Tonight I want to talk about redemption. It’s also the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, so as I begin my reflection on this theme my mind turns to Ireland, with thanksgiving to God for the work of redemption which has happened over these past years among the people of Northern Ireland.
I spent three summers working in Belfast at the height of the troubles. I saw the ravages of broken relationships, divided communities, fear, suspicion and despair. But I also met extraordinary people who gave of themselves sacrificially to offer reconciliation, hope and redemption to a people in great pain. There have always been such people in Ireland who have given of themselves in order to mend what is broken, to redeem what is lost. In those months when I lived in Ireland I heard time and time again a story which is very dear to me, and speaks to me very profoundly about the deep mystery of our subject this evening. It’s a story which took place in the 15th century in Dublin. Two clans were locked in bitter conflict: the Ormonds and the Kildares. There was a lot of violent killing, and there came a point where the leaders of the Ormond clan locked themselves inside the chapter house of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to escape death. For many weeks the Kildare clan waited outside, swords drawn, besieging them. But one day something amazing happened. The Earl of Kildare “came to himself,” and said to himself, “This is foolish. We are two families: we believe in the same God, and here we are acting foolishly.” So he walked to the cathedral, approached the great door of the chapter house, and shouted. “Let’s call this off. Let us shake hands.” But there was no answer.
What he did next has gone down in Irish history. With his sword, he began to gouge a hole through the wood of the door. When the hole was big enough, he thrust his hand and his arm through it. (On the other side there were desperate men with swords.) And his hand was grasped by the hand of the Earl of Ormond. They shook. The door was flung open, and the feud was over.
This was an extraordinary act of courage, risk and sacrifice; a great act of redemption; an image of the redemption wrought by God. For in Jesus Christ, God thrust the divine hand of friendship, forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption, through the great door separating us from God. And we grasped the hands of Jesus, those hands of love, and hammered nails through them, and hung him on a cross to die. To those looking on it seemed that this man’s life and mission were a miserable failure. Yet, and this is the heart of it, a deeper mystery was silently at work. Through the death of Jesus Christ a far deeper and cosmic act of redemption was actually taking place – the redemption of humanity from sin and death. As the Letter to the Ephesians puts it, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” Eph. 1:7
There is a wonderful irony here, picked up by the Early Church Fathers. The powers of evil and darkness which crucified Jesus thought that they had won a great victory. But they were wrong. The Patristic writers loved to use this image: that Christ was the worm baited on a hook which the devil snatched and caught. The devil thought he had won – killed the Son of God – but what he had swallowed was to be his undoing. Paul said much the same thing in First Corinthians – that if the powers of this world really knew their business, “they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.” I Cor. 2:8 For in the crucifixion they set in motion God’s great and powerful work of the redemption of humankind. In Christ, says Paul, “God was reconciling the world to himself.” II Cor. 5:19 And that hidden work of redemption was made manifest on Easter Day.
The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are the culmination of a long story of God’s great work of redemption. And every year, at the Easter Vigil here in the monastery chapel and in churches throughout the world, we hear again those great stories in Scripture of God’s redeeming work. The underlining theme of these readings is of our being delivered from bondage and made free. This is the essential good news of our redemption. God appears in Israel as the Redeemer of his people, leads them out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom in the Promised Land. And as we hear the Hebrew Scriptures unfold, we hear the message that God will send another Redeemer, but this redeemer will save his people from slavery to sin and death. This Redeemer is Jesus of Nazareth, the anointed one. Jesus identifies himself with the mysterious Old Testament figure of the suffering servant, and as the one who would offer his life as a ransom. And so he puts together the two ideas of sacrifice and redemption. That is why I so like the image in that Irish story. Sacrificially offering his arm and hand, he brought about reconciliation.
The word “ransom” is a complex one. Theologians over the centuries have asked to whom a ransom had to be paid. Was it to the devil, or to God? But if you read the New Testament writers carefully, they don’t develop the idea of ransom in this way to explain the cross – taking the metaphor too far – but are more concerned about the deliverance from bondage, which was the result. They talk much more of the freedom which we now have because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. We are like slaves, slaves to sin, who have been forgiven and freed by him, and have now become God’s adopted sons and daughters through the son, Jesus Christ, who has ransomed us. And all this is because of the extraordinary love that God has for us. As Paul says in Romans, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Rom. 5:8
Those two clans, the Ormonds and the Kildares, after that wonderful redeeming act in Dublin, became closer friends than ever before. There is a real sense that when something is broken and then mended, it can be even stronger than it was before it was broken. That is true of objects or relationships, and in our relationship with God. You could say, in a sense, that if it had not been for our fall, Adam’s first sin, we would never have needed redeeming, and we would never have had the miracle and gift of the incarnation and the coming of Christ. This thought is picked up by St. Augustine and expressed at our Easter Vigil service when we sing in the great Exultet the words O felix culpa – “O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer.” In the same way, St. Ambrose speaks of the “fortunate ruin of Adam in the Garden of Eden, in that his sin brought more good to humanity through Christ’s redemption, than if he had stayed perfectly innocent.”
That is very good news! When we go wrong, when we sin and fall and damage our relationship with God, we have the wonderful gift of redemption – of being forgiven and restored. And we find that our relationship with God can be stronger and more intimate than ever before.
The story of our redemption from slavery to sin and death wrought by our Lord Jesus Christ is ultimately a profound mystery. It is so beyond the power of words alone to comprehend and fathom that each year we spend a week – Holy Week – reliving dramatically and liturgically the events leading up to the Cross. Like a diamond which sheds its myriad rays of light, by the grace of God we can catch the mystery in a new way each time we consider it.
At the very heart of the meaning of redemption is a God who loves us more than we can ever know – who so loved the world that he gave his only son. The writer James Atkinson put it this way. “So great, so deep, so irresistible and inconceivable is the Father’s purpose to redeem us, that God carried through our redemption at this awful cost. When we stand before a love as wide as heaven’s arch, that stretches from horizon to horizon as a brilliant rainbow of mercy, the heart is compelled to worship in amazement and awe.”
O Savior of the world, who by thy Cross and Precious Blood hast redeemed us: save us, and help us, we humbly beseech thee.