“Offer it up!” It’s not an expression we hear much anymore, but for a long time it was a commonplace among Irish grandmothers, much to the chagrin, perhaps, of their less stalwart progeny. It’s a distinctively Catholic saying—certain Protestants might almost call it heretical—and yet Catholics themselves are less and less able to understand, much less appreciate, its meaning. To most, it’s simply an exhortation to stoic resignation, a pious way of saying, “Stop complaining,” “Do your duty,” or “Accept your lot in life.” As such, it seems a somewhat ungracious response to another’s suffering, a poor substitute for sympathy. If we dig a little deeper, though, this old chestnut turns out to be a nexus of deep theological truths and, accordingly, a maxim of great spiritual profit.
To see how this is so, we have to go back to the Cross and, specifically, to the Atonement. Though a word of simple, English derivation, “At-one-ment” names an unfathomable mystery: the incredible fact that Jesus reconciled us to God by suffering for our sins. We accept this on faith, of course, but, having accepted it, we naturally want to know, as much as we can, why. Why did God have to become man, suffer, and die? Wasn’t there some other way?
St. Anselm called this sort of wonder fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”), and, in his short dialogue, Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”), he left us a profound theological meditation on the questions just mentioned. In a nutshell, he argues the following: (1) justice demands that mankind should make satisfaction to God for the havoc and disorder of sin; (2) man, a finite creature wounded by the consequences of his own transgression, is incapable of making such satisfaction; (3) God can make satisfaction on our behalf, but only by himself becoming a man, capable of suffering; (4) in doing this, God is true both to his infinite justice, since he pays the price for sin, and to his infinite mercy, since—marvelously—he accomplishes for man what man neither deserves nor could accomplish on his own.
Now, the word “satisfaction” may seem a bit strange or technical here, but it is really a very ordinary idea. We use it all the time, not only in more formal or legal contexts, but also in our everyday personal relationships. If we infringe on another’s rights or offend a friend, we not only want to apologize or pay back what we owe; we also want to make up for the hurt we have caused by doing something more. That “something more” is satisfaction.
Notice that satisfaction is not the same as punishment. In fact, the two are mutually exclusive. Whereas, by definition, punishment is endured unwillingly, satisfaction is willingly made, and it is the more willing the more it is animated by love. Moreover, while it is possible to make satisfaction on behalf of someone else, a person can only be punished for his own sins, i.e., if he is actually guilty. Anselm himself makes this distinction, and it is important to understand it, because otherwise we might slip into a “substitutionary” theory of atonement, according to which God punished Jesus in our place. This would be troubling on many levels, not least because it seems to make God unjust.
The question remains, however, was there some other way? Did Jesus have to become man, suffer, and die? Anselm seems to answer in the affirmative, but St. Thomas Aquinas, like most theologians before and after him, answers negatively. In fact, St. Thomas says that, just as, if someone commits a purely personal offense against any one of us, we can, mercifully and without injustice, simply forgive him without demanding reparation, so God, without any prejudice to his own infinite justice, could have simply forgiven, or dismissed, the sin of mankind without requiring any satisfaction.
Now, on the one hand, this is comforting because it safeguards the gratuity of the Incarnation and Atonement: God did not have to become man, suffer, and die; he did so out of love. But on the other hand, it might trouble us because, if God could have simply dismissed our sins, why didn’t he? Why did he choose the “hard way”? St. Thomas gives many reasons, but I would like to highlight just one: God required satisfaction for sin because doing so was more merciful.
This sounds counterintuitive, but it really makes wonderful sense; and we can see why by drawing an analogy. Just as, when we have really offended someone we love, we are all the more tormented if he or she refuses to allow us to make reparation in some way, so God does in fact act more mercifully by allowing us to make satisfaction for our sins, than he would by simply dismissing them. And he gives us this ability, this dignity, through the Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ, whose life we share through the gift of the Holy Spirit, our sacrifices and sufferings are no longer a “dead loss,” but, borne out of love for God and neighbor, they actually participate in the infinite value of the God-man’s satisfying sacrifice of love.
Yes, though our own acts of love may be small, we can truly “offer them up” to God, confident that he will accept them as really, not just nominally, imbued with the love of his own Son. And, like little children on their dad’s birthday, we can take all the more delight in giving our Father gifts when we know that all we have to give comes from him.