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March 6, 2019: Ash Wednesday

First Reading Joel 2:12-18
Second Reading 2 Corinthians 5:20–6:2
Gospel Matthew 6:1-6,16-18

“For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin….”

One way to meditate upon the whole of Lent is to allow our Lenten journey—including our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—to be a means to enter into the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Every baptized Christian shares in this priesthood, and the baptismal priesthood shapes every other call that God gives.

One phrase in particular from today’s Second Reading forces us to reckon with the depth of Jesus’ priesthood. What does Saint Paul mean when, speaking about God the Father and the Son, he states that “For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin”? This saving truth reminds us about three distinct forms of humility that Jesus accepted for our salvation, through which He stands between sinful man and the divine Father.

First, we need to reflect upon God the Son humbling Himself to become human at the Annunciation. Jesus stands between God and man as True God and true man. For scriptural meditation on this saving mystery during Lent, we might use the prologue of St. John’s Gospel account, or the canticle of Christ’s humility found in the second chapter of Philippians.

Then, more than thirty years after His conception, this divine Word made Flesh offered up His life on the Cross. We need to reflect upon Jesus’ humility on Calvary. Upon the Cross, Jesus is not an Old Testament priest, crying and weeping and offering a dumb animal in sacrifice. In humility, the Word made Flesh sacrifices His own Body and Blood, soul and divinity. To reflect on this saving mystery, we might use the Passion narrative from any of the four Gospel accounts.

But within this second form of Jesus’ humility dwells a third: a mystery that we must not underestimate. Again, in speaking about the Father sending His divine Son to save us, the Apostle declares: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin”.

Often when we meditate upon the Passion of the Christ—say, for example, during the Stations of the Cross—we are impressed by how awfully man’s sins affect Jesus. We might imagine the Cross as “containing” our sins, so that the physical weight of Jesus’ heavy cross symbolizes the spiritual weight of all mankind’s sins. Or we might imagine each lash from the Scourging at the Pillar as representing an individual sin. But while those images may help us meditate upon the meaning of the Passion, St. Paul is saying something even more profound.

God the Father made His divine Son “to be sin”: not only to carry sin, or be wounded by sin, but to be made sin. Jesus, who from before time began was true God, stands not only in the place of sinners, but in the place of sin. This is where He offers sacrifice as a new and everlasting priest. His stance between merciful grace and man’s sins brings both together in Himself, where the former destroys the latter, for us men and for our salvation.