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The Redemptive Value of Christ's Sacrifice

General Audience — October 26, 1988

—    The sacrifice of Christ's human life had an infinite value

We consider again some concepts which patristic tradition took from biblical sources in an attempt to explain the "unsearchable riches" (Eph 3:8) of the redemption. We have already referred to them in the preceding reflections, but they deserve to be explained in greater detail because of their theological and spiritual importance.

When Jesus said, "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45), he summed up in these words the essential purpose of his messianic mission: "to give his life as a ransom." It is a redemptive mission for all humanity, because the expression, "as a ransom for many," according to the Semitic mode of thought, does not exclude anyone. The Messiah's mission had already been seen in the light of this redemptive value in the book of the prophet Isaiah, and particularly in the servant of the Lord oracles: "Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, while we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed" (Is 53:4-5).

These prophetic words make us understand better what Jesus meant when he spoke of the Son of Man who had come "to give his life as a ransom for many." He meant that he gave his life "in the name of" and in substitution for all humanity, to free all from sin. This "substitution" excludes any participation whatsoever in sin on the part of the Redeemer. He was absolutely innocent and holy. You alone are the Holy One! To say that a person was chastised in place of another implies obviously that he did not commit the fault. In his redemptive substitution (substitutio), Christ, precisely because of his innocence and holiness, "is certainly equal to all," as St. Cyril of Alexandria writes (In Isaiam 5, 1; PG 70, 1176; In 2 Cor 5:21: PG 74, 945). Precisely because "he committed no sin" (1 Pet 2:22), he could take upon himself that which is the effect of sin, namely, suffering and death, giving to the sacrifice of his life a real value and a perfect redemptive meaning.

What confers on substitution its redemptive value is not the material fact that an innocent person has suffered the chastisement deserved by the guilty and that justice has thus been in some way satisfied (in such a case one should speak rather of a grave injustice). The redemptive value comes instead from the fact that the innocent Jesus, out of pure love, entered into solidarity with the guilty and thus transformed their situation from within. When a catastrophic situation such as that caused by sin is taken upon oneself on behalf of sinners out of pure love, then that situation is no longer under the sign of opposition to God. On the contrary, it is under the sign of docility to the love which comes from God (cf. Gal 1:4), and therefore becomes a source of blessing (Gal 3:13-14). Christ, by offering himself "as a ransom for many," put into effect to the very ultimate his solidarity with man, with every man and with every sinner. The Apostle Paul indicates this when he writes, "The love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died" (2 Cor 5:14). Christ therefore is in solidarity with everyone in death, which is an effect of sin. But in him this solidarity was in no way the effect of sin; instead, it was a gratuitous act of the purest love. Love induced Christ to give his life, by accepting death on the cross. His solidarity with man in death consists in the fact that he not only died as every man dies, but that he died for every one. Thus this "substitution" signified the superabundance of love which overcomes every deficiency and insufficiency of human love, every negation and contrariety linked with human sin in every dimension—interior and historical—in which this sin has weighed on the relationship of man with God.

1.  The sacrifice of Christ's human life had an infinite value

At this point, however, we go beyond the purely human measure of the "ransom" which Christ offered "for all." No one, not even the greatest saint, was in a position to take upon himself the sins of all humanity and to offer himself in sacrifice "for all." Only Jesus Christ was capable of that, because, though true man, he was the Son of God, of the same being with the Father. For this reason the sacrifice of his human life had an infinite value. The subsistence in Christ of the divine Person of the Son, who transcends and at the same time embraces all human persons, makes possible his redemptive sacrifice "for all." "Jesus Christ was worth all of us" writes St. Cyril of Alexandria (cf. In Isaiam 5, 1: PG 70, 1176). The same divine transcendence of the person of Christ enables him "to represent" all humanity before the Father. This explains the "substitutive" character of Christ's redemption in the name of all and for all. "He won for us justification by his most holy passion on the wood of the cross," the Council of Trent taught (Decree on Justification, ch. 7: DS 1529), underlining the meritorious value of Christ's sacrifice.

Here it is to be noted that the merit of Christ's sacrifice is universal, that is to say, it is efficacious for each and every one. This is because it is based on a universal representativeness, made evident by the texts which we have seen on Christ's substitution for all humanity in his sacrifice. He who "was equal to all of us," as St. Cyril of Alexandria said, could very well by himself alone suffer for all (cf. In Isaiam 5.1: PG 70, 1176; In 2 Cor 5, 21: PG 74, 945). All this was included in God's salvific plan and in Christ's messianic vocation.

This is a truth of faith, based on Jesus' clear and unambiguous words, repeated by him also at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist. St. Paul transmits them to us in a text that is considered the most ancient on this point: "This is my body which is (given) for you.... This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (1 Cor 11:24-25). The Synoptics are in agreement with this text, when they speak of the body which "is given" and of the blood which will be "poured out...for the remission of sins" (cf. Mk 14:22-24; Mt 26:26-28; Lk 22:19-20). Moreover, in the priestly prayer at the Last Supper, Jesus said, "For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth" (Jn 17:19). An echo and in a certain way a clarification of the meaning of these words of Jesus is found in the First Letter of St. John: "He is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 Jn 2:2). As can be seen, St. John offers us the authentic interpretation of the other texts on the substitutive value of Christ's sacrifice, in the sense of the universality of redemption.

This truth of our faith does not exclude but demands the participation of each and every human being in Christ's sacrifice in collaboration with the Redeemer. As we said above, no human being could carry out the work of redemption by offering a substitutive sacrifice "for the sins of the whole world" (cf. 1 Jn 2:2). But it is also true that each one is called upon to participate in Christ's sacrifice and to collaborate with him in the work of redemption carried out by him. The Apostle Paul says so explicitly when he writes to the Colossians: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church" (Col 1:24). The same Apostle also writes, "I have been crucified with Christ" (Gal 2:20). These statements do not derive merely from Paul's personal experience and interpretation. They express the truth about man, redeemed certainly at the price of Christ's cross, and yet at the same time called to "complete in his flesh" what is lacking in Christ's suffering for the redemption of the world. All this is situated in the logic of the covenant between God and man. In human beings it presupposes faith as the fundamental way of participation in the salvation deriving from Jesus' sacrifice on the cross.

Christ himself has called and constantly calls his disciples to this participation: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mk 8:34). More than once he spoke of the persecutions which await his disciples: "A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you" (Jn 15:20). "You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy" (Jn 16:20). These and other New Testament texts have rightly provided the basis for the theological, spiritual and ascetical tradition which from the earliest times has maintained the necessity and shown the ways of the following of Christ in his passion. This is done not only as an imitation of his virtues, but also as a cooperation in the universal redemption by participating in his sacrifice.

Here we have one of the cornerstones of the specific Christian spirituality that we are called upon to reactivate in our life by virtue of Baptism itself which, as St. Paul says (cf. Rom 6:3-4) brings about sacramentally our death and burial by immersing us in Christ's salvific sacrifice. If Christ has redeemed humanity by accepting the cross and death "for all," the solidarity of Christ with every human being contains in itself the call to cooperate in solidarity with him in the work of redemption. This is the eloquence of the Gospel. This is especially the eloquence of the cross. This is the importance of Baptism, which, as we shall see in due course, already effects in itself the participation of every person in the salvific work, in which he is associated with Christ by the same divine vocation.