THE MOST HOLY REDEEMER
This weekend, being the third Sunday in July, is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Redeemer. Of course, it is only a Solemnity for us Redemptorists and for parishes, like ours, which are dedicated to the Most Holy Redeemer. It appears as a feast on the calenders of various dioceses, but otherwise, it is not on the universal calender of the church.
The feast first appears in Venice where it has been observed for more than three centuries. A plague broke out in Venice in 1576. Within a few days thousands of people had fallen victim. The Senate of Venice vowed to build a magnificent church dedicated to the Redeemer of humankind, and to give public thanks to the Redeemer on the third Sunday of July if only the city be spared. The church was consecrated in 1592 and is run by Capuchins.
Originally the title for our order was supposed to be the Congregation of the Most Holy Saviour, but there was already another institute of clerks regular dedicated to the Most Holy Saviour. So we were spared having a name that could be mangled by a US-inspired spellchecker!
So, having been gifted with the title ‘Redemptorist’ and a parish dedicated to the Most Holy Redeemer, perhaps we could reflect a little on what ‘redeemer’ means.
If you look it up in a dictionary, you will see that redeem is a transitive verb meaning ‘to buy back,’ ‘to get or to win back,’ ‘to free from distress or harm,’ ‘to free from captivity,’ or ‘to compensate for the faults or bad aspects of’ someone or something.
As far as our faith is concerned, the word has its origins in the Old Testament. For the Hebrew people, the Go’el HaDahm (coming from the word, lig’ol — ‘to redeem’) was the nearest relative of a person who is charged with the duty of restoring their rights and avenging wrong done to them.
Among the duties of the Go’el were to redeem the relative, if their relative had had to sell himself into slavery (Lev 25: 48-49). If a person had to sell their property because they were too poor, the Go’el was to by it back for them. The Go’el was to avenge the blood of his relative, to marry his brother’s widow if that brother died without a son and heir.
As Christians, we can see Christ as our nearest relative who, out of love for us, buys us back from our slavery to selfishness, pride, sin. We have lost our birthright because of our poverty of spirit, our lack of generosity, and he restores our ‘property’ to us as children of God.
All metaphors collapse if we push them too far: what God does in Jesus is not just to rescue us from the consequences of our sin but also to give us new life in him. Too legalistic an approach — the idea that Jesus is punished in our stead, pays the price for our sin, like an innocent person taking a condemned murderer’s place and being hung in his stead — misses the other half of the meaning of redemption. We are not just freed from something but freed for something. A murderer who escapes hanging is still a murderer. They have only escaped punishment. They haven’t changed in their hearts. By redeeming us, Jesus transforms us completely and makes it possible to live the same life of obedience love to the Father that he lives because he lives in us.
St Paul has the Hebrew Go’el in the back of his mind when he writes, but he introduces an extra facet to the redeemer from the Hellenistic world in which he worked. Slaves in the Greek world were allowed to earn money from extra work they did and, with their masters’ permission, could keep that money. They were allowed to go to the temple of one of the many Greek gods and lodge that money with a priest. They saved until they had saved money equivalent to what it cost to buy them as slaves in the first place. They could then take their master to the temple and the temple priest would pay the master the money. In effect they had been ‘bought’ by the god and so they were free, no longer the slaves of an earthy master but now the slave of that god.
Again, we must not push the metaphor too far: here Paul introduces a lovely thought — we are ‘slaves’ or ‘servants’ of God. But it is NOT WE WHO HAVE EARNED OUR PRICE. In our case, it truly is God who ‘buys’ us in love BUT he leaves us free to choose if we want to switch masters!
I hope this opens up new ways of thinking about Our Most Holy Redeemer and so we end with a question: what image of the Redeemer is in my heart?
Fr Scott Davidson, CSsR