Every society, every culture has a tradition of a  scapegoat: a person or group of people to be blamed and punished for the sins of that particular society. Centuries ago, old women were blamed for poor crops, cows which failed to produce milk and any birth defects. Less superstitious societies turned on each new group of immigrants to blame for their economic woes and rising crime rates. And, in the beginning of the spiritual life when we are confronted with our own sinfulness and those around us, we also tend to act just like scapegoats. Even if we live a devout, disciplined, ascetic lifestyle with a daily round of Mass, rosaries, Eucharistic Adoration and frequent confession, most of us still fall into this scapegoat trap as we try to become devoted disciples of Jesus.

A Scapegoat Suffers in Isolation

When we suffer in isolation for our own failings or act like a scapegoat who suffers as the result of others who sin against us, we like to think of ourselves as saintly martyrs, but our suffering is anything but holy and especially not redemptive. In fact, there is no act filled with more pride because we are in fact stealing Christ’s job. It takes humility to realize our miserable, self-inflicted suffering does not save anyone, least of all ourselves. The only way to become humble is to trust in God to save us because we realized our own efforts have failed.

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Only Jesus is Saviour

Accepting Jesus as our Saviour really goes against our grain as human beings, because we want to earn our salvation, purify ourselves by suffering out of a misplaced sense of guilt. It is a type of piety which, in the end, focuses on ourselves, our actions and efforts to suffer for our sinfulness as we strive to save ourselves. We are at the centre of our attention, not God. Ironically, it usually takes suffering to break down our ego and pride. Once exhausted by trying to save ourselves, we often must hit bottom before we are desperate enough to change, to let go of our pride and control and surrender in humility to Christ our Saviour. Only the drowning man even realizes he needs to be saved, only a sick man realizes he needs to be healed.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 601-602

The Scriptures had foretold this divine plan of salvation through the putting to death of “the righteous one, my Servant” as a mystery of universal redemption, that is, as the ransom that would free men from the slavery of sin [Isaiah 53:11-12; cf. John 8:34-36; Acts 3:14]. Citing a confession of faith that he himself had “received”, St. Paul professes that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” [1 Corinthians 15:3; cf. also Acts 3:18, 7:52, 13:29, 26:22-23]. In particular Jesus’ redemptive death fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering Servant [cf. Isaiah 53:7-8 and Acts 8:32-35]. Indeed Jesus himself explained the meaning of his life and death in the light of God’s suffering Servant [cf. Matthew 20:28]. After his Resurrection he gave this interpretation of the Scriptures to the disciples at Emmaus, and then to the apostles [cf. Luke 24:25-27, 44-45].

Consequently, St. Peter can formulate the apostolic faith in the divine plan of salvation in this way: “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers … with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake” [1 Peter 1:18-20]. Man’s sins, following on original sin, are punishable by death [cf. Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:56]. By sending his own Son in the form of a slave, in the form of a fallen humanity, on account of sin, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” [2 Corinthians 5:21; cf. Philippians 2:7; Romans 8:3].

The reason, Jesus had to die was because we cannot save ourselves or anyone else. Christ came to suffer and die on the cross for our sins. He is the one and the only sacrificial lamb who takes away all sin. He is just like the scapegoat of the Old Testament, burdened by the sins of the people who by his death and resurrection, justifies everyone by the power of His blood in the eyes of God the Father.

When Suffering is Redemptive

Yes, there is a place for redemptive suffering. But what most of us experience is far from redemptive, because our suffering is not in union with Christ’s; we are simply falling into the scapegoat trap. Redemptive suffering is not long-faced misery, but in fact joyful because it is life-giving and life-affirming as we live in, with and through Christ our Saviour. It might involve physical pain, but it is lived in the Light, in peace, and in joy. When we are no longer the centre of attention, but Jesus is the centre, all heavy, psychological despair and mental anguish dissipates like insubstantial mist under the burning sunlight.

To make a shift from an egocentric lifestyle to a God-centered lifestyle is tricky business. Thank heavens the Catholic Church has always understood the need for spiritual directors. But the fundamental difference between self-centered piety and true, vibrant life in Christ is when we give up trying to save ourselves and surrender to Jesus. When we consciously choose Christ, the switch is immediate from misery to joy. Even if we seem to suffer just as much in our external lives, we are no longer pitiful scapegoats.

Come Lord and save us from ourselves and our feeble attempts to save ourselves.

Copyright 2017 Melanie Jean Juneau