He Suffered ... was Crucified, Died and was Buried

Many devotional texts actually force one to think that Christian faith in the cross visualises a God whose unrelenting righteousness demanded a human sacrifice, the sacrifice of his own Son, and one turns away in horror from a righteousness whose sinister wrath makes the message of love incredible.
This picture is as false as it is widespread. In the Bible the cross does not appear as part of a mechanism of injured right; on the contrary, in the Bible the cross is quite the reverse: it is the expression of the radical nature of the love which gives itself completely, in the process in which one is what one does, and does what one is; it is the expression of a life that is completely being for others.

The scriptural theology of the cross represents a real revolution as compared with the notions of expiation and redemption entertained by non-Christian religions, though it certainly cannot be denied that in the later Christian consciousness this revolution was largely neutralised and its whole scope seldom recognised. In other world religions expiation usually means the restoration of the damaged relationship with God by means of expiatory actions on the part of men. Almost all religions centre round the problem of expiation; they arise out of man's knowledge of his guilt before God and signify the attempt to remove this feeling of guilt, to surmount the guilt through conciliatory actions offered up to God. The expiatory activity by which men hope to conciliate the divinity and put him in a gracious mood stands at the heart of the history of religion.

In the New Testament the situation is almost completely reversed. It is not man who goes to God with a compensatory gift, but God who comes to man in order to give to him. He restores disturbed right on the initiative of his own power to love, by making unjust man just again, the dead living again, through his own creative mercy. His righteousness is grace; it is active righteousness, which sets crooked man straight, that is, bends him straight, makes him right. Here we stand before the twist which Christianity put into the history of religion.

The New Testament does not say that men conciliate God, as we really ought to expect, since after all it is they who have failed, not God. It says on the contrary that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). This is truly something new, something unheard of - the starting-point of Christian existence and the centre of New Testament theology of the cross: God does not wait until the guilty come to be reconciled; he goes to meet them and reconciles them. Here we can see the true direction of the incarnation, of the cross.

Accordingly, in the New Testament the cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below. It does not stand there as the work of expiation which mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God's which gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about. With this twist in the idea of expiation, and thus in the whole axis of religion, worship too, man's whole existence, acquires in Christianity a new direction. Worship follows in Christianity first of all in thankful acceptance of the divine deed of salvation. The essential form of Christian worship is therefore rightly called "Eucharistia", thanksgiving.

Christian sacrifice does not consist in a giving of what God would not have without us but in our becoming totally receptive and letting ourselves be completely taken over by him. Letting God act on us - that is Christian sacrifice.

This is not the whole story, it is true. .. We find that in the New Testament the cross is explained by, among other things, ideas taken from Old Testament cult theology. The most consistent execution of this project is to be found in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which connects the death of Jesus on the cross with the ritual and theology of the Jewish feast of reconciliation and expounds it as the true reconciliation feast.

The Epistle to the Hebrews stresses the fruitlessness of ritual effort. God does not seek bulls and goats but man; man's unqualified "yes" to God could alone form true worship. Everything belongs to God, but to man is lent the freedom to say yes or not, the freedom to love or to reject; love's free "yes" is the only thing for which God must wait - the only worship or sacrifice that can have any meaning.

In the light of faith in Christ, the Epistle to the Hebrews can dare to draw up this devastating balance sheet of the history of religion, although to express this view in a world seething with sacrifices must have seemed a tremendous outrage. It can dare to make this unqualified assertion that religions have run aground because it knows that in Christ the idea of the substitute, of the proxy, has acquired a new meaning. Christ, who from the ecclesiastical point of view was a layman and held no office in Israel's religious organisation, was - so the Epistle to the Hebrews says - the one true priest in the world.

Christ's death, which from a purely historical angle represented a completely profane event - the execution of a man condemned to death as a political offender - was in reality the one and only liturgy of the world, a cosmic liturgy, in which Jesus stepped, not in the limited arena of the liturgical performance, the temple, but publicly, before the eyes of the world, into the real temple, that is, before the face of God himself, in order to offer, not things, the blood of animals or anything like that, but himself (Heb 9.11ff).

Let us note the fundamental reversal involved in the central idea of this epistle: what from the earthly point of view was a secular happening is the true worship for mankind, for he who performed it broke through the confines of the liturgical act and made truth: he gave himself. He took from man's hands the sacrificial offerings and put in their place his sacrificed personality, his own "I". When our text says that Jesus accomplished his expiation through his blood (Heb 9,12), this blood is again not to be understood as a material gift, a quantitatively measurable means of expiation; it is simply the concrete expression of a love of which it is said that it extends "to the end."

The gesture of the love that gives all - this, and this alone, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, was the real means by which the world was reconciled; therefore the hour of the cross is the cosmic day of reconciliation, the true and final feast of reconciliation. There is no other kind of worship and no other priest but he who accomplished it: Jesus Christ.

Accordingly, the nature of Christian worship does not consist in the surrender of things, nor in any kind of destruction, an idea that has continually recurred since the 16th century in theories of the sacrifice of the Mass. .. Christian worship consists in the absoluteness of love, as it could only be poured out by the one in whom God's own love had become human love; and it consists in the new form of representation included in this love, namely that he stood for us and we let ourselves be taken over by him.

This love means that we can put aside our own attempts at justification, which at bottom are only excuses and range us against each other - just as Adam's attempt at justification was an excuse, a pushing of the guilt on to the other, indeed in the last analysis an attempt to accuse God himself: "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate ..." (Gen 3.12). It demands that instead of indulging in the destructive rivalry of self-justification we accept the love of Jesus Christ that "stands in" for us, let ourselves be united in it, and thus become worshippers with him and in him.

In view of the New Testament's message of love, there is more and more of a tendency today to resolve the Christian religion completely into brotherly love, "fellowship", and not to admit any direct love of God or adoration of God: only the horizontal is recognised; the vertical of immediate relationship to God is denied. It is not difficult to see, after what we have said, how this at first sight very attractive conception fails to grasp not only the substance of Christianity but also that of true humanity. Brotherly love that aimed at self-sufficiency would become for this very reason the extreme egoism of self-assertion. It refuses its last openness, tranquility and selflessness if is does not also accept this love's need for redemption through him who alone loves sufficiently.

Man cannot perfect himself in the reciprocity of human fellowship alone; he can only do this in the co-operation of that pointless love which God himself glorifies. The pointlessness of simple adoration is humanity's highest possibility; it alone forms his true and final liberation.

According to the conclusions which we reached above, the Christian sacrifice is nothing other than the "For" that abandons itself, a process perfected in the man who is all exodus, all self-surpassing love. The governing principle of Christian worship is consequently this movement of exodus with its two-in-one direction towards God and fellow man. By carrying humanity to God, Christ incorporates it in his salvation. The reason why the happening on the cross is the bread of life " for the many" (Luke 22.19) is that he who was crucified has smelted the body of humanity into the "yes" of worship. It is completely "anthropocentric", entirely related to man, because it was radical theocentricity, delivery of the "I" and therefore of the creature man to God.

Now to the extent that this exodus of love is the ec-stasy of man outside himself, in which he is stretched out infinitely beyond himself, torn apart, as it were, far beyond is apparent capacity for being stretched, to the same extent worship (sacrifice) is always at the same time the cross, the pain of being torn apart, the dying of the grain of wheat that can only come to fruition in death. But it is thus at the same time clear that this element of pain is a secondary one, resulting only from a preceding primary one, from which alone it draws its meaning. The governing principle of the sacrifice is not destruction, but love. And even this principle only belongs to the sacrifice to the extent that love breaks down, opens up, crucifies, tears - as the form that love takes in a world characterised by death and self-seeking.

In the last analysis pain is the product and expression of Jesus Christ's being stretched out from being in God right down to the hell of "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Anyone who has stretched his existence so wide that he is simultaneously immersed in God and in the depths of the God-forsaken creature is bound to be torn asunder, as it were; such a one is truly "crucified". But this process of being torn apart is identical with love; it is its realisation to the extreme (John 13.1) and the concrete expression of the breadth that it creates.

Why should God take pleasure in the suffering of his own creature, indeed his own Son, or even see in it the currency with which reconciliation has to be purchased from him? The Bible and right Christian belief are far removed from such ideas. It is not pain as such that counts, but the breadth of the love which spans existence so completely that it unites the distant and near, bringing God-forsaken man into relation with God. It alone gives the pain an aim and a meaning.

Is it not an unworthy concept of God to imagine for oneself a God who demands the slaughter of his son to pacify his wrath? To such a question, one can only reply, indeed God must not be thought of in this way. But in any case such a concept of God has nothing to do with the idea of God to be found in the New Testament. The New Testament is the story of the God who of his own accord wished to become, in Christ, the omega - the last letter- in the alphabet of creation. It is the story of the God who is himself the act of love, the pure "For", and who therefore necessarily put on the disguise of the smallest worm (Psalm 22{21},7) It is the story of the God who identifies himself with his creature and in this contineri a minimo, in being grasped and overpowered by the least of his creatures, displays that "excess" which identifies him as God.

The cross is revelation. It does not reveal any particular thing, but God and man. It reveals who God is and who man is. .. The truth about man is that he is constantly assailing truth; the just man crucified is thus a mirror held up to man in which he sees himself unadorned. But the cross does not only reveal man; it also reveals God. God is such that he identifies himself with man right down into this abyss and that he judges him by saving him. In the abyss of human denial is revealed the still more inexhaustible abyss of the divine love. The cross is thus truly the centre of revelation, a revelation that does not reveal any previous unknown principles but reveals us to ourselves, by revealing us before God and God in our midst.