Once again the third Sunday of July has come around and we celebrate the Patronal Feast of both our parish and of the Redemptorist Order. We were very nearly not called the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer at all. Originally the first brothers wanted to be called the Congregation of the Most Holy Saviour but there was already a small group of canons regular with that name in the early 1700s (who have since ceased to exist).
We have always rejoiced in being named after the Redeemer. Many Orders are nicknamed after their founder – the Order of Friars Minor are popularly called Franciscans, the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, &c. There’s something special about being called after the Redeemer, as the Jesuits are called after Jesus. It always points away from ourselves and towards Christ.
So … Redemptorists rather than Saviourists! … it is worthwhile to pause for a moment and meditate upon the meaning of redemption and redeemer.
Of course, as members of a parish served by a religious order dedicated to the Most Holy Redeemer, you’ve heard lots of sermons about Redemption over the years.
No doubt you already know that the model of ‘redeemer’ is found in the Old Testament – the Go’el or Go’el HaDaham, the family member whose duty it was to get other members of the family out of trouble. The Go’el’s duty was to restore the rights of a family member who was wronged and to avenge them. In Isaiah, God is called the ‘Go’el’ or redeemer of Israel, who will redeem his people from captivity. It is clear in Isaiah that, applied to God, the people are redeemed in order to move on to something greater. Slowly the language of vengeance drops away.
In this context, Christ becomes our redeemer by redeeming humankind from slavery to evil.
So, for a change, and as we have been studying St Paul in our Scripture Circle once a month, I would like to offer a few more images of what redemption means in Paul’s mind.
In Paul’s time, slaves were common – up to 40% of the population of Italy and Rome itself and 95% of the population of Athens! There was a practice at the time of slaves being able to buy their freedom. If they earned any money by their skills outside of working for their owners, that money belonged to the owners but the owners could allow the slaves to keep some or all of that money.
The slave could go to the temple of one of the gods and lodge that money with one of the priests of the temple. Once he or she had collected enough money to cover the cost of his or her purchase in the first place, the slave could bring the owner to the temple. The priest would then give the money to the owner and the god had ‘bought’ the slave. Technically the slave was now the slave of the god but it meant in practice that they were free.
Paul borrows this idea but there are obvious differences. It is not we who have collected our price to buy ourselves back from slavery to sin, but in our case it truly is God himself who has ‘paid’ the price and ‘bought’ us. We are now free to chose God out of love or fall back into voluntary slavery to sin and selfishness.
Another of the many images Paul uses is adoption. Especially in the Roman world, adoption was taken very seriously, much more complete than for us today. When a child was adopted by a family, they were regarded as having no ties to their former family and were treated exactly as though they were of their adopted family’s blood line. They could no longer inherit from their ‘blood’ family. All ties were cut. There were cases of petitions to the Senate for permission for an adopted son to marry his ‘sister,’ even though he was actually totally unrelated to her.
Paul sees in this practice a clear parable of how God has adopted us in Christ – we are truly ‘blood’ relatives of Jesus now, his brothers and sisters.
What is very clear for Paul and all of the New Testament is that Redemption isn’t a rescue attempt because humankind has gone off the rails, nor is it Jesus stepping in to avert the anger of the Father over our sinfulness. In fact, the popular idea of Jesus taking our punishment in our place … a human idea, not found in Scripture but fitting with our own ideas of punitive justice … was even called a heresy by Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI.
Paul puts it very clearly, time and again, that Redemption is God’s idea, God’s initiative: ‘… when the fulness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons and daughters … so you are no longer a slave, but a son or daughter …’ [Gal 4:4-7].
In the fulness of time … when we were ready for him … but are we ever ready for love quite so infinitely great? We find it hard to believe that we are so loved and so fall back into trying to earn God’s love, rather than responding to the love we’ve received, living lives which demonstrate our gratitude by seeing Christ in one another.
Fr Scott, C.Ss.R.