Sacrifice of the Cross

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The sacrifice of the cross and the glorious resurrection of christ converge into one paschal mystery, which is the central event in human history (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 3a, 62.5 ad 3). All salvation history anterior to Calvary has been but a shadowy prelude to the great paschal mystery inaugurated there and complemented by the empty tomb of Easter. All subsequent development of the mystic Christ looks back to this paschal mystery as the font of life and strength. The sacrifice of the cross is humanity's perfectly worshipful homage to the God of all history, and the Resurrection of Christ is the living testimony to God's acceptance of mankind's spotless sacrifice.

In the paschal mystery (1) Jesus, humanity's high priest, offered Himself to God as an immolated victim. Thereby (2) He fulfilled all the sacrificial foreshadowings of Calvary established by God's old covenant with men. (3) He reconciled sinners to God by a lasting reconciliation and formed a new people cleansed by His redemptive blood. (4) His sacrifice on Calvary inaugurated the rite of the Christian cult and (5) aptly set forth its spirit sacramentally on the cross.

Jesus, Priest and Victim. The man Jesus, His humanity personally united to the uncreated Word of God, is the natural mediator between God and sinful men (1 Tm 2.5). He is the one substantially holy priest that the human race can claim for itself (Heb 7.2628). He came among men primarily to be the perfect adorer of God. By the intensity of His interior devotion, animated by obedient love, Christ was endowed with power to offer perfectly worshipful praise to the ever-blessed Trinity. His sacrificial love was a priestly service.

All actions of Jesus, as humanity's high priest, were empowered by measureless efficacy for reconciling mankind with God. But acts anterior to Calvary lacked the specifically sacrificial meaning of the sacrifice of the cross. Sacrifice is an act of external worship; in it the interior act of religion, through which a creature pays homage to God and is united with Him, must be set forth under a recognizable symbol of visible oblation. Calvary did not evoke new charity or new devotion from the priestly soul of Christ (Summa theologiae 3a, 48.1 ad 3). It simply made Him a victim actually set forth as such by His voluntary surrender to the cross (ibid. 3a, 22.2 ad 2).

From His public identification by the Baptist (Jn 1.29) until His final solemnization of the paschal meal (Lk 22.1420), Jesus progressively revealed Himself as a victim-messiah, the true lamb of god. He came to be "sanctified" (Jn 17.19). He is an immolated lamb (1 Pt 1.19), who expiates men's sins by His victimhood (Rom 3.25). In the heavenly liturgy He receives grateful testimony from the elect of God (Rv 5.514), and in His glorified humanity the Lamb of God leads His people to the perfection of glory (Rv 7.17).

Fulfillment of Old Covenant. The oblation of the true lamb, Christ, was the consummation of all the sacrifices established at the command of God Himself (Heb.9.114). Calvary fulfilled all the sacrificial foreshadowings of itself proper to the old covenant (Summa theologiae 3a, 22.2). Holocausts, sacrifices for sin, and peace offerings were all sensible signs of the invisible spirit of worship demanded by the Prophets of Israel (Am 5.24; Hos 6.6; Mi 6.8). Such sacrifices dramatized the creature's duty of total surrender to God, the need of atonement for sin, and the yearning for communion with God in peace. But Calvary alone expressed all this in a way worthy of God's acceptance (Heb 10.17).

In consummating His sacrifice on the cross Christ in one perfect gesture of devotion fulfilled all the moral, ceremonial, and juridical precepts of the Old Testament worship: all moral precepts because they were all reducible to the commandment of love, and Jesus suffered for love (Jn 14.31); all ceremonial precepts because they were all ordered to the sacrificial worship of God, and Jesus offered the one true sacrifice by dying for men (cf. Col 2.1618); all juridical precepts because they were all ordered to make amends for injuries inflicted on others, and Jesus died to ransom men from their unjust sinfulness (Mk 10.45; Summa theologiae 3a, 47.2 ad 1). And this high priest who saved all by His satisfactory sacrifice merited the glory of His own Resurrection by the undeviating intensity of His own devotion (ibid. 3a, 22.4 ad 2).

Reconciliation and New Alliance. The precious blood of Christ "as of a lamb without blemish and without spot" redeemed the old Israel from "the vain manner of life" handed down by its forefathers (1 Pt 1.19). Chosen race though it was, Israel, like a faithless spouse, needed to be reconciled anew by the redemptive sacrifice of the crossGod's gratuitous assurance of His own love for men (Rom 5.8). The Prophets promised a new alliance between God and His people (Jer 31.3134; Ez 37.26). Unlike the old covenant the new alliance would reach out and sweep all nations into its blessed mercies. Those who were at one time "aliens from the community of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of the promise" were no longer to be "strangers and foreigners" but "citizens with the saints and members of God's household" (Eph 2.12, 19).

The cross became the barrier-breaker (Eph 2.14) and the meeting place for the old Israel and the new chosen race"a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people" (1 Pt 2.9). Constructed into a "temple of the living God" who will dwell among them and be their God forever (2 Cor 6.16), the reconciled people of God has been called to walk in love and imitate the crucified love of Christ so as to become in turn "an offering and a sacrifice to God to ascend in fragrant odor" (Eph 5.2).

On the night before He died Christ made it clear that His redemptive blood was blood of a new alliance (Mk 14.24). His passage out of the world by death and His glorious return to the Father in power was the new paschal mystery. Christ Himself, victim for sin and powerful conqueror of death; is man's passover (1 Cor 5.7). Consequently, God's new people must ever "keep festival" not with the "leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Cor 5.8).

Inauguration of Christian Worship. On the cross Christ through His Passion initiated the rite of Christian religion by offering Himself voluntarily as a sacrifice to God. As perfect adorer of God on the cross Christ, whose power to bring salvation is the hope of the world, committed all who would ever belong to Him to a similar service of God (2 Cor 5.1415). "Thus by Baptism men are plunged into the paschal mystery of Christ: they die with Him, are buried with Him, and rise with Him . Inlike manner, as often as they eat the supper of the Lord they proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes" [Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 6, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 56 (1964) 100].

By instituting the sacramental renewal of the redemptive mystery under the appearances of bread and wine, Christ left mankind a sacrifice by which the already accomplished bloody sacrifice of Calvary would be set forth sacramentally, in keeping with man's daily needs, and the memory of it endure until the end of time (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1740). For having celebrated the old passover in memory of the Exodus from Egypt, Christ instituted a new pasch wherein He would Himself be immolated through His priests by visible signs in memory of His transition from this world to His Father, when He redeemed men through the outpouring of His blood, snatched men from the powers of darkness, and transferred them to His own kingdom (ibid. 1741). In Christian worship as often as the commemoration of this paschal mystery is enacted sacramentally "the victory and triumph of His death are again made present" (ibid. 1644) and "the work of our Redemption is made effective" (Secret, 9th Sunday after Pentecost).

This power to bring salvation virtus salutifera is in Christ's sacred humanity and extended to the Sacraments. The Sacraments are gifts of the crucified and triumphant Christ. They operate by the power of His presence within them. This power perfects the soul for all that pertains to Christian cult (Summa theologiae 3a, 62.5).

Sacramental Significance of the Cross. The spirit of Christian worship was aptly dramatized in a sacramental way by the cross itself. By its very structure the cross is a sign of cosmic Redemption; it is a summons to allembracing unity; it is the Christian's personal call to mystic crucifixion; it is a realistic portrayal of the demands of salutary charity.

Early writers and Fathers of the Church, notably Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, and Augustine, have seen a sacramental significance in the cross, as suggested by St. Paul's prayer that his converts might be able to comprehend "the breadth and length and height and depth" and know the love of Christ which surpasses all understanding (Eph 3.18,19). These mysterious dimensions are seen as the limitless dimensions of God's far-reaching power and providence, Christ's allpervasive love of man and his cosmos, and the Christian's uncalculating response to the overtures of God's love as manifested on the cross.

The cross, with its universal embrace of all reality, assures men that the whole universe has been transfigured by the power of the Crucified; brooks and vineyards and wheat fields and olive groves have all received new dignity under the touch of God's redemptive grace; and all creation awaits its full and final deliverance at "the revelation of the sons of God" (Rom 8.19).

The cross, with Christ fixed at the very heart of it, proclaims the shattering truth that there can be no barriers between "Gentile and Jew," "Barbarian and Scythian," "slave and freeman," for Christ is all things and in all (Col 3.11). All threats to unity He has swallowed up in victory so that "he might create in himself one new man, and make peace having slain the enmity in himself" (Eph 2.15, 16).

The cross, upholding a victim Christ, who "emptied himself" (Phil 2.7), is a sign of man's interior conflict, which must be accepted, endured, transfigured, and sanctified by sacrificial love. The cross proclaims the cost of discipleship. The Christian who is challenged by the crucified Christ to deny himself, take up his own cross, and come follow his Leader must deny his own flesh with its passions and desires (Gal 5.24) and be mystically crucified with Christ (Gal 2.19, 20).

The cross, instrument of self revelation for the model human lover (Jn 8.28), is a symbol of salutary love. Its dimensions set forth the universality, the perseverance, the unearthliness, and the humility of Christian charity, which emerges from the heart of man by the gratuity of God's grace (Summa theologiae 3a, 46.4). God's love for man made manifest on the cross evokes a human response of salutary love "in which the perfection of human salvation consists" (ibid. 3a, 46.3). He is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and the God of every unique product of His workmanship (Eph 2.10). The cross tells the world that only God sets the limits of each man's sacrificial love.

See Also: crucifixion, theological significance of; expiation (in theology); passion of christ; precious blood, i (in the bible); precious blood, ii (theology of); redemption; sacrifice, iii (in israel); sacrifice, iv (in christian theology), satisfaction of christ.

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[a. p. hennessy]