Every society, every culture has a tradition of a scapegoat: a person or group of people to blame and punish 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, at 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.
Suffering For Our Own Sins
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.
It is not easy to let go of pride because I am naturally wired to act just like a scapegoat vacuum cleaner, sucking up all my children’s pain. Likewise, my children are compassionate vacuum cleaners, who attract other people’s negative emotions. They are all aware they learned this dysfunctional behaviour not only from observing my husband and me in action but also because they have inherited this trait as members of the human race.
The Vacuum Cleaner Syndrome
This problem, The Vacuum Cleaner Syndrome, is a difficult disease to cure. As my daughter and a fellow vacuum cleaner, Grace, asked during a family discussion,
“How can one vacuum cleaner help another vacuum cleaner?”
Four of us around the circle smiled at the image. Then I blurted out, “Why, show the other vacuum how to reverse the hose and blow out the dirt and not suck it in, collect it or try to control it.”
That humourous comment released waves of uncontrollable laughter which blasted clean air through all of us and helped us let go of control. Compassion and empathy are vital in close relationships but my tendency is to try to fix my husband and kids by hoarding their pain within my heart.
Do my seemingly selfless actions weigh me down?
Is anyone fixed or set free as I sacrifice my peace and happiness to try to help my family?
Does this Vacuum Cleaner Syndrome destroy everyone’s peace and joy when I try to control everything?
The good news is a silly image picturing mum as a vacuum cleaner reversed this self-defeating, addictive pattern because it made it easier for everyone to understand how ludicrous I had been acting. The laughter which followed released the tension used to keep emotional pain locked up inside.
I am not the saviour; we are all children of God. Jesus is the only vacuum cleaner who has the ability to literally suck up everyone’s emotional pain and sin, then blow in joy, peace and new life back in. The only prerequisite is to give Him permission. This is the great exchange; surrender dirt and receive the bright, clean breath of God, then laugh at how long it took you to let it happen. Yes, my life is one of devotion and dying to my false self but I do not serve my family or God in my own strength. I live and move and have my being in Him; His strength, love, grace, and mercy sustains me and flows to my children. No room for arrogance.
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.
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].
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.
The Scapegoat of the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, the Azazel goat, translated as a scapegoat, was one of two goats chosen for a ceremony on the Day of Atonement. The first goat was sacrificed, 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 NASB)
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.
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NASB)
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.
During the Mass, we proclaim the truth, even if we don’t really understand what we are saying:
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.
Come Lord and save us from ourselves and our feeble attempts to save ourselves.