One of the things I struggled with most in the conversion process was understanding why Jesus had to die for our sins — or, more accurately, why that worked. I wrote a post detailing my utter mental density on that issue here.
The concept of sacrifice to make up for sin resonated on some deep level, as well as the fact that there is nothing I could offer that would ever make up for my sins against the all good God, as well the fact that only the perfect Christ himself would be a worthy enough sacrifice to bridge that enormous gap between us and God. Got all that.
But my mental capacities started to get maxed out, however, whenever I’d try to understand how on earth I got to buy in to Jesus’ sacrificial death. I wasn’t there. It happened without my consent or knowledge. It wasn’t my sacrifice to give. On a gut level, it just seemed to have nothing to do with me. During Mass I’d gaze at the crucified Christ and feel terrible about what was done to him, but it all happened so long ago, in a far different time and place. It seemed foreign, like an event from a history book. How on earth could that momentous sacrifice be my own?
One of the most common answers I heard had to do with dying to ourselves, that when we crucify ourselves with Christ we can make his sacrifice our own. To be honest, I didn’t fully understand that. To be even more honest, I still don’t completely understand that. (I genius I am not. You’ll have to bear with me.) Dying to ourselves to allow Christ to work through us does make sense, but it doesn’t help me internalize the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice was for me, for us.
This is one of those things that I really wanted to get — I mean, really get. I wanted to be able to look at a crucifix like so many other devout Christians do and to know in my bones that this sacrifice was for me and my sins, and to be overwhelmed with regret for my transgressions and thankfulness for God’s mercy. I wanted to it resonate on a gut level, without having to go through a mini discourse on theology in my head every time I saw a crucifix.
I didn’t have much luck on this matter, and began to accept the possibility that it might not ever really resonate with me, that I might just need to live with a shaky intellectual understanding of the concept.
And then, in one of the greatest moments of my conversion experience, I got it. I finally got it.
I was at one of those Masses that seemed to be particularly filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. I had just received Communion and was back in the pew, meditating on the Real Presence. I had only recently entered the Church so it was one of my first times receiving the Eucharist, and the taste and texture of the host were still new to me. And as I stared at the figure of the beaten, rejected, crucified Christ at the front of the church, a random factoid about ancient understanding of sacrifice popped into my head: I recalled reading somewhere that in ancient cultures such as those of the Old Testament, it was customary to eat a piece of the animal you had offered for sacrifice, that that sealed the deal.
As I thought of this I felt pieces of the host, still resting on my tongue, and looked again at the crucifix. Though I already knew on some intellectual level that what I was consuming was truly Christ, I went through the process of imagining in detail the gruesome prospect of actually taking a piece of this Man’s flesh off of his body and putting it in my mouth. And suddenly, it seemed like my sacrifice. I was no longer a bystander, but a participant. I felt connected. I had eaten the flesh of the sacrificed victim. I had bought in.
And, for the first time in my life, I felt spontaneous, profound regret to God for my sins. I felt the sacrificed flesh in my mouth and thought, “Oh, my God, I am so sorry” — I think I might have actually whispered it out loud. “I am so, so sorry that it had to come to this.” I then felt like standing on top of the pew and jumping for joy at God’s great love and mercy. He did this huge, huge thing — for us! I was finally able to set aside my cold, intellectual thoughts and just feel my heart fill with gratitude for how very much God loves us. I no longer just knew it…I felt it.
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