unites the faithful with God.
For more on the Mass as a sacrifice and to support the mission of CTS, order your copy of The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.