The expedience of Christ’s death on the cross

9. A Sermon Preached in Vinegia on Friday after Passion Sunday 1539 which was the Feast of the Sorrowful Mother

By Bernardino Ochino da Siena

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

Translator’s note: This translation is based on the introduction, text and footnotes which were published by P. Costanzo Cargnoni O.F.M. Cap. In I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze dell primo secolo, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol III/1, pp.2202-2215. The only additions to the notes made by the translator are references to Francis of Assisi: The Early Documents, edited by Regis Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., J. A. Wayne Hellmann, O.F.M. and William J. Short O.F.M. Conv., New York City Press, New York, London, Manila, for an English version of quotations from the Writings or Biographies of St Francis.

Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

When Ochino preached[1]on the text containing the “prophesy” of Caiaphas he made an attempt to explain to the faithful “why it was expedient that Christ should die on the cross for our sins”. He explained the various reasons using the technique of an academic debate, a kind of conversation containing objections and responses so as to make people listen. It was expedient (he said with St Paul) because of his tremendous charity. There was no other reason. When analysing the accusations that the Scribes and Pharisees flung at Christ he laid the blame directly on the leaders, the magistrates and the nobles, that is the wealthy and the powerful. After a ruthless analysis of their vices and sins he expounds the inevitability of his death and the beauty of the love of Christ crucified. Because the Angels, the Apostles and also the Eternal Father, as well as Christ and Mary, were happy about his death on the cross, Ochino begs the faithful to rejoice over Christ’s Passion in which every treasure, glory and consolation is to be found.

9. A sermon preached in Vinegia on Friday after Passion Sunday 1539

5700 In creating the world God gave a very splendid exhibition of his omnipotence and wisdom by the way that he arranged everything, of his generosity by the way that he preserved everything, of his mercy by forgiving sins, of his justice by having his Son pay the debt that was ours and, ultimately, by everything that he did. Looking at them one after the other, we see the reflection of all God’s perfections. However more than anything when Christ hung on the cross he showed his love for creatures. Because I want to break open this good news to you this morning, I say: This was the best way that he could have shown us what was of benefit to us.

However, you may say: “Could God have adopted another way to rectify what sin had done and not send his Only Son?” I say yes, because everything on earth and in heaven is under his control. He has control of the human race and gives it his grace. Since it was he who was offended he could have forgiven in many ways, as St Augustine said. St Anselm also said in his book Deus et homo God did not lack the means to save the world.[2] However, it was expedient that Christ should die on the cross. It was not necessary because God cannot be constrained, or forced, since he is lord of all. However, it was expedient as you have heard this morning when Caiaphas, having the Holy Spirit on his lips though not in his heart, prophesised and said: Expedit vobis quod unus homo moriatur pro populo, ne tota gens pereat.[3] So it is expedient and we shall deal with this subject for the good of your souls. So please pay attention and we shall begin.

5701 It was expedient (a little silence, please!) and preordained by God ab eterno that Christ should die on the cross for our sins so that his blood could wash away our iniquity. Therefore the Jews did not sin because this had been preordained and it was necessary that Christ was the one who had to die. Exempli gratia: If everyone in the city had to suffer because all were sinners, including those who were rebels and wicked and there was no other alternative but to find an innocent person and have him die for the salvation of the whole city, I ask you, would he have to die. I say yes because what is public good prevails over personal good. Therefore if he had not died the Romans would have come to destroy the city because Christ, who claimed to be King, had not died and there would have been widespread destruction. To save your body you would be happy to lose a finger, even if it were healthy. Therefore you will say that it would be fitting for an innocent person to suffer for the good of the people. If it happened that the city perished, would not all those within the city perish, including the innocent.

You all know that this situation is somewhat different. Immo I can tell you that the Jews committed a very great sin in sentencing Christ to death, even if it was expedient. The Scribes and the Pharisees did not intend to kill him for the salvation of the world but only because he had opposed them and they believed that he would put an end to their greed and their ambitions, because Christ had unveiled their defects. This is what caused them to be angry with the immaculate lamb.

5702 If you say: “Perhaps they did it so that the Romans would not take over the kingdom.” You know that this is not true. It is clear and it is certain that they knew that Christ had refused to be king when they wanted to make him king.[4] He never wanted a material kingdom for his kingdom was in the hearts of men.[5] This is what concerned him and he did not care about anything else because of the ardent charity he had for the soul of a Christian.

You might say: “he did it so as not to be a bother to the people or the magistrates.” In fact it was just the opposite. You will not find in Scripture that Christ disturbed the magistrates. Indeed he approved of them and praised them. However, he kept God before his eyes and was not motivated by friendship, gifts, accolades or personal interest etc.

You might say, “Was not a single tear from Christ sufficient to wash away our sins without the shedding of so much blood, without torturing his body with so many lashes and so many wounds?” I reply that it would have been enough. But tell me this: suppose you had a brother in Turkey who was imprisoned because he could not afford to pay for his freedom with a thousand scudi and you went there with a thousand scudi and rescued him. However, your brother had become accustomed to a good sensual life and was not interested in coming back here, tell me what would you do? I am certain that as you were a good brother to him that you would not be satisfied to have just given him a thousand scudi, but you would embrace him and pamper him in every way, and not just with words, but verum etiam with actions and gestures so that he could have what he wanted. The beloved Christ did the same. He was not satisfied to redeem us poor sinners, but (as Paul says, propter nimiam charitatem)[6] he wanted to draw souls to himself and with genuine love prove and show his divine love, so that when we saw such eagerness and charity expended for us it would transform us into him, not just for his own satisfaction but in order to give us heaven.

5703 If you said to me: “If it was expedient that Christ would die on the cross to save the whole of the human race why did he allow the Jews who crucified him to be dammed?” I reply, that on the cross Christ saved everyone, and that everyone was saved, because the Passion and Death was so successful that even they were saved, had their hardness of heart not prevented them from being converted.

But you might say: “If the sin of our father Adam required that Christ had to come and suffer for us, how much more should the Son of God come once again and take human flesh and mount the cross because of the sin of the Jews.” I say no, because the passion and death of Jesus was so abundant in grace for creatures and was so effective that the Jews, and any others that will come into the world, have the means to be saved through Christ Crucified.

However, you might then say: “God was very cruel to punish a just person.” I say just the opposite. God is kind and loving towards every creature. However, because God’s love is not of his own self but for every other thing, it was fitting that Christ’s flesh should endure suffering, because he was both God and man and quite unlike any other man.

However, if you said to me “Christ should have come into the world as someone who was wealthy, important and honourable so that the Scribes and Pharisees would have followed him, embraced him and not have been so crude as to condemn him to death.” I would say no. That would have been worse. They would only have loved him because of his wealth and status. Then, as such, the more Christ would have helped them, the worse they would have been and the more guilty of sin, because they would have esteemed his status and wealth and not him personally. Therefore he came as a poor person of lowly status so that those who followed him would love him out of pure love, Christian love, for as Paul says: Praedicamus Christum crucifixum qui Iudaeis quidem scandalum, gentibus autem stultitiam.[7]

5704 This Christ on the wood of the cross was a scandal to the Jews because of their inflexibility and stubbornness of heart, and because their deeds were contrary to Christ’s life and teaching, they were scandalised. Because of their lack of respect they did not recognise that he was the Son of God. To the Gentiles he was foolishness because they wanted to know the truth about God through human wisdom. Such truth (note the word) can never be perceived through human wisdom but requires the humility of coming to know it through love.

If you say “God did not love Christ for he was not worried about him being nailed to a cross”, I reply that he loved him with the same love as he loved himself because the Father and the Son are one. Being up on the cross caused Christ to receive more glory and exaltation in human hearts. Thus, in brief, we may conclude that the Passion and death was expedient and most necessary for our salvation. Let us pause for a short while.

Oh how necessary was Christ’s death on the cross! The Scribes and the Pharisees did not want to recognise this because they were unsure if it would cancel their authority. Christ had done this. Therefore they came together and discussed this among themselves saying: Quid faciamus quia hic homo multa signa facit [8] What are we to do? If we do not deal with these many signs everyone will run after him. Si dimittamus eum sic omnes credent in eo.[9] If we let him live everyone will believe in him and make him the master and the Romans will come, some of them said, with a large army and there will be great destruction.

5705 Someone said: “Perhaps it would have been better to kill Lazarus and say that he had not been raised from the dead? However, I recall that when he went to the tomb there were many people who were witnesses to the miracle.

Another one said: “That it was not true that he died and they will have no reason to run after him because of this.” Then another one said: “It was the fourth day and he stunk. Nobody will believe us. It we go ahead and kill him it would be dangerous now that so many are following him and the whole of Samaria has been converted to him. In addition to that the man born blind and the Canaanite adulteress have joined up and are going around preaching about his works and we could attract many enemies”.

We may still firmly believe that there was someone who feared God and said: “Oh leave him alone. If the works are earthly works and do not come from God, what concern is that to you, for then they will not last. If they are the work of God we cannot resist them”. Thus there was a great debate. Then Caiaphas, who was High Priest, said to them, “Why are you talking so much? Do you not know quia expedit vobis ut unum moriatur homo pro populo,[10] rather than have many people perish”. This is how it ended and the sentence, which was wicked whether just or unjust, was passed that the Immaculate Lamb, the blessed Jesus Christ, had to be killed.

5706 Oh what a false sentence was this because they did not adhere to the truth but veered away from it. Paul said: Veritatem dico vobis per Christum etc.[11] Paul told his disciples the truth about Christ. Christ’s passion for truth sustained him. What they had said was the world’s wisdom. I want to say this: Never think that you can understand the truth about Christ by using your intellect. It was because of this way of thinking that it was said: Expedit vobis etc. This was spurious advice. God does not want anything like this among Christians today.[12]

Prelates are the first ones to think that they can be saved by saying Mass and by staying in church until the evening to decorate it, accompanied by lay people, making vestments and making the tombs look beautiful or doing some other exterior work, always cultivating the respect of good people and amusing themselves with a thousand outward displays and unnecessary things. This is how[13] they make themselves look like prelates. Because they recognize that Christ also cured a blind man they say: Si dimittimus eum sic, omnes credent in eum. While they can see that he made the deaf hear yet they deliberately hate the Word God in the Gospel, and that he also raised the dead, so that many would rise from sin, they start to be afraid: Sic dimittimus eum sic etc, Then they start to think if we do not kill Christ he will go up in the estimation of the people and we shall lose our kingdom.[14]

Once lay people are Baptised they go to Mass, say the Office of the Madonna and imagine that they are good Christians without considering that they should be active in the love of God and of their neighbour and give up sinful conduct. This is because they do not want to abandon usury, illegal contracts, sensuality, pleasure and take on the restraints that Christ preached. So they say: Si dimittimus eum sic omnes credent in eum. If we go to hear these preachers we will have to give up what we have acquired and our belongings. Therefore it is better for us if unus moriatur pro popolo, so we shall not go to the sermons.

5707 While they are at the sermons and Christ is speaking to their hearts these ladies[15] make quite good and holy resolutions to break away from pomp, to turn away from their sins and to live lives as good sincere Christians. Because they are decent they intend to be generous in their love for Christ because he has loved them so much. Then when Easter is over they say: Si dimittimus eum etc. If we were to leave the pomp, our vanity and our cosmetics, our husbands would hate us and we would be thrown out as if we were prostitutes. Do you think that your vanity, your cosmetics and all your pretence ever caused your husband to love you honestly and purely? It would rather foster a lascivious love, an animal love. If you were modest, chaste and pure, your husband, as well as everyone else, would love you with genuine love, chaste love and perfect love. However, because you are not doing what your nobility demands God allows your husband not only to stop loving and respecting you but also permits you to lose your dignity, sending prostitutes into your house who have no regard for you or for your beauty.

Therefore, my ladies, I want you to live up to your nobility and be ashamed of being regarded as prostitutes. In order to be different from them you should go about modestly. Let others live with airs. Do not be the incentive[16] for your husbands being lustful. Therefore I beg of you through the heartfelt love that Christ showed on the cross to immediately begin the process of amendment. Do not let the word of God go wasted on your souls during this Lent. Now you can see that there are still those who make false statements about Christ because he was not within them.[17] Let us have a short pause.

5708 O blessed city, if only you would put Christ into your discussions! You would have no fear of making a mistake; he would guide you; he would control you. However, when Christ is not there we go wrong. The taverns resound every day; they call and you do nothing. A gentleman says: “Oh, there is nothing wrong because the gaming rooms[18] are only there to pass the time and our young people, as well as the elderly, have nowhere to go. They play there and feel invigorated.” What a good excuse! It would appear[19] that they have nowhere to pass the time. Are there no books in Vinegia that speak about Christ or the saints?[20]

To go further! Perhaps there are a hundred kinds of good and honourable pastime occupations for each gentleman to enjoy! Someone else will say: “You could provide them but they would not please this or that gentlemen, for one reason or another.” Thus in order not to upset anyone, or out of self-interest or for any other reason nothing is done to stop offending Christ. No one thinks about giving honour to Christ or recognises the infinite number of gifts received from God. I can tell you this, and keep it well in mind: If you do not help yourself, God will not help you because he has shown you the way and given you the opportunity. If you do not want it, it will get worse for you.

5709 What are you waiting for? Perhaps you are waiting for a different more Christian Senate than the present one? I tell you that you are deceiving yourselves. What are you waiting for? Perhaps for your young ones to be better than you are? Do not even think like that, because if they take up your duties, they will do as much as Buda. It is impossible for them to want to change things because since their childhood they have been frequenting taverns, gambling, cursing, and being lustful with so many prostitutes that they do not know how to go back to a Christian way of life. Perhaps you are waiting for the opportunity to reform yourselves? Oh dear! If these days of Lent have not provided that opportunity when do you expect it to happen? Perhaps it will come during Carnevale?

So, my city, I am sad and I cry to Christ for you for I love you with the greatest charity. However, I am obliged to tell you this because you will not be cured and I do not know how that will come about, I just do not know. Now that the feast of Easter, which was the recent feast, is over I shall leave you and if you did something wrong it will stay in my heart since I think that you are the normal reflection of the whole of Italy. I pore over it all and there are no more towers, no more cities in Italy that are not divided, that are not troubled. Your city alone is on its feet to some extent, and yet I am sorry that there is some immorality because it seems to me that you are my homeland, and not only you, but the whole of Italy.[21] Thus God wants me to shed as much blood as I can for your salvation!

5710 Do you know what will happen? The same thing will happen to you that happened to an old gentleman who had been sentenced to death for some of his misdemeanours. So that he would not feel so much pain and embarrassment, some of his relatives got him drunk on the day that he had to go and be beheaded. After he had been to confession and received communion, they took him to someone who always took his cap off. When he did not do this the man was embarrassed. Then he met a gentleman and asked him to give him a reference[22] for some kind of work, as he usually did. Because he usually had arguments he told someone, “Go there and do something”. As he went past his house where some men were working, he called out to the workmen and said: “Do this and do that.” He did not recall that his life would soon be at an end. Finally he came to a beautiful field and the one who was to behead him was there with a long knife[23] to cut off his head. Because there were many different flowers there he then picked one and then picked another and made a garland and put it on his head, not thinking that he must die.

You are doing the same thing which is a sign that you do not believe that you are going to die. Thus if someone does not take your hat off, and embarrass you, you will not change because you are not thinking about the deception of worldly ambitions and honours, and you will go on acquiring the position of being a magistrate to make you wealthy and to please your friends rather than to administer justice, and go on arguing over one thing or another without ever being satisfied with the circumstances in which God has placed you, but always plotting in your head and dreaming up new plans with earthly thoughts and you will go on as if you were made for this world. You will then go into the field and see so many beautiful flowers, so many kinds of sensuality, engaging with one now and another later, without ever satisfying your appetite with such lust and filth. As you are so noble I do not know how you are not ashamed to commit these things in opposition to Christ and to the detriment of your soul when in doing so you put yourself into the hands of Lucifer.

5711 Yet I believe for certain that you are all Christians and that you believe that you will die. However, on the other hand, how blind you are for not thinking of it! Then tell me please as we are speaking with each other as members of the same family, if someone were to come up to you and say: “Someone has been sent to you and is about to arrive, and I have to inform you that he has his sword drawn and he is coming to kill you and is already on his way.” Oh would you not be completely filled with anxiety and fear, not knowing which way he would come? When the day arrived would you not make sure of the hour and I think that you would say: “Oh he might have already arrived and be at the door and If I go outside he may kill me.”

Death is like that.[24] We know that it is approaching, but we do not know when it will arrive. We do not know the hour.[25] Therefore we need to be prepared and to break away from all of our inordinate emotions. We should do like the father who had a son who was in love with a wicked woman and who because he was in love with her did nothing but fornicate[26] and was never at home. One day in order to stop him, his father called him and said: “Come on. You are never to put a foot in the house of that wicked, lewd women or to go near that place otherwise I promise you that I shall punish you. I will do what I say.” Because the son was afraid of his father he did not go down the street anymore. However because privaio est causa apetitus, he knew well that he would not be able to do this since he neither drank nor slept without having this always on his mind. After a while his father went to him and said: “Come now I will try to put this out of your mind.” He went and found a beautiful young girl and gave her to him as his wife. This pleased him so much that he fell in love with her alone.

You should do the same. Do you want to break away from earthly things? Fall in love with something that is much more beautiful and that is Christ Crucified, who is so good and kind and so loveable that he gave himself[27] to you with all the grace in heaven. Therefore you ought to make a resolution to accept life or death and not remain undecided, since you cannot serve two masters, God and the world.[28]

5712 Come now with resolve, without being in two minds. In these days the time has certainly come for you to prepare yourself and get ready. However, I doubt whether you women can put pomp aside for a few days, and I doubt whether you men can halt practising usury in some way. Once Easter is over you will go back to what you usually do to preserve your reputation. Let me say ten words and then you may go home.

It was expedient for God to send his Son to undergo death on the cross.[29] Had I asked the Angels: “As he had made you so knowledgeable about divine matters and enflamed you so much with his love, were you happy for Christ to die on the cross?” They would have said: “Yes. Because nos legem habemus et secundum legem debet mori. [30] We have a law with respect to charity that requires that he ought to die to save the human race.” Had I asked the Apostles, “Would you be happy for Christ who loved you so much and chose you as his dear brothers to die on the cross?” They would have said: “Yes because great glory came out of his death.” Had I asked the Eternal Father: “O my Lord, are you happy that your Son died on the wood of the cross?” He would certainly have said: “Moriatur Filius meus”.

You might say: “What if he had disobeyed you?” he would say factus est oboediens usque ad mortem.[31] You might still say: “perhaps this was not good.” He would reply: Qui peccatum non fecit, nec dolus inventus est in ore eius.[32] Because you might say: “You did not love him.” He would reply: hic est Filius meus dilectus; in quo mihi bene complacui.[33]

5713 If I were to ask Christ: “Were you happy to die on the cross?” What would he say? “Sitio.[34] I would not thirst for any other home or wish for anything more than to save souls. Therefore I say: Deus meus, Deus meus, ut quid dereliquisti me?”[35] Eternal God you have abandoned me. I am not here to remain on the wood of the cross because I want to be here, but because of the burning love that I have for creatures. This is why I endured so many wounds and sorrows, for the space of three hours. However, because of my charity I wish that the sufferings and this passion in my body might have lasted for more than three thousand years, and even until the day of judgement if that meant that sinners would have more time to repent and to open their obdurate hearts, and that when they saw that I continued to shed my blood for them, and that my side was always open for them they would open their hearts and put aside all pig-headedness. You, my Eternal Father, have abandoned me in so far as you wanted to let me suffer for only three hours. That is why I said: Deus meus, Deus meus, ut quid dereliquisti me?

If you were to ask the Madonna: “Are you happy that your Son died on the wood of the cross?” She would say yes, “I am happy because this is how the human race was saved and this is why I am happy that my Son was arrested, flogged, struck, mocked and unjustly condemned to suffer a bitter death, and was finally stripped and humiliated to the point of dying on the cross between two thieves and given vinegar and gall to drink. I was also happy to see him crowned with thorns and his hands and feet pierced with nails. Finally, I was happy to see him die on Calvary and say at the finish: Consummatum est”.[36] This is because although he was most innocent and the immaculate lamb was so wickedly crucified and died, his Passion and death were also the way by which sinners were forgiven and the angelic nation, that had been dispersed by the sin of pride, was returned to its previous condition when the seats left vacant in paradise were refilled.

Therefore, I beg of you that together with me you rejoice about the Passion, so that Christ on the cross would be your glory, your treasure and every consolation and that you will always be happy and share in this most holy redemption. Amen.

  1. It was 28th March 1539, the feast of the Sorrowful Mother.
  2. Cf Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus homo lib. I ch 4-5 (PL 158, 3265s)
  3. Cf. Jn 11:50. This Gospel passage is taken up in the sermon.
  4. Cf. Jn 6:15
  5. Cf Lk 17:21
  6. Eph 2:4
  7. 1 Cor 1:23.
  8. Jn 11:47
  9. Jh 11 48
  10. Cf above note 3. Note how Ochino knows how to dramatise the scene and brighten the dialogue while always adhering to the words in the Bible.
  11. Rom 15:8
  12. This is a strong comment on the useless ‘conversations” or ‘practices” of the Christians of the day drawn up against the difficulties of the Reformation. We will soon see an example of this.
  13. In the text modo is mondo
  14. This is a brave criticism of prelates and the cult of “ceremonials” instead of worship in spirit and in truth. One Gospel passage is repeated like a chorus to comment on the various attitudes among people that are contrary to the Gospel.
  15. That is women of social status.
  16. Intensive for incentivo
  17. See Mt 18: 20.
  18. Ridotti = raduni places to gather for gambling.
  19. Parti = ti pare
  20. In Italy Venice was the main place for publishing.
  21. Ochino had great faith in the ancient Republic of Venice. In fact, in the second half of the sixteenth century Venice had reached the heights of its political and commercial power. After that the discovery of America and the victories of Mahomet II and Suleiman II, it lost many of its colonies. Nevertheless it remained solid. Its power was shown in the war that it waged war against the League of Cambrai in 1509 in which His Serene Highness, the Doge, fought against the Emperor, the Pope, the Kings of France and of Spain on his own and had to do so again at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
  22. Balota in the text = ballotta a character reference for a job.
  23. Manara = mannainot a double-edged sword. The word comes from the Latin mannaria.
  24. The conversation is very practical and Ochino is clever in the way he constructs examples that fit in with life experiences.
  25. This is a reference to Mt 25:13
  26. Lascivare = fornicare
  27. A reference to Gal 2:20; Eph 5:2, 25.
  28. Cf. Mt 6:24; Lk 16:13
  29. Here taking up again and summing up the principle point of the sermon.
  30. Jn 19:7
  31. Phil 2:8
  32. 1 Pt 2:22
  33. Mt 3:17; 2 Pet 1:17.
  34. Jn 19:28
  35. Mt 27:46; Mk 15:14
  36. Jn 19:30