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Christ's Sacrifice Fulfills God's Design of Love

General Audience — September 7, 1988

In the messianic mission of Jesus, the climax which we have been gradually approaching in the previous catecheses is that Christ was sent into the world by God to accomplish humanity's redemption through the sacrifice of his own life. This sacrifice had to take the form of self-abasement in obedience even to death, a death which at that time bore a particularly shameful stigma.

In all his preaching, in all his actions, Jesus was guided by the deep awareness which he had concerning God's designs for his life and death in the economy of the messianic mission, with the certainty that they flowed from the Father's eternal love for the world, and in particular for humanity.

If we consider his adolescent years, those words of the twelve-year-old Jesus spoken to Mary and Joseph at the moment of his finding in the Temple of Jerusalem, are very thought-provoking: "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (Lk 2:49). What had he in his mind and heart? We can deduce it from other such expressions of his thought throughout the whole of his public life. From the beginning of his messianic activity, Jesus insistently impressed upon his disciples the concept that the "Son of Man...must suffer many things" (Lk 9:22). He must be "rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed (and after three days rise again)" (Mk 8:31). Yet all this did not originate merely with people, with their hostility toward his person and teaching. Rather it was the fulfillment of God's eternal design, as announced in the Scriptures containing the divine revelation: "How is it written of the Son of Man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?" (Mk 9:12).

When Peter tried to deny this eventuality ("This shall never happen to you," Mt 16:22), Jesus reproved him in words of particular severity: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men" (Mk 8:33). The eloquence of these words is impressive. Jesus wished to make Peter understand that to be opposed to the way of the cross was to reject the designs of God himself. "Satan" is indeed he who "from the beginning" is opposed to that "which is of God."

Jesus was aware both of man's responsibilities for Jesus' death on the cross, which he would have to face because of a sentence by an earthly tribunal, and of the fact that through this human condemnation the divine eternal design would be fulfilled: that "which is of God," that is, the sacrifice offered on the cross for the world's redemption. Even if Jesus (as God himself) did not wish the evil of the "deicide" committed by man, nevertheless he accepted this evil, to obtain the good of the world's salvation.

After the resurrection, while walking unrecognized with two of his disciples toward Emmaus, he explained to them the Scriptures of the Old Testament in these terms: "Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" (Lk 24:26). On the occasion of his final meeting with his apostles he declared: "These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled" (Lk 24:44).

In the light of the paschal events, the apostles understood what Jesus had said to them in anticipation. Through love for the Master but also through lack of understanding, Peter had seemed to be particularly opposed to his cruel destiny. But he would say to his hearers in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, speaking about Christ: "The man...delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:22-23). On another occasion he added, "What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled" (Acts 3:18).

Christ's passion and death were announced in the Old Testament not as the end of his mission, but as the indispensable passage required in order to be raised up by God. In particular, the song of Isaiah about the servant of Yahweh as the man of sorrows says, "Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up...and shall be very high" (Is 52:13). Jesus himself, when he pointed out that the "Son of Man...must be killed," also added that "after three days he will rise again" (cf. Mk 8:31).

We find ourselves, then, in the presence of a divine design which, even if it appears so obvious when considered in the course of the events described by the Gospels, yet always remains a mystery which cannot be explained fully by human reason. In this spirit the Apostle Paul explains himself with the magnificent paradox: "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor 1:25). These words of Paul concerning Christ's cross are invaluable. It is difficult for man to find a rationally satisfying answer to the question "Why Christ's cross?" Nevertheless the answer comes to us yet again from God's word.

Jesus himself formulated such an answer: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (Jn 3:16). When Jesus said these words during his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, probably the latter could not imagine that the phrase "gave his Son" would mean "give him up to death on the cross." However, John, who narrates it in his Gospel, well understood the meaning. The course of events has shown that that was the precise meaning of the answer to Nicodemus: God "gave" his only Son for the salvation of the world, giving him up to the death of the cross for the sins of the world, giving him out of love: "God...so loved the world," creation, humanity! Love remains the definitive explanation of the redemption through the cross. It is the only answer to the question "Why?" with regard to Christ's death being part of God's eternal design.

The author of the Fourth Gospel, in which we find the text of Christ's answer to Nicodemus, returns to the same idea in one of his letters: "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins" (1 Jn 4:10).

It is a question of a love which surpasses justice. Justice can investigate and catch up with the transgressor. If an innocent person who is holy, like Christ, is sentenced to suffering and death on a cross to fulfill the Father's eternal design, it means that, in sacrificing his Son, God goes in a certain sense beyond the order of justice. He reveals himself in this Son, and, through him, all the riches of his mercy—dives in misericordia (cf. Eph 2:4)—as if to introduce, together with his crucified and risen Son, his mercy, his merciful love, in the story of the relations between man and God.

Precisely through his merciful love, man is called to conquer evil and sin in himself and with regard to others. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Mt 5:7). "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8).

The Apostle comes back to this subject in various places in his letters, in which there often recur the three words: redemption, justice and love. "Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus...by his blood..." (Rom 3:23-25). In this way God shows that he does not wish to be satisfied with the rigor of justice which, on seeing evil, punishes it. He wishes to triumph otherwise over sin, that is, by giving the possibility to be free of it. God wishes to appear just in a positive way, by giving sinners the possibility to become just through adhering to faith in Christ the Redeemer. Thus God "is righteous and he justifies" (Rom 3:26). This happens in a disquieting way since, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21).

He who "knew no sin"—the Son, consubstantial with the Father—took upon himself the terrible burden of the sin of all humanity, in order to obtain our justification and sanctification. Here is God's love revealed in the Son. The love of the Father "who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all" (Rom 8:32) is manifested through the Son. To understand the significance of these words, "he did not spare," the account of Abraham's sacrifice can be useful. He showed himself ready "not to spare his beloved son" (Gen 22:16), but God spared him (22:12). On the other hand, God "did not spare" his own only Son, "but gave him up" to death for our salvation.

The Apostle's certainty that no one and nothing, "neither death nor life, nor angels...nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:38-39) has its origin here. Together with Paul, the entire Church is certain of this love of God which conquers everything, the ultimate word of God' self-revelation in the history of humanity and of the world, the supreme self-communication which comes through the cross, at the center of Jesus Christ's paschal mystery.