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Christ's Awareness of His Vocation to Redemptive Sacrifice

General Audience — October 5, 1988

"For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried." In the previous reflection, when referring to these words of the creed, we considered Christ's death as an event with its own historical dimension, and which is explained in the light of the historical circumstances in which it occurred. The creed gives us indications in this regard, echoing the fuller information to be found in the Gospels. The creed also emphasizes the fact that Christ's death on the cross was a sacrifice for sins and was therefore the "price" of human redemption: "He was crucified for our sake," "for us men and for our salvation."

One spontaneously asks: to what extent was Jesus aware of this purpose of his mission? When and how did he perceive his vocation to offer himself in sacrifice for the sins of the world?

In this regard, one must point out in advance that it is not easy to penetrate the historical evolution of Jesus' consciousness. The Gospel refers to it (cf. Lk 2:52), but without offering precise data to determine its stages. Many Gospel texts quoted in the previous reflection testify to Jesus' already clear awareness about his mission. So deeply felt was that awareness that he reacted vigorously and even brusquely against those who, because of their affection for him, tried to dissuade him from that path. A case in point is Peter whom Jesus did not hesitate to rebuke with the words, "Get behind me, Satan!" (Mk 8:33).

Even before his preaching and manner of acting met with opposition and aroused the enmity of those who had the power to decide his fate, Jesus was conscious of the "baptism" of blood (cf. Lk 12:50) that awaited him. He was aware that over his head there hung that "it is expedient," corresponding to the Father's eternal plan (cf. Mk 8:31), long before the historical circumstances were to lead to the fulfillment of what had been preordained. Doubtlessly Jesus abstained for some time from announcing his death, though from the beginning he was aware of his messianic mission, as is evident from his self-manifestation in the synagogue of Nazareth (cf. Lk 4:16-21). He knew that the raison d'etre of the Incarnation, the purpose of his life, is that which is contemplated in God's eternal plan of salvation. "The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve and to give his life in ransom for many" (Mk 10:45).

In the Gospels we can find not a few other proofs of Jesus' awareness of his future destiny in accordance with the divine plan of salvation. Already when he was twelve years old, Jesus' reply on the occasion when he was found in the Temple is in a certain way the first expression of this awareness. In explaining to Mary and Joseph that he "must be about his Father's business" (cf. Lk 2:49), the youth let it be understood that he was interiorly oriented to the events of the future. Though barely twelve years old, he seemed to desire to prepare for the future those dearest to him, especially his mother.

When the time arrived to begin his messianic activity, Jesus was among those receiving the baptism of repentance from John in the Jordan. He tried to make it understood, despite the protest of the Baptist, that he felt called to express his solidarity with sinners, to take upon himself the yoke of the sins of humanity, as was indicated by John's presentation of him: "Behold the Lamb of God...who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29). These words echo and in a certain sense contain a synthesis of what Isaiah announced about the servant of the Lord: "...wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.... The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.... Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, my servant shall make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities" (Is 53:5-7, 11). Undoubtedly there is a harmony between Jesus' messianic awareness and those words of the Baptist, which expressed the prophecy and expectation of the Old Testament.

Later, the Gospels present us with further information indicating Jesus' awareness of his sacrificial death. For instance, there is the case of the bridegroom's friends, his disciples, who are not expected to fast as long as the bridegroom is with them. "But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day" (Mk 2:20). It is a significant allusion that reveals Christ's state of awareness.

Besides, it is evident from the Gospels that Jesus never accepted any thought or discourse that could hold out hope of the earthly success of his work. The divine signs he offered, the miracles he worked, could provide a basis for such hopes. But Jesus did not hesitate to deny every intention and to dissipate every illusion in that regard, because he knew that his messianic mission could not be fulfilled otherwise than through his sacrifice.

With the disciples Jesus used a pedagogy that revealed to them little by little the death that awaited him. This is seen with particular clarity at the moment when the apostles seemed to have arrived at the conviction that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. Simon Peter expressed this conviction when he exclaimed, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16). It may be regarded as the culminating point of the process of maturation of the Twelve in their already remarkable experience in following Jesus. It was precisely after this profession of faith (near Caesarea Philippi) that Christ spoke for the first time of his passion and death: "And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (Mk 8:31, cf. Mt 16:21; Lk 9:22).

Even the words of stern rebuke addressed to Peter, who was unwilling to accept what he heard ("God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you," Mt 16:22), prove how much Jesus' consciousness was identified with the certainty of the future sacrifice. Being the Messiah meant for him "giving his life in ransom for many" (Mk 10:45). From the very beginning Jesus knew that this was the definitive meaning of his mission and life. Therefore he rejected whatever could be or appear to be the negation of that salvific purpose. This can already be seen in the hour of temptation when Jesus resolutely rejected the tempter (cf. Mt 4:5-10; Lk 4:1-12).

We should note, however, that in the texts quoted, when Jesus announced his passion and death, he spoke also of his resurrection which would take place on "the third day."

This does not in any way affect the essential significance of the messianic sacrifice by death on the cross. On the contrary, it emphasizes its salvific and life-giving meaning. This pertains to the most profound essence of Christ's mission: the world's Redeemer is he who fulfills the Pasch, that is, the passage of man to a new life in God.

In this same spirit Jesus formed his apostles and outlined the perspective in which his future Church should move. The apostles, their successors and all followers of Christ, in the footsteps of the crucified Master, shall have to follow the way of the cross: "They will hand you over to the courts. You will be arraigned before governors and kings because of me, as a witness before them" (Mk 13:9). "They will hand you over to persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of my name" (Mt 24:9). Jesus foretold also, both to the apostles and to the future followers who would partake in the redemptive passion and death of their Lord, "Truly, truly I say to you...you will grieve, but your grief will become joy" (Jn 16:20). Both the apostles and the Church are called, in all ages, to take part in Christ's paschal mystery in its entirety. It is a mystery in which there is born the joy of the new life in God, from the suffering and grief of those who partake in the sacrifice of the cross.