This essay is adapted from a homily delivered on January 23 at the Mass for the Walk for Life Westcoast.
I recently learned about an app that allows one to hear the heartbeat of a six-week-old baby in the womb. This app is probably old news to many (especially those younger than I!), but it was a revelation to me.
Our culture insists on “following the science,” but denies the same science when convenient, even when the truth is staring us in the face—or in the case of this app, proclaiming itself in our ears.
The Letter to the Hebrews speaks about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and how it fulfills and perfects the pattern of what came before. In the ninth chapter we read a description of the “tabernacle”—the sanctuary—and the Holy of Holies set off by veils, and the priest offering the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. Hebrews also tells us how Christ fulfills all of that by offering himself. Only his blood is the one perfect sacrifice that could take away the sins of the world.
When we look closely at the Old Testament, we see other signs prefiguring Christ's sacrifice on Calvary. The early fathers of the church write that Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac foreshadows Christ's sacrifice on Calvary. Isaac carries the wood for the sacrifice up the mountain. Carrying the wood was the duty of the priest. And so by bearing the wood for his own sacrifice, Isaac is representing both priest and victim, like our Lord on Calvary.
This story of the testing of Abraham has many meanings. First of all: God is putting Abraham's faith to the test. Will he really trust God and do what God asks of him? Then there is the ram that God provides for the sacrifice in place of the son. The ram, an animal of sacrifice, represents flesh—represents Christ in his human nature. The second person of the Trinity had to take on a human body in order to offer that body on the cross.
But if we read this story closely, in the context of other Old Testament passages, we can infer another meaning. We read in other parts of the Bible how the ancient Israelites kept violating the covenant with God, and instead made covenants with their pagan neighbors and worshipped pagan idols. These pagan nations sacrificed children, and the Israelites began sacrificing children to the god Moloch, in imitation of their pagan neighbors. I think we can infer from the story of Abraham and Isaac that God is definitively putting an end to the practice of child sacrifice for God's people. Christ's sacrifice defeats the realm of sin and opens up the avenue of God's grace.
How slow the human race is to learn. Just like the ancient Israelites, so we today. Human sacrifice, and in particular child sacrifice, is emblematic of pagan culture. So it is no wonder that as Western society has become more and more de-Christianized, we have seen a return to this pagan practice with the evil of abortion.
Jesus came to offer his one perfect sacrifice. Through him, we have access to God. Through him, we have access to life. He is the way, the better way, the one and only way. And as we know, he gave a commission to the church to spread this good news throughout the world to all peoples.
And so the church has. We are the inheritors of the great legacy of the missionaries here in the Americas who came to spread this good news and introduce a people who did not know Jesus Christ to his love and mercy and salvation: the Franciscan friars—who first arrived here in California—and the Dominicans and the Jesuits who spread the gospel all throughout North, South, and Central America.
These heroic missionaries had to prove to the governing authorities back in Europe that the indigenous people here were human. Of course, some of those in power hoped to exploit or enslave them.
The missionaries defended the humanity of indigenous Americans. They taught them the arts, the sciences, animal husbandry, how to grow a variety of crops. The indigenous people were pagan. And so, no surprise, human sacrifice and cannibalism were not unknown among some of them. The missionaries introduced them to the faith of Jesus Christ. They demonstrated that these people were capable of thinking lofty thoughts, of creating beauty, of being faithful disciples of Christ. This is why the missionaries came: to bring the good news of Jesus and to build a new Christian civilization.
Unfortunately, as we know, though the missionaries made great progress, powerful economic and political interests prevailed. In some places, their work was ultimately destroyed and dismantled—such as the California mission system before the Franciscan friars were able to realize their vision of educating the indigenous people and handing the land over to them for self-governance. The missionaries were denounced. The Jesuit order was suppressed.
One wonders, “How much has changed?” We stand on the shoulders of these giants as we defend the humanity of life in the womb, in accordance with the clear evidence of science. And yet today, we are accused of being anti-science. Like those early missionaries, we too face hostile denunciations.
Our starting point, of course, is not what we're against, but what we're for. We are for affirming the inherent dignity of all human life. But anyone who is for something is naturally against the opposite. If you're for good, you're against evil. We are against the evil of the taking of innocent human life.
Our opponents don't want people to look at the reality of the evil of abortion. And they try to dismantle us. I think of the heroic efforts of Catholics and other people of faith with pro-life crisis pregnancy clinics. They do not receive government aid, and sometimes they're forced to violate their consciences by posting information about where women can go to have an abortion. The government does not require abortion clinics to post information about where women can go to find alternatives to abortion.
Yes, these circumstances can create some anger within us, but let us remember, they put us in good company. Not only in the good company of those who first brought the faith of Christ to this continent, but in the good company of our Lord himself.
The curious passage from the Gospel of Mark that we heard for mass today (Mark 3:20-21), the shortest one in the lectionary, has this strange ending: The people said of him that he is out of his mind. Maybe God has a message for us in this reading. He's given us a chance to be like his Son, as we consider how he was treated—not just for fidelity to the truth, but for being the truth. All those who love him will share that faith. They will in their own way carry the wood for their own sacrifice.
But this is the way to life. Not just life in this world, but life with him forever in the next. He paved the way with his one perfect sacrifice. Now he gives us plenty of opportunities to follow in that way. May we do so, bearing the sacrifices we must for defending life in this world, so that we might inherit eternal life with him in the world that is to come.
Salvatore J. Cordileone is the archbishop of San Francisco.
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