Every society, every culture has a tradition of a scapegoat, someone to blame and punish for the sin of that particular society. It follows then that in the beginning of the spiritual life we are when confronted with our own sinfulness and those around us, we are conditioned to act like the scapegoat.
When I take on the identity of a scapegoat, even if I live a devout, disciplined, ascetic lifestyle with a daily round of Mass, rosaries, Eucharistic Adoration and frequent confession, I still fall into a trap. It is a trap that all of us fall into as we try to become devoted disciples of Jesus. It is a piety that in the end focuses on ourselves, our actions, our devotions and effort. I am at the front and centre, not God.
In the Old Testament, the Azazel goat, translated as scapegoat, was one of two goats chosen for a ceremony on The Day of Atonement. The first goat was sacrifice but a priest would lay hands on the second goat and symbolically transfer all the sin and guilt of the community on to this animal. The scapegoat was then driven into the desert, to die, thus cleansing the community of its sin.
“And when he has made an end of atoning for The Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat; and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land; and he shall let the goat go in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:20-22 RSV)
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.
PART OF THE MASS
A: We proclaim your death, O Lord,
and profess your Resurrection until you come again.
B: When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your death, O Lord,
until you come again.
C: Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection, you have set us free.
When we act like a victim sacrifice, suffering for our own failings or like a scapegoat who suffers as the result of others sins, we might like to think of ourselves as saintly martyrs but our suffering is anything but holy. There is no act filled with more pride. We are in fact stealing Christ’s job. Christ came to suffer and die on the cross for our sins. He is the sacrificial lamb who takes away all sin. He is 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.
It takes humility to realize that our miserable, self-inflicted suffering does not save anyone, least of all ourselves. 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. 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 that he needs saved, only a sick man grasps the truth that he needs to be healed.
Isaiah 53:5 (NASB)
But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.
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. 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.