10Feb 10 February. 5th Sunday (C)

Last Sunday we read about the call of Jeremiah, and today we have the vocation stories of Isaiah and the apostle Peter…

1st Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8

Isaiah responds with enthusiasm to God’s call, to prophecy

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Responsorial: Psalm 137:1-5, 7-8

Response: In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises, Lord

I thank you, Lord, with all my heart,
you have heard the words of my mouth.
Before the angels I will bless you.
I will adore before your holy temple. (R./)

I thank you for your faithfulness and love
which excel all we ever knew of you.
On the day I called, you answered;
you increased the strength of my soul. (R./)

All earth’s kings shall thank you
when they hear the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the Lord’s ways:
‘How great is the glory of the Lord!’ (R./)

You stretch out your hand and save me,
your hand will do all things for me.
Your love, O Lord, is eternal,
discard not the work of your hands. (R./)

2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

How Paul  came late to his Christian vocation

Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast-unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

Gospel: Luke 5:1-11

Awed by the miraculous catch of fish, Peter is called to follow Christ

While Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.


What to preach about?

It’s hard to decide on what to preach about today. The call story of the first disciples in Luke is certainly attractive, with its great invitation “put out into the deep“.  But we also begin reading from 1 Corinthians 15, a stupendous reflection on the resurrection of the dead and a topic in much need of discussion today. This chapter is powerful, penetrating and pastoral. Each Sunday offers a different light on what we believe. It could become a rich catechetical programme. (Kieran O’Mahony)

For Kieran’s exegetical reflections on today’s texts, click here.

A fisherman-apostle

The miraculous catch of fish in the Sea of Galilee was a popular story among early Christians. The episode is told in three of the Gospels, but only Luke ends the story with  Peter as both a believing disciple and a professed sinner.

As a man of faith, Peter allows Jesus’ words to outweigh his own experience as a fisherman. He knows that nobody goes out fishing at noon, especially if he hasn’t caught anything the night before. But Jesus tells him to do it and Peter trusts him completely. ‘If you say so, I will pay out the nets’. The result was an extraordinary haul of fish. And then, as an honest man with a sincere heart Peter  fell at the knees of Jesus and say how unworthy he feels. ‘Leave me, I am a sinful man’. In front of his workmates, Peter declares his unworthiness to be around Jesus.

Jesus does not  hesitate to have a sinful disciple in his company. On the contrary, one who knows his own weakness can better understand Jesus’ message of forgiveness  and his welcoming of sinners and the undesirables. ‘Do not be afraid; from now on it is people you will be catching’.

Why does our institutional Church so resist recognizing her faults and her need of conversion? The Church belongs to Jesus, but she isn’t identical with Jesus Christ. Yes, the Church is ‘holy’ because she is gifted with the Holy Spirit of Jesus, but she is ‘sinful’ because our leaders and our brethren often resist that Spirit and wander away from the Gospel. Sin is in believers and in institutions; in the hierarchy and in God’s people; in pastors and in Christian communities. We all need conversion.

It’s very serious to accustom ourselves to hiding the truth, since this keeps us from committing ourselves to a process of conversion and renovation. On the other hand, isn’t it more evangelical to be a fragile and vulnerable Church, one that has the courage to recognize her sin, than to be an institution uselessly bent on covering up her wretchedness from the world. Aren’t our communities more believable when they collaborate with Christ in the evangelizing task, humbly recognizing their sins and committing themselves to a life that is each day more evangelical? Don’t we have a lot to learn even today from the great apostle Peter, recognizing his sinfulness at Jesus’ feet? [J A Pagola].

Whom does God choose?

Last Sunday we read about the call of Jeremiah, and today we have the vocation stories of Isaiah and the apostle Peter. One might ask: “Why these guys? What was God thinking? But this is really nothing new for the God of surprises. Abraham is made a new father in his old age; slow-tongued Moses takes on Pharaoh, young shepherd David is chosen as king, and Saul the persecutor became Paul the apostle. It is clear that God does whatever God wills.

The characters that God has chosen throughout history to be instruments of justice, mercy, love and compassion have been brave, earthy individuals. We could be wrong to disqualify ourselves from ever being called by God to be his instruments. We may intellectually understand that God has chosen many people like ourselves to be his workers; but too often it ends there, if spiritually we lower our heads, and leave it to others to follow God’s call.

After the extraordinary catch of fish, Peter was suddenly aware of his own weakness and unworthiness. Surely he did not deserve such generosity from Jesus? Then Peter discovers that the Lord has chosen him and has a great purpose for him, in spite of his faults. From now on he will gather people into the net of God’s kingdom. God’s purpose for us does not dependent on our virtue or worthiness. He does not wait for us to be worthy before calling us to a share in his loving service to others. Indeed, our very sense of unworthiness creates an opening for Christ to work through us. If, like Peter, we are called to work with Jesus, we will do so as wounded healers, trying to practice what we preach.

In God’s Net

A popular Irish hymn contains the hopeful prayer I liontaibh De go gcastar sinn, “may we be gathered into God’s nets.” It is a fine prayer in view of the many other nets that are spread out to catch us in these times. There are various nets of consumerism and gambling, that can easily tangle us in a mesh of artificial need, and worry about ability to pay. We feel pressured into “buying things we don’t want, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like!” What about the net of image-building and lots of hype about the success ethic, with an exclusive focus on financial growth and the outward self, to the detriment of human and spiritual values? Also, the net of drug and alcohol culture, and the net of depression, despair and suicide for those for whom life loses its meaning?

We pray that we may be taken caught up in God’s own net where life, even with its faults, holds out a promise of goodness, acceptance and hope. We must also involve ourselves in spreading this net. In the story in John 21 the spread net caught a hundred and fifty three fish , every type was taken in the net. Like Peter we are commissioned to “be fishers of people” and if we spread the net at the command of the Lord we too can take every type of person into God’s net of forgiveness, meaning, love and hope. This is our vocation and duty as Christians. To really do it, however, we must make sure we are not trapped in one of the other nets. I’ve always been fascinated by the number of references to fish in the gospel. In Matthew, Christ says: “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” When he miraculously fed the multitude he used fish as well as bread. He even found the money to pay his taxes in the mouth of a fish. Fish figured so prominently in the gospel that the early Christians in Rome, chose the symbol of a fish to designate their tombs in the catacombs. The letters which make up the Greek word for fish, ichthus, came to signify “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.”

There were a lot of other people in Palestine in the time of Our Lord, besides fisherman. Yet when it came to picking his apostles, he showed a marked preference for them. He made “the big fisherman’, Simon Peter, their head. And he reserved his special miracles, such as the transfiguration and the raising to life of the little girl, only for him and his two fishing partners, James and John. “Put out into deep water’, he told Peter. Peter knew, as every fisherman knows, that fish only feed in shallow waters. Jesus was testing him. After a whole night covering the best feeding grounds on the lake, it was asking a lot. But Peter complied, almost as if to humour Jesus. His compliance was amply rewarded. More importantly, he had passed the test. “From now on,” Christ told him, “it is men you will catch.” (Or as Mark phrased it: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”)

The one virtue, above all others, that fishermen need, is the virtue of hope. To cast a small hook into a large expanse of water in the expectation of catching a fish, is an act of hope. And to do it time after time, hour after hour without catching anything, without even the tiniest bite, is to hope beyond hope. It was the one virtue Christ needed in the person he chose to lead his followers. He was, as history has shown, launching Peter into deep waters indeed. But he knew what Teilhard de Chardin expressed almost two thousand years later, that “the world belongs to him who will give it its greatest hope.”

The workers the Lord wants

Jesus has begun to draw followers, whom he will inform, and eventually transform, so they can continue his mission when he returns to his Father. Today’s gospel presents a beautiful and simple picture. There is something special about a lakeside, and the presence of the odd fishing boat makes it even more attractive. By now, Jesus had begun to attract crowds, who gathered to listen to his message; and this was in the days before megaphones or public address systems! The nearest thing to a pulpit he could find was a boat, and by pulling out a bit from the shore, his voice would carry much better on the water, and give his space from the pressing crowds.

The next scenario is both simple and central. Peter was disappointed, without even one fish to show for his work, and so the scene was set for a miracle. As usual with Jesus, the outcome was abundant, “pressed down and flowing over” as with the wine at Cana, or the baskets of loaves and fish left over after everyone had been fed. Then Peter was his impulsive self and asked Jesus to leave him, because he was a sinful man. That must surely have brought a smile to the face of Christ, because it was precisely to draw such sinful people to himself that he had come. So Jesus ignored Peter’s remark, and instead invited Peter and his friends to join him full-time in the mission he was undertaking. There was something magnetic about Jesus, and, immediately, they abandoned ship, and set off down the road with him.

Christianity is more about attracting others to share a vision of life than about forcing it upon them. Throughout history, we read about founders of religious communities and orders. These were people with a vision, dynamic, filled with zeal, and had a powerful sense of mission. Their enthusiasm was highly contagious! Such people always attract attention, and this leads to attracting followers. In our own time we have seen aberrations in the form of cults, based on mind control, that led hundreds to their deaths through suicide pacts. It is the duty of leaders to lead, but they should also know where they’re going. Like Moses headed for the Promised Land, Jesus was totally open and definite in the direction of his life. He came to do the Father’s will, and he was led by the Spirit. Thank God for the many wonderful leaders and founders with which the Lord has provided us down the centuries. Thank God, for the many such people who are alive and active among us today.

Jesus is more often shown as teaching rather than preaching. The art of teaching is to bring the learners from they already know to is yet unknown to them. Jesus speaks of fish, of sheep, of vines, of trees, of water, etc., of things well within the lived experience of his listeners. The Acts opens by telling us that Jesus came to do and to teach. A cynic once described classrooms as places where information is transferred from the teacher’s notebookto the student’s notebook, without passing through the heads of either! Jesus spoke and taught from the heart, and what comes from the speaker’s heart always reaches the listener’s heart. The person and message of Jesus were so united that his words were inspiring and lifegiving.

Was Peter wrong to judge himself unworthy to stay with Jesus? He had not yet grasped that Jesus came to call sinners. What he should have said was, “Lord, stay with me, because I am a sinful man.” Sometimes our church has not been good in welcoming sinners. Sometimes we so emphasised hell-fire and condemnation, that sinners felt they could not share the Eucharistic table. The message often came across as “Depart from here, for you are a sinful person.” Thankfully, under Pope Francis’ leadership, we are reminded of the mind and the message of the Jesus who came to seek out sinners and bring them safely home. If he had a hundred sheep, and one went astray, he would leave the ninety-nine to go after the one that is lost. This message is central to the Year of Mercy proclaimed by the Holy Father.

Instead of asking the Lord to “DEPART FROM ME”, Peter’s prayer to Jesus could have been, “Lord, please STAY with me, BECAUSE I am a sinner. Don’t ever leave me, because, apart from you, I’m lost.” Indeed, the whole message of Jesus is to reassure sinners that he is always there for them. Peter was well aware of his brokenness, and several later episodes confirmed that fact. It is significant that Jesus made Peter head of the apostles. The principle of evangelising is that one sinner tells another the good news, just as with Alcoholics Anonymous, where one recovering alcoholic helps another to sobriety. Many of us could come up with some instance in our lives, when, like Peter, we have tried hard and caught nothing. This could be anything from an addiction, to resentment, an inability to forgive, to a scar of mind or memory, which has never healed. This has the potential for a miracle, if I am willing to hand it over. Let go, and let God. There is nothing impossible with God.

Na saothraithe is áil leis an Tiarna

In áit iarrú ar an dTiarna IMEACHT uaidh, ba féidir go mbéadh paidir naoimh Pheadair ar an lorg seo “Bí AM CHUIDEACHTA de shíor, a Thiarna TOISG gur peacach mé.” Go deimhin féin níl i gceist i teagasc an Tiarna ach go bhfuil Sé farainn de shíor. “Ná tréig mé choíche a Thairna, mar id’ eagmais tá deireadh liom”. Bímís deimh daingean de nach bhfuil i gceist i dteagasc Íosa go bhfuil Sé de shíor in ár n-aice. Thuig Peadar go maith a leochailí is a bhí sé, rud a bhí go rí-shoiléir níos déanaí in a shaol. Nach ait an rud gurab é Peadar rogha an Tiarna mar cheannaire ar na haspail?. Cuid bunúsach de chraobhscaoileadh an chreidiimh é ná go roinneann peacach an dea-scéal le duine eile, dála an AA, mar a réitíonn ainniseoir amháin sa ghluaiseacht a chabhair le créatúr eile ata ar bhóthar a leighis. Níl duine ann nach féidir leis sampla amháin, ar a laghad, a sholáthar faoi rud a thárla, dála Pheadir, gur theip air breith fiú ar “iasc aonarach amháin”. Mar shampla andúileachas nó doicheall, leisce faoi rud a thárla i bhfad ó shoin, agus atá fós ag déanamh scime dúinn. Tá abhar mhíorúil againn anseo ach bheith toilteanach scaoileadh leis. Scaoil leis agus fág faoi Dhia é. Níl aon rud do-dhéanta ag Dia.


Saint Scholastica, virgin

Scholastica (c. 480-542), feast-day: 10th February, was the twin sister of St. Benedict of Nursia. She founded a religious community for women at Plombariola, near Monte Cassino abbey, which began the women’s branch of Benedictinism. According to St. Gregory, Benedict saw his sister’s soul leaving the earth and ascending to heaven in the form of a shining dove. Scholastica is the patron saint of nuns, and her intercession is invoked against storms and rain.

38 Responses

  1. conrad s pecevich

    Your reflection is powerful and helpful to me in preparing my homily this Sunday. Glad I discovered your site by accident.
    Father Conrad

  2. Paddy Ferry

    I have mentioned a few times on this site that I had become aware from reading and study that the late, great Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer SJ, scripture scholar supreme, had said that nowhere in the uncontested letters of St. Paul are we told that Jesus had to die for our sins.

    I must confess that only in the last few years have I become aware that there are such things as “contested” letters of Paul. Some of my acquaintances still don’t seem to realise that Hebrews was not written by Paul. Given how important our Christian faith is to us surely it behoves us all to inform ourselves, as best as we can, as to what our beliefs are actually founded on.
    Still, I am digressing again.

    What Fr. Fitzmyer actually said is that:

    “Paul never says that Christ was sacrificed for our sake. That notion enters the later theological tradition but it is not one that can be traced directly to Paul ……..The notion of Christ’s death as a sacrifice is more tributary to Hebrews and to the Deutero-Pauline Ephesians 5.2 than to the uncontested Pauline letters.” Romans ( Doubleday, 1993) p.122.

    So, today as I sat listening to our readings at Mass I heard from 1 Corinthians “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,……”

    I had for some reason never thought that the Letters to the Corinthians might also be ” contested” letters. Are they?

    I have to agree with Fr. Conrad. If I were a priest looking for ideas to help me prepare my sermon/homily, I would regard the ACP site as an absolute gift from God –whatever He, She or It may be !–but, of course we already know, for various reasons, what a gift it is and how much we must appreciate the commitment and work and time of those who provide it for us.

  3. Pat Rogers

    Hello Paddy,
    The late, great Joseph Fitzmyer may well have doubted that Paul stated in so many words that “Christ was sacrificed for our sake” — but he would never have doubted that the author of 1 Corinthians was St Paul. The apostle affirmed it as the received Christian belief which he shares with Cephas and the others, that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures”.
    Paul also teaches about “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood” (διὰ τῆς ἀπολυτρώσεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, ὃν προέθετο ὁ θεὸς ἱλαστήριον διὰ πίστεως ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι) (Romans 3:24-25). So there is no serious doubt that Paul linked the death of Jesus to sacrificial atonement (ἱλαστήριον). How to develope that idea in a way that is not crudely seen as “appeasement of an angry, offended God” (see Anselm’s “Cur Deus Homo”) is another question.

    For a careful overview of this complex issue, may I refer you to the lecture-outline on “Why did Jesus die?” by Kieran O’Mahony (Haddington Road Conversations) http://www.tarsus.ie/resources/Haddington-Rd/Why-did-Jesus-die.pdf

  4. Paddy Ferry

    Thanks, Pat.

  5. Joe O'Leary

    1 Cor 5:7 — “Christ our Paschal Lamb has been sacrificed”.

    I cannot understand how a Pauline exegete could say what Fitzmyer said. Can anyone explain?

  6. Sean O’Conaill

    Missing here, as usual, is Rene Girard’s anthropological proposal that the crucifixion of Jesus is above all a revelation of the aboriginal sin of scapegoating – the human practice of defusing a social crisis by expelling or killing a blamed individual as alleged cause of that crisis. The obvious innocence of Jesus reveals the injustice of the process itself – the archetypal pattern to which Jesus has himself alluded in declaring his enemies ‘murderers from the beginning’.

    If ritualised human and later animal sacrifice did indeed originate in the practice of scapegoating it would follow that the sins for which Christ died would include all such previous, as well as all later, scapegoatings, including the 4,000 plus African Americans lynched in the decades after the American Civil War – never seen by any US white Christian leader as a recapitulation of the Crucifixion. Our misreading of the story of Jesus as a completely singular and different story is part of the same blindness that Jesus alludes to in asking forgiveness for our blindness – ‘for they know not what they do’.

    All of our sins – i.e. our unjust actions or inactions – become the sufferings of others, e.g. of the homeless and refugees of today. Always we are invited to wake up to this – but not to languish in remorse. For our sins of blindness are taken away if we are now truly awake and active in restoration – the justice of sharing, and of calling others to share, whatever good fortune we enjoy.

    In this way ‘sacrifice’ has also been transformed – from killing into giving.

    Why is it never noticed by our clergy that the priesthood of Jesus is a complete reversal of a priesthood of KILLING into a priesthood of SELF-GIVING? And that the challenge is then for us to do the same? The misunderstanding of ‘sin’ as primarily sexual offence to God rather than injustice to one another is, of course, part of this incomprehension.

    If life is a continual ‘coming awake’ to the consequences for others of our own past selfishness, it must follow that remorse and repentance will follow, and a fuller understanding of the past sins of humanity for which Jesus continually gives himself IN OUR WAKEFUL RESPONSE. The burden of our sins needs to be taken away to enable us to act justly and joyfully from now on.

    Is that not the ‘New Creation’ of which Paul also speaks?

  7. Joe O'Leary

    “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”(Rom 4:25) Since Paul is using the “theological passive” it can also be translated “God delivered him over to death for our sins and raised him for our justification”. Paul discerns within the human dynamics of the death of Jesus some 25 years before the time he is writing a divine initiative. It’s a tall order but he insists on this again and again; see Rom 3:25, 6:6-8, 8:3, 8:32; 2 Cor 5:21 Gal 1:4; and also on Christ’s self-offering (Gal 2:20). Is this old logic of sacrifice just magical thinking? Can it be rendered more credible with the help of Girard’s anthropological categories? And if it is rendered more credible is it as the cost of losing its power, so that we can no longer confidently believe that we are saved by His blood?

    Jesus undergoes the fate of being a scapegoat in an exemplary way, showing up the scapegoating mechanism and inspiring us to adopt his way of living and dying (and Paul also stresses this in his themes of imitating Christ — Phil 2:5 — and living sacrificially — Rom 12:1). But how does this make Jesus any different from other such martyrs such as Socrates? We all admire Socrates and his way of dying but no one says Socrates redeemed them by his death.

    Also, unmasking the scapegoat mechanism addresses only one aspect of human sinfulness, and one not mentioned at all in Paul’s fresco of human sinfulness in Romans 1-2.

    As far as I know the clergy have never taught that Jesus’s sacrifice was “a priesthood of killing” and have always taught that it was one of “obedience unto death, death on a cross” is self-emptying and self-giving. Or are we back into the caricature of an angry God killing his son to exact justice–but even in that case God is never called a sacrificial priest. Jesus is the priest who lays down his own life.

  8. Sean O'Conaill

    #7 First, Joe, the expression ‘saved by his blood’, has absolutely no ‘power’ for very many people today. Secondly, Girard attributes the loss of this ‘pulling power’ of ‘blood sacrifice’ to the Crucifixion itself, because it makes this very ritual ‘scandalous’. We identify not just with this victim, but with all others, and can therefore see the moral evasion in the practice of blood sacrifice.

    To make another creature suffer in order to escape a blow that will otherwise fall upon oneself, is clearly selfish, evasive and therefore itself morally compromised and ‘polluted’. How, therefore, can it ‘work’ – i.e. gain any leverage with a morally perfect God? This question is increasingly asked by those reacting against substitutionary fundamentalism.

    Secondly, the sentence “He was delivered over to death for our sins” is entirely compatible with the proposal that “God allowed Jesus to be killed to enable us to see the inadequacy of substitutionary sacrifice – the killing of a victim to deflect God’s wrath from oneself”.

    The innocence of Jesus, combined with his forgiveness of his accusers, clearly points up the criminality of the process that killed him. So the ‘perfect sacrifice’ was HIS non-violent submission NOT his accusers’ acts of condemnation and execution.

    Last week Richard Rohr circulated the following: “For the first thousand years, most Christians believed that the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross — the “price” or the ransom — was being paid not to God, but to the devil!” This is verified by other sources – e.g. ‘A Short History of Christian Thought’, by L. Urban, OUP 1995.

    What caused the reversal of this (into the notion of the Father insisting that a blow must fall on someone) was simply the reversal of the circumstances that had made the earliest Christians ‘enslaved’ to Rome, and Anselm of Canterbury a defender of a church at the very summit of its worldly power a millennium later, under the patronage of medieval monarchs. As the latter were at the summit of a worldly ‘honour’ pyramid, God had to be seen by Anselm in that light, as someone ‘dishonoured’ – i.e. insulted and diminished – by sin.

    And as those monarchs had achieved their eminence by force, that very military activity had to be condoned as well, as ‘honourable’ – with the result that ‘sin’ became identified primarily with illicit sex. Not even the ferocious violence of the ‘Christian’ conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 could be condemned or seen as anything other than a divinely sanctioned punishment of the infidel.

    As for ancient Greek exemplars of sacrifice such as Socrates and (in myth) Antigone, none of these were proponents of a single God whose love included especially those at the social base, i.e. those who in Greece were excluded from citizenship. As you know, both Socrates and Plato were severely dubious of an even elitist democracy while Antigone’s brave self-sacrifice was solely on behalf of her brother, Polynices, whose body was lying unburied at the decree of her uncle Creon following a civil war.

    Jesus’s monotheism went way beyond the ‘critical thinking’ of Socrates, who, according to Plato, took comfort from the thought that death would be no worse than ‘endless sleep’.

    Finally, if we are ourselves morally compromised, the truth that someone else always suffers for this is also conveyed by the Girardian proposal. The obvious truth that the pursuit of ostentatious wealth today is the denial of justice to future generations is now surely inescapable. The Christian Gospel of simplicity, generosity, forgiveness and compassion becomes daily more persuasive – but not if we try to combine that with a notion of the Father that makes him less forgiving than the Son.

  9. Joe O'Leary

    Sean, I know that the Feast of the Precious Blood has been whisked away, but the language of being “saved by his blood” is still very central in Christian tradition and piety. Consider, “Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide” (the Anima Christi prayer), “Thy life-blood all, O Jesus, Was shed to set us free,” Marlowe, “the blood of Christ streams in the firmament”, a six or seven volume collection of scholarly articles in Italian on the history of devotion and theology about the blood of Christ, and so on.

    If this can all be put aside as medieval lumber, there is the New Testament itself, and indeed Jesus himself, to leave us in no doubt that His blood is shed for our redemption. The words of the Last Supper are repeated at every Mass and countless Catholics have deeply internalized their significance:

    Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei,
    novi et aeterni testamenti:
    mysterium fidei:
    qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur
    in remissionem peccatorum.

    Paul talks of a “propitiation by his blood through faith” (Rom 3:25) and says that we are “justified by his blood” (Rom 5:9).

    If this tradition is wrong, it begins to look as if Christianity itself rests on a mistake. The Good News that “he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn 2:1) is readily expressed as “he shed his blood for us and for all”, the blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24). Rather than saying “good riddance” to this language I suggest that theologians need to retrieve its power, with a little help from Girard to be sure.

  10. Joe O'Leary

    There have been bad theologies of the Atonement, such as the devil’s ransom theory, but of course the discourse of the Fathers is much richer and more joyful than this.

    Athanasius writes (On the Incarnation): “And thus much in reply to those without who pile up arguments for themselves. But if any of our own people also inquire, not from love of debate, but from love of learning, why He suffered death in none other way save on the Cross, let him also be told that no other way than this was good for us, and that it was well that the Lord suffered this for our sakes. 2. For if He came Himself to bear the curse laid upon us, how else could He have “become Galatians 3:13 a curse,” unless He received the death set for a curse? And that is the Cross. For this is exactly what is written: “Cursed Deuteronomy 21:23 is he that hangs on a tree.” 3. Again, if the Lord’s death is the ransom of all, and by His death “the middle Ephesians 2:14 wall of partition” is broken down, and the calling of the nations is brought about, how would He have called us to Him, had He not been crucified? For it is only on the cross that a man dies with his hands spread out. Whence it was fitting for the Lord to bear this also and to spread out His hands, that with the one He might draw the ancient people, and with the other those from the Gentiles, and unite both in Himself. 4. For this is what He Himself has said, signifying by what manner of death He was to ransom all: “I, when John 12:32 I am lifted up,” He says, “shall draw all men unto Me.” 5. And once more, if the devil, the enemy of our race, having fallen from heaven, wanders about our lower atmosphere, and there bearing rule over his fellow-spirits, as his peers in disobedience, not only works illusions by their means in them that are deceived, but tries to hinder them that are going up (and about this the Apostle says: “According to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that now works in the sons of disobedience”); while the Lord came to cast down the devil, and clear the air and prepare the way for us up into heaven, as said the Apostle: “Through Hebrews 10:20 the veil, that is to say, His flesh” — and this must needs be by death — well, by what other kind of death could this have come to pass, than by one which took place in the air, I mean the cross? For only he that is perfected on the cross dies in the air. Whence it was quite fitting that the Lord suffered this death. 6. For thus being lifted up He cleared the air of the malignity both of the devil and of demons of all kinds, as He says: “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven;” and made a new opening of the way up into heaven as He says once more: “Lift up your gates, O you princes, and be lifted up, you everlasting doors.” For it was not the Word Himself that needed an opening of the gates, being Lord of all; nor were any of His works closed to their Maker; but we it was that needed it whom He carried up by His own body. For as He offered it to death on behalf of all, so by it He once more made ready the way up into the heavens.”

    Here is what I wrote about Origen: https://books.google.co.jp/books?id=riEdrWEDFq0C&pg=PA68&lpg=PA68&dq=%22christ+is+even+sacrificed+in+the+heavenly+world%22&source=bl&ots=jWpiJRUUN1&sig=ACfU3U1kEUq35g7OWFQvQDMywmefrhik2Q&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi9zaLA_bngAhVDErwKHfjGBqEQ6AEwAHoECAAQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22christ%20is%20even%20sacrificed%20in%20the%20heavenly%20world%22&f=false

  11. Joe O'Leary

    A lot of what the Fathers write on the Atonement is quaint and outdated, but their strong point is the rootedness of their discourse in deep reflection on the Incarnation. Greek philosophy helped them there much more than it could in thinking about the Atonement directly. A theology beginning from the event of the Paschal Mystery rather than from the ontology of Incarnation might bring things into more illuminating perspective.

  12. Sean O'Conaill

    # 9, 10, 11
    It is not the language of the Bible that is the problem, Joe. The problem is the interpretation of those passages by way of satisfactionism and substitutionalism – which originate the violence of the crucifixion IN GOD THE FATHER.

    You call the ‘devil’s ransom theory’ ‘bad theology’ but it surely must have been that understanding that undergirded the New Testament references to the cleansing effect of Jesus’s blood – since satisfactionism doesn’t begin for another millennium. Augustine also argued that Satan had been out-manoeuvred on Calvary, obviously because Jesus’s resurrection proved that the attempt to erase him from history had been futile.

    Can’t you see that what Jesus is doing on Calvary is the OPPOSITE of what the crucifiers are doing, and perfectly in line with Jesus’s insistence that evil should not be resisted (i.e. reciprocated)? If Jesus was non-violent and ‘the Father and I are one’, how can it make sense to originate the crucifixion IN THE FATHER?

    Sin – i.e. injustice – is IN ITSELF violent. The Satanic impulse is for the unjust community unanimously to accuse an individual, thereby throwing off any consciousness of guilt, at least cost to itself. The repeated alignment of the Old Testament with victims (e.g. Jeremiah, Joseph, Susanna, the subjects of the Psalms) shows a divine impatience with this victimisation – and it is this practice that is finally revealed as unjust at the Easter events. As you know the earliest Christians resisted recruitment into the Roman army , surely proving that they did NOT see the Father as violent and were aligning themselves with Jesus’s non-violence.)

    To attribute the Crucifixion to the Father’s intolerance of his ‘lost honour’ was catastrophically worse theology than the devil’s ransom theory. No wonder the American south could immolate and lynch African Americans, decade after decade, with a good conscience when they had been raised on such a theological travesty. Were they not doing what God himself had done to Jesus? It is surely no accident that originating the Holocaust takes us back to Martin Luther in Germany, who also argued for the substitution theory.

    Some theologians are now passionately arguing the non-violence of God the father, using Girard’s categories – following Raymund Schwager:

    Perfect sacrifice has to be non-violent to please the only God who is worth believing in, and I have no doubt that it is in such a Father that Jesus himself believed. Only in that belief can I sing ‘Soul of my Saviour’ and agree that Jesus’s blood serves to cleanse and redeem.

  13. Joe O'Leary

    Sean, you say it’s not the language of the NT that’s the problem and then say “You call the ‘devil’s ransom theory’ ‘bad theology’ but it surely must have been that understanding that undergirded the New Testament references to the cleansing effect of Jesus’s blood – since satisfactionism doesn’t begin for another millennium.” If that were true there would be a huge problem with the NT. But there is no trace of the “devil’s ransom” theory in the NT.

    “Augustine also argued that Satan had been out-manoeuvred on Calvary, obviously because Jesus’s resurrection proved that the attempt to erase him from history had been futile.” That’s a preacher’s trope and there are many others. But does Augustine have a systematically worked out theology of the Atonement? Perhaps Anselm was the first to attempt that.

    My students in Japan often asked why did Jesus go to Jerusalem knowing he would be killed and who wanted that?

    As the story is told he did so to “give his life as a ransom for many”. Those words quite likely come from the lips of the historical Jesus. They chime with the words over the chalice. The idea is already in Isaiah 53. No mention of the devil.

    Many martyrs down to Sophie Scholl and Bonhoeffer and MLK and St Oscar Romero have had the same sense of vocation to die as martyrs. I don’t think any of them would say the Father was killing them, but they all felt it was the Father’s will that they die as martyrs (witnesses) for the sake of a sinful world.

    As you point out satisfactionalism is a medieval rationalization, but its basic presupposition is in the New Testament, in Romans 5 and in Hebrews. The Lamb of God takes on our guilt and punishment and raises our humanity to God’s right hand. I think it would be worthwhile to actually read Anselm, who is a great theologian, while seeking to overcome the limits of his theoretization. I’m not at all sure that the constant attacks on Anselm’s discourse in terms of “honour” are based on a serious effort to engage with his thought. The basic idea is that the world is out of joint because of sin and Christ makes it right by laying down his life.

    All Christians have to follow Christ in facing death: “till death thine endless mercies seal and make the sacrifice complete” (Ch. Wesley). It’s a privilege that our death can be a pleasing sacrifice bringing our life to its fulfilment. “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the daath of his faithful” (Ps 116:15). Does this make us violent, or lovers of death? Do we accuse God of murdering us?

    Christ and Christians and the God of Christian faith is non-violent; I don’t think Girard is the first to take this as an essential key to interpreting the sacrificial language of the NT. But the NT engages hand to hand with violence and with death. Even if the whole world were converted to non-violence, as Isaiah prophesied (a pipe-dream according to Ratzinger in his Jesus book) the Cross would still be relevant to the fact of death as such. There’s an inbuilt goriness in the human conditon: “the last act is always bloody” (Pascal). Lots of pessimists think that God has it in for us. But the Good News presents God as stepping in to save us from the lethal consequence of sin, by allowing his Son to be a sin-offering in our place. In fact, to assume the role of scapegoat and make it a saving one. Girard’s early phobia about calling Christ’s death a sacrifice, which I believe he later retracted, prevented him from developing more powerfully the dialectic of “the sacrifice to end all sacrifice.”

    The military use of sacrifice-language, deconstructed by Wilfed Owen, waylaid Christianity with Constantine. But a critique of his need not eradicate the very idea of sacrifice, which is a very fundamental structure of human existence, to be connected with love, self-giving, non-violence.

  14. Kevin Walters

    Hi! Joe your mentioning of “Blood of my Saviour @ 8, prompted me to make a response to your post, as possible you like me read this comment under another article, on this site, which incorporated these words

    “As for “sanctify my breast” What does this mean?

    No one responded and because of this I have been contemplating them since, and now attempt to incorporate them into

    “Now judgment is upon this world; now the prince of this world will be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”… Away from our enslavement to sin.

    Our Father gave (‘Sacrificed’) of Himself in his Son to reconcile mankind to Him. The essence of love in His Son is Truth, and He bears witness to it, Jesus teaches us not to resist the evil doer and is true to His own Word, he can do no other, but submits to His own essence which is Truth and bearing witness to the Truth, permits the evil in man to murder him, He is lifted up by mankind for mankind’s redemption, we see a reflection of the evil within ourselves (own actions) as He submits in humility to the Will of our Father in bearing witness to the Truth, their own essence.

    The Truth knows (embraces) itself, (“I am Father as well as Son we are one”) it can do no other, those who refuse to acknowledge the living Word (Will) of God, once they have heard (understood & reject) it within their hearts, are destined to eternal separation from God, as our Father is restrained by His own essence, as His essence (Truth) is not within them.

    The essence of love is Truth and in obedience to the Truth Jesus fulfils these words

    “But a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such as these to worship Him”

    God is Spirit and He is Truth, the divine spark that is within the heart/soul contains the essence of God’s Spirit/Truth waiting to be enlightened

    So do not these words reflected upon in humility

    1 Soul (Spirit/TRUTH) of my Saviour, sanctify (Purify) my breast (Heart)
    body (Bread sustenance) of Christ, be my saving guest (Presence)
    blood (Life force) of my Saviour bathe me in thy tide (new life)
    wash me with water (Cleansing grace) flowing from thy side (Heart)

    2 Strength and protection may your passion (Sacrifice) be
    O blessèd Jesu, hear and answer me;
    deep in thy wounds (Sufferings), Lord, hide and shelter me,
    so shall I never, never part from thee.

    3 Guard and defend me from the foe malign,
    in death’s dread moments make me only thine;
    call me and bid me come to thee on high
    where I may praise thee with thy saints for ay


    “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”

    Sean @ 12

    “Perfect sacrifice (Serving of the Truth) has to be non-violent”
    but as can be seen by our Exemplar (Draws all men of good will to refute evil also). Starting from within our own heart while been prepared (Led in humility) to embrace our Exemplar, who ‘demands’ of us the same sacrifice ‘Commanded’ by His and our Father (Bloody if necessary)

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  15. Sean O’Conaill

    #13. You say there is no trace of the devil’s ransom theory in the NT and then admit an NT reference to ransom, likely to have been by Jesus himself (Matt 20: 28).

    To whom or to what would a ransom have been paid to free us from the power of evil if not to the symbolic source of evil, Satan, whom Jesus elsewhere says he sees falling like lightning from heaven?

    Just do a word search for ‘ransom’ in any digital bible, to find a host of references to the ransoming of Israel.

    If Jesus is a ransom, the Father is clearly the payer of the ransom, so how an he also be the one to whom the ransom is owed? The parable of the Prodigal Son makes the latter inference impossible.

    You completely underestimate the theological mistake of placing Abba at the summit of the medieval honour pyramid, as Anselm did. That was to align the church with the ancien regime, the mistake that alienated the Enlightenment and still undergirds the secular assault on the church.

    Very clearly Jesus was identifying instead with those shamed by the honour pyramid of the ancient world, based on military ascendancy. He was thereby inverting it. We can surely see that now?

    Why is it scandalous to you to think of Abba giving even his Son to free us from the power of evil, when no other inference is possible, not just from the NT but from e.g. Psalms 49: 15?

  16. Sean O'Conaill

    #13 Who is arguing that to abandon satisfactionalism is to undermine the ethic of sacrifice? Time and again I have argued here that an understanding of the crucifixion as a revelation of the scapegoating process implies a transformation of the meaning of sacrifice, not an abandonment of it!

    The proposition that the crucifixion exemplified a ‘perfect sacrifice’ raises the question of what action exactly exemplified this perfect sacrifice. Was it what *the crucifiers* were doing, or what Jesus was doing?

    Obviously it was the latter, so God’s action was in the acceptance of the crucifixion NOT IN THE INSTIGATION OR CAUSATION OF IT.

    Sorry for shouting, but it is precisely this distinction that is eroded if we accept the simplest rendition of the Anselmian thesis: that God could only be ‘satisfied’ by Jesus’s execution. The above distinction has NEVER been made in church in my hearing, while the required ‘crucify him’ response of the congregation at Easter leaves open the awful possibility that this is ‘what God wants us to say’.

    The only sense in which ‘satisfaction’ could ever be argued without giving scandal (i.e. doubt as to God’s non-violence) is to point out – FIRST – that the bible ALWAYS sides with the victims of such all-against-one injustices, and that therefore a divine sharing in the same experience, followed by Jesus resurrection, would serve to expose and eventually eliminate the practice (as is happening).

    Given that, after Anselm, the church was in alignment for centuries with governments that routinely practised scapegoating violence (e.g. the pogroms against the Jews) it is obvious that this Anselmian solution could not avoid that scandal – which is still hanging about us, even after Girard.

    The total reluctance of clergy to even approach terms like ‘satisfaction’ and ‘substitution’ is surely proof of their potentially scandalous implications. That is why it is of huge importance to point out the crucifixion is BOTH repetitive of a pattern that runs throughout the bible AND unique in other respects. The latter has been overdone in my experience, while it took Girard to show me the former.

    The examples of sacrifice that you give, down to Bonhoeffer and Romero, do show that despite Anselm, it is the example of Jesus that Christians have often followed – but are you arguing that they needed to believe ‘satisfaction theory’ to do that? I would argue the opposite: that the Gospel is greater than Anselm and conveys its deepest meanings (to some) ‘subliminally’ – i.e. without reference to ‘high theology’. The example of Franz Jagerstatter, who had only a basic Christian education, would support that.


    We cannot do without such people, but the same is not true of Anselmian atonement theory, and the verbiage it has lumbered us with.

  17. Paddy Ferry

    Joe and Sean, what a wonderful conversation we have had from you all this week on the nature of the sacrificial death, or otherwise, of Jesus, which I may have been responsible for setting off last Sunday following my surprise as I listened to 1 Corinthians. This is our ACP site at it’s very best, I think.
    I am not sure if anything more should be said and I am a bit reluctant to do so.
    However, it does strike me that there is a certain shared thinking between René Girard, whose anthropological proposal in relation to Jesus’ death you, Sean, introduced me to some time ago, and Fr.Joseph Fitzmyer. In “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” p.180, René Girard tells us that:
    ” There is nothing in the Gospels to suggest that the death of Jesus is a sacrifice, whatever definition ( expiation, substitution, etc.) we may give for that sacrifice. At no point in the Gospels is the death of Jesus defined as a sacrifice. The passages that are invoked to justify a sacrificial conception of the Passion both can and should be interpreted with no reference to sacrifice in any of the accepted meanings”

  18. Joe O'Leary

    Paddy, I remember that book, which is full of such sweeping and inaccurate statements from Girard. It’s a set of improvised interviews he gave to two admiring disciples vying in mimetic rivalry for his attention. Even the very title, “Things Hidden…” smacks of someone on a manic high.

    Kevin, an exegesis of “Soul of my Saviour” should work with the original, not with Fr Faber’s hymn. It says “Blood of Christ, inebriate me”!


    Sean, “ransom” comes from Isaiah 53, which makes no reference to the devil; nor does Jesus in Mark 10.45. See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/14/may-reckless-no-deal-brexit

    It’s later bad theology that asks “to whom is the ransom paid” and comes up with the answer “the devil.”

    I don’t recall any reference to the devil in the vast biblical discourse on sacrifice. The biblical references to devil-figures are few and far between and vary from period to period. The most substantial are the stories of Jesus casting out evil spirits. The idea that Jesus would pay anything to the devil or evil spirits is very odd, even if there are a few references to diabolical influence in the Passion (on Judae and on “the Jews” of John 8). But the text Kevin quoted shows that these forces of evil are placed in a sorry pass: “Now judgment is upon this world; now the prince of this world will be cast out” (John 12:31).

    Suffice it to say that “the wages of sin is death” and sin places us under “the wrath of God”, but God’s “alien work” is to condemn, while his “proper work” is to forgive (Luther); the Law condemns, the Gospel forgives. Jesus takes on himself the curse of the Law and satisfies its demands. So you could say he pays a ransom to the demands of righteousness, the sinless one dying for sinners, paying the ransom on our behalf.

    “You completely underestimate the theological mistake of placing Abba at the summit of the medieval honour pyramid, as Anselm did.” No, I just think that Anselm is probably subtler than this standard summary suggests, and that we would need to read or reread him to do justice to his thought.

    “Very clearly Jesus was identifying instead with those shamed by the honour pyramid of the ancient world, based on military ascendancy. He was thereby inverting it. We can surely see that now?” This is true, but he also identifies with the worst of sinners. “God was in Christ reconciling the world with himself” and “God made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:19 and 21). Let’s not underestimate the incredible richness and plurality of biblicsl conceptions of redemption, worked out over a 1000 years.

    “Why is it scandalous to you to think of Abba giving even his Son to free us from the power of evil, when no other inference is possible, not just from the NT but from e.g. Psalms 49: 15?” — surely I quoted all the key New Testament texts that say just this many times? The Old Testament texts you reference about God as the Redeemer of Israel are a basis for the language of the redemption God accomplishes in Christ.

    Since you rightly disapprove of the devil’s ransom theory I don’t see why you are looking for it in the Bible. The biblical language of Redemption is infinitely richer than the crudities of a buying-back from the devil that took root in some Christian preaching (you say it was the dominant model of redemption in the first Christian millennium, but again the Fathers have a vast range of reflections that cannot be reduced to one rather tawdry model).

  19. Joe O'Leary

    On the Blood of Christ, I am looking just now at the publications I mentioned earlier by the Centro Studi Sanguis Christi, Rome 1981-1991. (I, II, and VII are in Sophia University library)). The volumes are conference proceedings, edited by Francesco Vattioni (1955-1999):
    I blood in biblical anthropology. 910 pp.
    II blood and biblical anthropology in the Fathers. 950 pp.
    III blood in Christian literature
    IV blood in liturgy
    V rites and cults
    VI blood in theology
    VII blood in medieval theology. 1858 pp. Actually the first 800 pp. are devoted to Bible, Judaism, and the Classics.

  20. Sean O'Conaill

    #16 Re that statement of Girard in ‘Things Hidden’ (1978) – denying that the passion story should be seen as narrating a ‘sacrifice’ – with my own ears I heard René Girard in 2004 in Heythrop College in London call that ‘my greatest mistake’!

    What happened was that the Swiss theologian Raymund Schwager – persuaded by Girard’s mimetic theory – engaged René in a protracted dialogue (following ‘Things Hidden’) on the evolution of the biblical presentation of sacrifice. The result was that Girard came to understand Jesus’s submission to crucifixion as the culmination of that evolution.

    Briefly, the ‘gift to God’ aspect of sacrifice in the OT is growing as the ‘scandalous’ aspect – (priestly evasion and even ‘murder’) – is shrinking. Abraham’s preparation to sacrifice his own son Isaac – his only hope of a vast progeny – is obviously less evasive and more self-punishing than the sacrifice of someone unrelated to him, but it still scandalises us today.

    The reason is that we have a more perfect example of sacrifice – one in which there is no priestly evasion or murder and everything is given. Girard came to reinterpret Hebrews in that light, and Schwager’s theology developed that theme.

    You will find an expansion of this, and a fascinating article on the Eucharistic implications, at: https://acireland.ie/mass-holy-sacrifice/

  21. Joe O'Leary

    I might have been the first one to challenge Girard’s statements in a conversation with him when the book was hot from the press in 1978!

    By the way the ransom theory does not mean that a debt was paid to the devil; the devil was baited or deceived; it’s part of the Christus Victor scenario that Gustav Aulen highlighted: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christus_Victor

    I would see it as a preacher’s home-made, folkloric theology, not the deepest aspect of the Fathers’ thought on Christ’s victory over death. The Fathers thought very deeply and systematically on the Incarnation but on the actual “mechanics” of atonement they are less cogent (while the Pauline theme of justification by faith falls off the radar screen). Anselm found a void to be filled here, and did so for good or ill.

    “Briefly, the ‘gift to God’ aspect of sacrifice in the OT is growing as the ‘scandalous’ aspect – (priestly evasion and even ‘murder’) – is shrinking. Abraham’s preparation to sacrifice his own son Isaac – his only hope of a vast progeny – is obviously less evasive and more self-punishing than the sacrifice of someone unrelated to him, but it still scandalises us today.”

    Genesis 22 was always a shocking text, but its power is revered throughout Jewish and Christian tradition down to Kierkegaard. Jephthah slaying his daughter is cited by the Fathers as a warning against rash oaths, but he is counted as a hero of faith in Hebrews 11:32 as is Abraham for his readiness to sacrifice Isaac in Heb 11:17. Phinehas, zealous in slaying on the Lord’s behalf, is missing from Hebrews, surprisingly, but he is revered as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

    While the spiritualization of the idea of sacrifice is as old as Philo or Origen or Augustine, and has roots in the Prophets, its more violent aspects have not been easy to control or eliminate. Cromwell no doubt thought he was making a pleasing sacrifice unto the Lord when he carried out his herem in Drogheda.

  22. Paddy Ferry

    Thanks, Sean and Joe, for that additional information. I have to say I find it absolutely extraordinary that a great scholar of the calibre of Girard, who obviously would have studied this matter at great length before putting pen to paper, and who was then able to state so vehemently that there is no evidence in the Gospels to suggest that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice and so on, could then suddenly say, sorry folks I got all this wrong. Please ignore what I had previously stated. Utterly bizarre !!

  23. Sean O'Conaill

    #21 There was nothing violent about Jesus’s acceptance of the cross – a truth that became seriously obscured with Contantine in 312 – indeed almost suppressed but for the Gospel record. Hence the scandalous historical ambiguity of Christendom with regard to violence, with leading churchmen most guilty of the ‘blind eye’, even in Ireland.

    Thank goodness for Séamus Murphy, but why is he such an isolated voice?



  24. Joe O'Leary

    One of the reasons there is so little good theology of the Atonement is that it would demand engagement with the whole vast literature on the institutions of sacrifice, especially in Israel Greece, and India. Girard had plunged into this in “Violence and the Sacred”, though he is much contested on many points. How siphon out from the Christian language that is so steeped in sacrificial diction the vital essence of what that language means as we strive to understand and appropriate it today?


  25. Eddie Finnegan1

    Sean@23, with reference to your Guardian link re the Fr Séamus Murphy SJ article in the Spring 2016 STUDIES, I’m sure you recall the intended article for the Spring 1966 STUDIES by Fr Francis Shaw SJ, at a time when it was even less popular or profitable to publish such a challenge. It did not appear, but a longer posthumous version of Fr Shaw’s “The Canon of Irish History: a Challenge” did appear in Summer 1972 – possibly at a time more pertinent to the North’s reopening of the old sacrificial scab.

  26. Joe O'Leary

    I would not call Girard a “great scholar” — he was fundamentally a literary critic, who had brilliant hunches. (His best book might be his first, called in English “Deceit, Desire, and the Novel” which centres on mimetic desire and rivalry.) https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/feb/08/theory-mimetic-desire

    I taught his “Violence and the Sacred” to my students and felt that it was not as reliable on the Greeks as the work of Walter Burkert or J.-P. Vernant, for example. I think “Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World” was given (it’s interviews, not a written monograph) in a fit of rash enthusiasm. I fear a similar unguarded enthusiasm marks the work of Girard’s ardent disciples — such as Raymond Schwaeger and Cynthia Haven (author of “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard”. His application of mimetic rivalry to Greek and biblical sources with the idea of sacrifice as solving a crisis erupting over such rivalry gives a special slant to the sources. For instance the Old Testament “scapegoat” mentioned in only one chapter of the Bible and quite marginal in regard to Israel’s sacrificial culture is given excessive prominence by Girard.

    See https://spoilsofegypt.wordpress.com/2015/11/15/girardian-heresy/


  27. Sean O’Conaill

    #25. Yes indeed, Eddie. I tried reminding everyone of Francis Shaw in 2014, here:


    Studied silence, as usual. ‘ Whatever yos say, say ???’

  28. Joe O'Leary

    The clergy have often brought moral scrutiny to bear on Irish nationalist activities — excommunicating the IRA in the Civil War, problematizing “the morality of hunger strikes” in the time of Terence McSwiney, denouncing IRA violence in the Troubles. True, the Easter Rising, in its “terrible beauty” has been spared close scrutiny. It was a State-founding heroic sacrifice and very hard to approach in prosaic moral terms. In school we were taught it as the very basis of our identity as Irish people, just as the conquest of Canaan was for Jews, even though it, too, was morally problematic.

    Moral cover is provided by the acceptance of tyrannicide and just revolt in Catholic moral theology, by the massive approbation of the Irish people shortly after the event despite the havoc and loss of life it produced, and by respect for the consciences of the protagonists who articulated very fully the motives the led them to think the insurrection necessary and good. To be sure this was stretched by some to glorify the terrorism of the Provos and the Raal IRA.

  29. Eddie Finnegan1

    Excellent, Sean. As often you were well ahead of the pack, but just as often no pack followed whether to support your argument or to tear you to pieces.

  30. Sean O'Conaill

    #26 Among the ‘scholars’ you do respect, Joe, which of these pointed to the recurrent pattern of all-against-one violence in the scriptures – from the story of Jonah thrown overboard to calm the storm to Job deserted and accused by all of his friends; Susannah condemned in Babylon on the word of the licentious elders; Joseph cast out by his brothers; the majority of the Psalms whose subject is beset by enemies and then the ‘suffering servant’ of Isaiah, and the woman accused of adultery in the Gospel of John?

    Here by contrast is Girard on the ‘scapegoat’ of Leviticus:

    “The ritual consisted of driving into the wilderness a goat on which all the sins of Israel had been laid. The high priest placed his hands on the head of the goat, and this act was supposed to transfer onto the animal everything likely to poison relations between members of the community. The effectiveness of the ritual was the idea that the sins were expelled with the goat and then the community was rid of them.

    “This ritual of expulsion is similar to that of the pharmakos in Greece, but it is much less sinister because the victim is never a human being. When an animal is chosen, the injustice seems less, or even nonexistent.”

    (‘I See Satan Fall Like Lightning’, 2001)

    So, far from giving ‘excessive prominence’ to this story Girard argues that it is insignificant in comparison to these other stories of placing guilt, and punishment to the point of death, on HUMANS.

    Did you teach your students of Ancient Greece about the pharmakos, Joe – the insignificant HUMAN selected for death or expulsion by that so advanced civilisation? Tell us, please – who among the Greek philosophers was scandalised by that?

    Which of your preferred scholars obliged us to see that the story of the Passion is not an historical one-off, a singularity, but at once a repetition of that all-against-one pattern and a towering instance that throws light on what’s ongoing today – e.g. Pakistani fury over the release of Asia Bibi – so obviously a chosen scapegoat in the tensions in Pakistan?

    AND the willingness of so many Catholic bishops to risk the safety of Catholic children to maintain the reputation for impeccability of the Catholic clerical institution? Did any ever suggest that the Crucifixion of Jesus showed greater divine solidarity with such victims than with the institution that behaved this way?

    Which of those favoured scholars of yours proposed a new understanding of covetousness as mimetic desire – a phenomenon as real and pervasive as modern advertising – and went on to convince a school of academics dispersed throughout the human sciences that the secular Enlightenment had been wrong to argue for the heroic autonomy of the individual and that it is to this we should look to understand the roots of human violence, not to some inevitable evolutionary mechanism?

    And given the obvious imbalance of Catholic moral theology (towards obsessiveness re sexuality) which of your chosen scholars has done more than Girard to shape an obvious solution – towards addressing and combating mimetic desire (covetousness) to save the Earth and its people – something never noticed by any Irish cleric ever in my experience? Did you yourself ever notice it, and write about it, before you read Girard?

    In providing a secure basis for such a radical and fertile Catholic critique of the secular Enlightenment, Girard towered above all other Catholic scholars of his era. Observing his breadth of erudition, his scholarly French peers – though mostly diametrically opposed to his Christian beliefs – elected him to the Académie française in 2005.

    Who else comes close, Joe, and why?

  31. Sean O’Conaill

    # 28 ‘by the massive approbation of the Irish people shortly after the event’

    First, you are fatally omitting from your understanding of ‘the Irish people’ the bulk of the Protestant and dissenting minority – the nub of continuing Irish disunity and conflict.

    Secondly, this poses for all Irish ecumenists today the question of how the Christian obligation to follow Christ should influence state-building concerns. They must surely ask how a truly united Ireland could ever be founded on belief in the 1916 Rising as a ‘perfect sacrifice’, given the cover it gave to fratricidal violence in Northern Ireland over three decades

    Whose primary obligation is it to critique Irish politico-historical ideology from a Christian viewpoint, if not the Christian theologian and the Christian philosopher? Seamus Murphy should not be so isolated in that necessary task.

  32. Joe O'Leary

    Let me clarify: Girard was a brilliant man, a top class literary critic, well suited to the role of Professor of French Language, Literature and Civilization at Stanford University.

    As a biblical scholar or as a Hellenist he would not qualify for a top chair in those disciplines. Walter Burkert is on a different plane as far as “consummate learning” goes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_Necans

    Girard’s thoughts on sacrifice are illuminating and have had wide influence, including on biblical scholarship. How world-changing they are in the great scheme of things is an open question.

    “Who else comes close, Joe, and why?” Eugen Drewermann, deep prophetic insight into human nature (see his commentary on Cain and Abel, rather close to Girard) and much superior mastery of biblical scholarship. http://www.drewermann.info/structures.shtml


    I first came across the notion of mimetic rivalry in this (Proust being then my favorite author; this was before “Violence and the Sacred”): https://www.amazon.com/Proust-Collection-Critical-Ren%C3%A9-Girard/dp/B000NXOTQ0/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1550723902&sr=1-1-fkmr0&keywords=Proust%3A+A+Collection+of+Critical+Essays+Paperback+%E2%80%93+1962+by+Ren%C3%A9+Girard+%28Editor%29

  33. Sean O'Conaill

    #32 To refer to Girard as a ‘top-class literary critic’ is like dismissing Leonardo Da Vinci as a ‘great cartoonist’.

    Starting out with a doctorate in medieval history Girard launched his literary career with a book on five great European novelists that went far beyond mere literary criticism – by proposing a unifying focus for the novelists’ concerned: their discovery of the importance of vanity and imitation in determining their own early lives.

    This was just the beginning of the perception of the importance of mimesis (unconscious imitation) as a determinative force in life, society and the entirety of human history, providing a lens through which that history could be rediscovered and rewritten – as a radical challenge to Enlightenment historiography and even the fragmentation of human discourse that followed the Enlightenment.

    To propose any specialist academic as a rival to Girard in importance is therefore to miss completely the potential of mimetic theory not only to reintegrate human understanding but to address the dominant problems of our own time: violence, inequality and environmental collapse.

    Finally, for the Christian believer mimetic theory explains the importance of finding a model to imitate who himself overcame mimetic desire – vindicating the central importance of the Gospel narratives. And vindicating also the insistence of Teilhard de Chardin on the evolutionary significance of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

    Girard was therefore, from the beginning, an anthropologist and a philosopher as well as a historian and ‘literary critic’. Wolfgang Palaver’s summary of mimetic theory is also a brilliant summary of the philosophy of violence, explaining, for example, why exactly Nietzsche’s decision to forsake the Christian option for peace in favour of his ‘superman’ was so seminal in shaping the ferocity of World War II.

    And Girard’s last book addressed the still potent problem of nuclear arms competition.

    No modern academic has been as fertile a source of inspiration across the entire range of the human sciences – as a cursory reading of the Girard obituaries in Dec 2015 makes clear. And no Catholic academic has posed as serious a challenge to a secularism that cannot even address its own Utopian failures.

    To look for Girard’s scholarly superiors in any specific field is therefore to miss the point: his importance straddles academic categories as varied as psychotherapy, politics, theology, international relations, history and literature. He occupied the post he did at Stanford not only because it so well suited a number of his abilities but because there is no university chair anywhere for the unified vision that his alumni in so many different fields meet still every year to discuss.

    For the 2019 Girardian Colloquium see:


  34. Paddy Ferry

    Having continued to read and enjoy this ongoing and fascinating conversation which Joe and Sean have now been engaged in for well over a week now, the latest information from Sean on the wide ranging brilliance of René Girard only increases my sense of bewilderment that such a great scholar could state so vehemently in “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” that there is no evidence in the Gospels to suggest that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice and then, do a complete about turn, at some later stage and disown his earlier belief. Did he really do that? It seems almost unbelievable.

    On another related topic, is there sound evidence that there was the practice of human sacrifice before the advent of animal sacrifice?
    Abraham did not have to kill his son after all though Jepththa did sacrifice his daughter in the Book of Judges and then prayed “Waft her angels through the sky” according to GF Handels wonderful aria.

  35. Joe O'Leary

    Listening now to “Waft her Angels through the Skies” sung by Mark Padmore. Beauty and violence are so often interwoven, and their disentangling is no easy task.

    Sean, I admire the genius of the French literary critics of that time immensely — Doubrovsky, Starobinski, Poulet, Richard, Genette, Barthes; and I doubt if Girard himself would take my eulogy as a put-down.

    All of the critics named can also claim to be anthropologists. Doubrovsky on Corneille is superior to Sartre as a political thinker; Poulet’s studies of “human time” are still an unexploited treasure; and of course Burkert is an anthropologist as well as a Hellenist specialist just as Drewermann is. All of these are very brilliant people and it’s no dishonour to Girard to count him among them rather than see him throning way above them as a supreme Prophet.

    “No modern academic has been as fertile a source of inspiration across the entire range of the human sciences” — Michel Foucault, if he were a vain man, would not be happy to hear that! Or Paul Ricoeur. I hesitate to mention Jacques Derrida because of the huge international cult that grew up about him and because his star has dimmed. Or Jacques Lacan, because psychoanalysis is allegedly discredited, though his influence spread far beyond the world of psychoanalysts.

    This book on Old Testament violence looks promising: T. M. Lemos, Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts (Oxford University Press, 2017).

  36. Pat Rogers

    Warmest thanks to Joe O’Leary, Sean O’Conaill, Paddy Ferry et alii, for the lively discussion on the meaning of sacrifice. For those not so familiar with the work of René Girard, I suggest the well-written online piece at https://www.iep.utm.edu/girard/ Wherever one might wish to place him in the academic hierarchy, he was surely a seminal and thought-provoking writer…

    If some of you might have some suitable excerpts from Girard that would go well with the homily resources for March 2019, please read ahead (using the March calendar on our mainpage) and add your comments on the relevant dates.

  37. Paddy Ferry

    Thanks, Pat, thats absolutely excellent. After all this René Girard will be one of my specialist subjects!!

  38. Paddy Ferry

    Joe, could I also recommend that you give a listen to Kenneth McKellar’s rendition of “Waft her, Angels”, a much underestimated tenor, in my view, but famously referred to by Sir Adrian Boult as the greatest modern exponent of Handel arias, and of course, he is Scottish.