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The Value of the Suffering and Death of Jesus Christ

General Audience — October 19, 1988

In the previous catecheses we have summarized the biblical and historical data on the death of Christ. It has been the object of the Church's reflection in all ages, from the first Fathers and Doctors, and from the ecumenical councils, to the great theologians of the various schools that succeeded each other down the centuries to the present day.

The principal object of study and research has been and is the value of Jesus' passion and death in regard to our salvation. The results achieved on this point, besides making us better acquainted with the mystery of redemption, have served to cast a new light also on the mystery of human suffering. Of this it has been possible to discover unthought-of dimensions of greatness, finality and fruitfulness, ever since it has been possible to compare it and indeed to connect it with Christ's cross.

Let us raise our eyes first of all to him who is hanging on the cross, and let us ask ourselves: who is it that is suffering? It is the Son of God: true man, but also true God, as we know from the creeds. For example, the Creed of Nicaea proclaims him "true God from true God...who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, was made flesh and...suffered" (DS 125). The Council of Ephesus, on its part, declared that the "Word of God suffered in the flesh" (DS 263).

"The Word of God suffered in the flesh." This is a wonderful synthesis of the great mystery of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, whose human sufferings pertain to his human nature, but must be attributed, like all his actions, to the divine Person. We have in Christ a God who suffers!

It is an overwhelming truth. Tertullian had already posed the question to Marcion: "Would it be so foolish to believe in a God who was born of a virgin, precisely in the flesh and who has undergone the humiliations of nature?... Say rather that a crucified God is wisdom" (De carne Christi, 4, 6-5, 1).

Theology has made clear that this which we cannot attribute to God as God—except in an anthropomorphic metaphorical way whereby we speak of his suffering, regrets, etc.—has been realized by God in his Son, the Word, who assumed human nature in Christ. Christ is God who suffers in his human nature, as a true man born of the Virgin Mary and subjected to the vicissitudes and pains and aches of every son of woman. As the Word, a divine Person, he confers an infinite value on his suffering and death, which thus falls within the mysterious ambit of the human-divine reality, and touches, without affecting, the infinite glory and bliss of the Trinity.

Undoubtedly, God in his essence remains above the horizon of human-divine suffering. But Christ's passion and death pervade, redeem and ennoble all human suffering, because through the Incarnation he desired to express his solidarity with humanity, which gradually opens to communion with him in faith and love.

The Son of God, who has assumed human suffering, is a divine model for all who suffer, especially for Christians who know and accept in faith the meaning and value of the cross. The incarnate Word suffered according to the Father's plan so that we too "should follow in his steps" (1 Pet 2:21; cf. Summa Theol., II, q. 46, a. 3). He suffered and taught us to suffer.

What stands out most in Christ's passion and death is his perfect conformity to the Father's will, with that obedience which has always been considered the most characteristic and essential disposition of sacrifice.

St. Paul says of Christ that he "became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). He thus reached the extreme limit of self-emptying included in the Incarnation of the Son of God, in contrast with the disobedience of Adam who had desired to "grasp" equality with God (cf. Phil 2:6).

Thus the "new Adam" overturned the human condition (St. Irenaeus called it a recirculatio). Christ "though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself" (Phil 2:6-7). The Letter to the Hebrews follows in the same line: "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered" (Heb 5:8). He himself it was who in life and in death, according to the Gospels, offered himself to the Father in the fullness of obedience: "Not what I will, but what you will" (Mk 14:36). "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Lk 23:46). St. Paul summarizes all this when he says that the Son of God made man "humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8).

At Gethsemane we see how painful this obedience was to be: "Father, all things are possible to you; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what you will" (Mk 14:36). In that moment Christ's agony of soul was much more painful than that of the body (cf. Summa Theol., III, q. 46, a. 6). This was because of the interior conflict between the supreme motives of the passion in the divine plan, and the perception which Jesus, in the refined sensitivity of his soul, had of the abominable filth of sin. Sin seems to have been poured over him, who had become as it were "sin" (that is, the victim of sin) as St. Paul says (cf. 2 Cor 5:21), so that universal sin might be expiated in him. Thus Jesus arrived at death as at the supreme act of obedience: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Lk 23:46): the spirit, that is, the principle of his human life.

Suffering and death are the definitive manifestation of the Son's total obedience to the Father. The incarnate Word's homage and sacrifice of obedience are a marvelous demonstration of filial availability, which in the mystery of the Incarnation rises up and in a certain way penetrates the mystery of the Trinity! With the perfect homage of his obedience Jesus Christ obtained a complete victory over the disobedience of Adam and over all the rebellions which can arise in human hearts, more especially because of suffering and death. Here also it can be said that "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Rom 5:20). Jesus made up for the disobedience which is always included in human sin, by satisfying on our behalf the demands of divine justice. Many saints are "heroes of the cross."

In the work of salvation accomplished in the passion and death on the cross, Jesus pushed to the very limit the manifestation of the divine love for humanity, which is at the origin of his oblation and of the Father's plan.

"Despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (Is 53:3), Jesus demonstrated the truth of those prophetic words: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13). Becoming a "man of sorrows," he established a new solidarity of God with human suffering. The Eternal Son of the Father, in communion with him in his eternal glory, in becoming man was careful not to claim privileges of earthly glory or at least exemption from pain. Instead, he entered on the way of the cross. He chose as his part both the physical and moral sufferings which accompanied him unto death. All this was for love of us, to give us the decisive proof of his love, to make reparation for our sins, and to lead into unity those who had been scattered abroad (cf. Jn 11:52). All this was because Christ's love reflects God's love for humanity.

St. Thomas can therefore state that the first reason indicating the appropriateness of human liberation through the passion and death of Christ is that "in this way man knows how much God loves him, and man on his part is induced to love him in return; in this love consists the perfection of human salvation" (Summa Theol., III, q. 46, a. 3). Here the holy Doctor quotes the Apostle Paul who writes, "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8).

Before this mystery we can say that without Christ's suffering and death, God's love for humanity would not have been manifested in all its depth and immensity. Suffering and death have become, with Christ, an invitation, a stimulus, a call to a more generous love, as has happened in the case of so many saints who can rightly be called "heroes of the cross." This always happens in so many people, known and unknown, who are able to sanctify suffering by mirroring in themselves the lacerated face of Christ. In this way they associate themselves with his redemptive oblation.

It remains to be said that, in his humanity united to the divinity, and made capable, by virtue of the abundance of charity and of obedience, of reconciling man with God (cf. 2 Cor 5:19), Christ has been established as the sole mediator between humanity and God. This is at a level far superior to that of the saints of the Old and New Testaments and even of the Virgin Mary, when we speak of their mediation or invoke their intercession.

Here we are then before our Redeemer, Jesus Christ crucified, who died for love of us and has thereby become the author of our salvation. With one of her striking and expressive images, St. Catherine of Siena compared him to a "bridge on the world." Yes, he is truly the bridge and the mediator, because through him we receive every heavenly gift and through him there rises up to God our every yearning and invocation for salvation (cf. Summa Theol., III, q. 26, a. 2). With Catherine and so many other saints of the cross, let us hold on tightly to this our most sweet and most merciful Redeemer, whom Catherine called Christ-Love. In his pierced heart is our hope, and our peace.