1. The Gospels indicate that in sharing the Passover with the Twelve in Jerusalem Jesus was carrying out a positive choice on his part, a choice which immediately involved his free acceptance of death (see Mt 26; Mk 14.1–31; Lk 22.1–38; Jn 13–17).26 To the extent that Jesus outwardly does anything to carry out his redemptive commitment, he does it at the Last Supper. (His suffering and death the following day are experiences which he undergoes, things which happen to him.) Still, the events of Friday cannot be separated from those of Thursday night, nor can the Last Supper be separated from its consequences. In sum, Jesus makes a choice to celebrate the Passover in a certain way, knowing this will lead to his betrayal, passion, and death; he does what he has chosen to do, and the expected consequences ensue; and the whole process, rather than being a series of isolated acts, is for him one act which includes its foreseen and accepted consequences.
2. It is therefore to the accounts of the Last Supper, and especially the institution of the Eucharist, that we must turn for maximum insight into Jesus’ fulfillment of his redemptive commitment (see Mt 26.26–29; Mk 14.17–25; Lk 22.14–20; 1 Cor 11.23–25). The new Roman Missal provides a standardized formula which sums up the common and essential elements:
On the night he was betrayed, he took bread and gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you. When supper was ended, he took the cup. Again he gave you thanks and praise, gave the cup to his disciples, and said: Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me. (Eucharistic Prayer III)
This formula makes it clear that Jesus was offering himself in sacrifice, that he was establishing a new covenant by his blood, and that he wished his eucharistic words and deeds to be repeated in his memory.27
Jesus commands his followers to do the Eucharist in memory of him. “Memory” is not just musing recall; in the context of the covenant, one who remembers God and his law lives according to it, while one who forgets follows other gods. As the celebration of the Passover kept the old covenant alive, so the celebration of the Eucharist would keep the new covenant alive—until Jesus comes. Thus he makes his sacrificial act not just an example to be followed but, more basically, a communal act embracing in itself all the subsequent acts done by his followers in fulfilling this command of his. Those who share the Lord’s Supper share his covenant-forming commitment; they are to do the Eucharist in memory of him (see S.t., 3, q. 73, a. 3; q. 79, aa. 5–6).
3. Briefly stated, Jesus’ free acceptance of death, considered as a human act, is redemptive in the following way.28 Because Jesus’ basic commitment is to do the Father’s will, his free acceptance of death, required by his vocation, is a gift to the Father. The Father receives and approves this gift and in return raises Jesus from the dead. The gift and response together perfect the relationship of friendship between Jesus as man and the Father; this relationship displaces the alienation from God of fallen humankind. This new relationship is more than the friendship of the old covenant, for by it Jesus, as Word Incarnate, communicates divine life to his human brothers and sisters. The human action of Jesus in the Last Supper, completed by his passion and death, provides human persons with both the opportunity and the incentive to turn from sin, accept renewed friendship with God, receive the gift of the Spirit, and live as children of God with hope of eternal life. The Mass makes Jesus’ gift of himself present to us so that we can cooperate with him in it. The sacrament of the Eucharist allows us to experience our communion with Jesus in human and divine life. This statement of the way Jesus’ death is redemptive is compact. The remainder of this question unfolds some aspects of this endlessly meaningful reality.
4. Every authentic gift expresses self-giving. Sacrifice, however, is fundamentally the giving of a gift to God.29 Thus, even though surrendering the gift and destroying it are part of sacrifice, its very essence is the gift of self (see S.t., 2–2, q. 85). Jesus’ death is a sacrifice offered to the Father (see Heb 9.24–28; 10.8–22). Abstracted from its human meaning, death is of no value; but to accept it as Jesus did—freely and in fulfillment of his personal vocation—supremely expressed his basic commitment and carried out his mission (see S.t., 3, q. 22, a. 2; q. 47, a. 2; q. 48, aa. 3–4). He showed his love for the Father most fully by accepting the tragic situation as his will. Given its full human meaning, his acceptance of death is the supreme act by which he fully gave himself up to the Father.
5. Still, human action alone, even Jesus’ sacrifice, does not overcome sin and establish the new covenant between humankind and God. Jesus’ earthly life does serve the true cause of God and humankind by inaugurating God’s reign, yet Jesus’ human life and death does not by itself establish the kingdom—realize it in power and glory. Ultimately, this requires a new creation, which is essentially God’s act. The resurrection is the divine response to the human act of Jesus. It begins the new creation, which is God’s ultimate answer to sin and its consequences (see S.t., 3, q. 53, aa. 1, 4).
It also puts Jesus in a position to continue, though now invisibly, human activity which is effective in liberating us from sin and making us grow in God’s love. In heaven Jesus intercedes for us (see Heb 7.25). He sends the Spirit and communicates divine life to us by the Spirit (see Jn 7.37–39). He unites our present lives in a real, though mysterious and invisible, way in himself (see 2 Cor 5.15–18) and exists as the principle of ultimate fulfillment.
6. Jesus’ act of freely accepting death reveals the new covenant. It makes known to fallen humankind the bond of communion with God which was formulated, as it were, in the Incarnation (see S.t., 3, q. 48, a. 6, ad 3; q. 49, aa. 4–5). Jesus’ human life is that of the Word revealing the Father, and his death most clearly manifests God’s love (see Jn 3.16–17; Rom 5.6–8), for in the dying of Jesus God reveals that he is trying to give himself to us (see S.t., 3, q. 46, a. 1, ad 3; a. 2, ad 3; a. 3).
7. Jesus dies as a priest who offers himself (see S.t., 3, q. 22, aa. 1–3). His sacrifice is not simply the act of an individual but is done to establish the new community of God’s people. Because his dying does overcome humankind’s alienation from God, it ratifies a new and lasting covenant. Blood is life, and Jesus’ blood unites the divine and human parties to this covenant and puts it in force.
Life is sacred to God, who is the Lord of life. Blood has religious uses because it is more than an organic substance; it is thought of as having life and life-giving power present in it. The blood of the covenant brings the covenant to life; the bond between the two parties is in force, for the blood shared between them joins them in a common life. The blood of sacrifice is life offered to God. Since one’s own life depends upon one’s herd, even if one offers an animal, one is offering something of one’s own life. The blood of the Passover is a marking of God’s own with a sign of life, so that the angel of death will leave them alone.
The establishment of the Mosaic covenant is narrated in Exodus 20 and 24. The structure of our Mass obviously has the same pattern. The word of God is read, for the Scriptures contain salvation history and stipulate how we are to live. The faithful accept this word, by saying, “Thanks be to God,” “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ,” and (at some Masses) the Creed. The consecration makes present Jesus’ shedding of his blood, which puts the covenant into effect by reuniting sinful humankind with God. (Since blood contains life, it makes the word of God and our word of faith come to life; the blood of Jesus makes a perfect bond since he is both God and man.) Finally, by our offering and by the communion we receive, the common life instituted by the covenant is shared and enjoyed by God and his adopted children.
8. It was for us and for our salvation that Jesus came down from heaven. Hence, Jesus’ sacrifice would be pointless if we could not receive its fruits. To enable us to do so he formed his human relationship with the Father as a new covenant. Acting as the head of the new People of God, Jesus carried out his redemptive work in a way that would enable us to accept it. Thus, an important aspect of the redemptive character of Jesus’ free acceptance of death are those characteristics by which it moves us to turn from sin, gives us an example to follow, and offers us a vision of hope to guide our lives toward heavenly fulfillment in him.
9. Jesus crucified puts in an especially cogent manner the choice which all human beings must make between moral good and evil. Like the two thieves, one must either sympathize and ally oneself with him or take one’s place among those who oppose him (cf. Lk 23.39–43). If we make the commitment we should, our commitment is united with his in the Eucharist, which he has given us at least partly for this purpose.
10. Jesus’ free acceptance of death is also redemptive insofar as it provides us with a moral example to follow. Jesus is not the only one who, by living a good life in a sinful world, will reap a bitter harvest. Anyone who truly lives a good life will be hated (see Wis 2.12–20; Jn 15.18–19), for, as we saw (14‑G), one of original sin’s effects is to take away the moral motivation of genuine human community and make moral goodness costly. Jesus, by dying as he did, presents us with a telling example, probably the most horrifying possible, of the situation of a good person in this sinful world.
11. By dying obediently, Jesus leaves no doubt that he loves God (see Jn 14.31). But the case is also an experimentum crucis: the acid test of God’s love. What will happen to this innocent man? The answer, of course, is that God’s love is revealed (see Jn 13.31–35). Jesus is lifted up on the cross only as a stage on the way to being lifted up in glory to the Father’s right hand (see Jn 3.14; 8.28; 12.32–34; Acts 2.33; 5.31). In this glory, the kingdom of God announced by Jesus begins to be realized.
12. So it becomes clear that the life of one who does what is possible to remain in friendship with God, even if a disaster in this world, is not ultimately pointless. Living the truth in love in this sinful world is both necessary and, by God’s re-creating love, sufficient to reach and enjoy fulfillment. Knowing this to be so, a Christian can, in hope, make morally good choices which a person without hope would hardly make. Moreover, considering themselves members of an invisible communion of love, Christians are able to distinguish between the arbitrary self-limitation of sin and the unavoidable self-limitation entailed in any choice, and to accept the latter, confident that it is compensated by membership in the Mystical Body of Christ (see 1 Cor 12–13).
If one looks without faith at the life and death of Jesus, the whole thing makes little sense. To begin with, one cannot make any sense of the basic commitment of Jesus, and his personal vocation seems like a confused mixture of conflicting myths. At best, one might abstract certain segments from the Gospels and consider Jesus a man who had good intentions, but was too gentle for his contemporaries. The abstraction will have to leave out a good deal. By many human standards, Jesus is not a very good man. If he lived today, he would strike most people as too radical, too single-minded, too uncompromising, and at times too harsh. He also would seem too idealistic, too childlike, and too emotionally tender.
He begins his mission with apparent enthusiasm and high hopes. But his neighbors in Nazareth do not take him seriously (see Mt 13.54–58; Mk 6.1–6). At times his own family think he is going crazy (see Mk 3.20–21). His teaching very often is badly misunderstood. It leads to polarization (see Lk 12.49–53). When he insists upon essential points, many of his followers begin to leave (see Jn 6.66–67).
His primary project is to gather together the Jewish people to form them into the nucleus of the new kingdom (see Mt 15.21–28; Mk 7.24–30). But those whom he wishes to bring together are like stubborn children, unwilling to play any game (see Mt 11.16–19; Lk 7.32–35). At the very time of his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus must observe that the real significance of his presence among the Jews has been ignored (see Lk 19.41–44). He wanted to gather up the people as a mother hen gathers her chicks, but his love has been rebuffed (see Mt 23.37–39; Lk 13.34–35).
Jesus has all the skills in arguing that any rabbi could ask for. In debate he regularly comes out on top. His opponents are finally reduced to silence (see Mt 22.46; Mk 12.34; Lk 20.40). However, they do not concede anything. Rather, they appeal to a different kind of “argument.” They set out to have him killed.
The heartbreaking story of how his closest associates behave is familiar. One collaborates in having him killed. Most flee when danger becomes great. Peter, who seemed so sturdy, panics and disappears from the scene. Near the cross are John, Mary, and a few other women.
The life of Jesus is that of a martyr, but apart from faith it does not make a very satisfying martyr story. Compare Jesus with Socrates. Socrates largely and obviously succeeds in what he is trying to do. When he is condemned to death, he still has many supporters. His close followers stand by him. The prospect of death does not phase him, for he believes he will be better off dead. His actual death is easy and dignified. Although he had his oddities and died a martyr’s death, Socrates obviously was a well-rounded and fulfilled human being.
Jesus knows his own great gifts. He has absolute purity of feeling and insight. How utterly frustrating his life must have been! Of course, he foresees that glory awaits. But he does not have the experience beforehand. He is like the first man to rocket into space, knowing in theory that all will be well, but lacking the reassurance of someone else’s prior success in such an adventure.
It is important to consider what the life of Jesus looks like when it is considered without faith. Our lives are to be like his.
26. It is necessary to study the narratives as unified wholes to understand what Jesus was doing. Although his book must be regarded with reserve, see Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, trans. Hubert Hoskins (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 298–312, for a helpful treatment of this particular point. See also Aulén, op. cit., 150–51, for a concise summary argument, which seems to go beyond many of the critical opinions reviewed earlier in the book, 74–82.
27. For a good summary with extensive bibliography: Brian Byron, A Theology of Eucharistic Sacrifice, Theology Today, 35 (Hales Corners, Wis.: Clergy Book Service, 1974), esp. 37–53.
28. An exegetical study which substantiates all of the major elements of the following summary: F. X. Durrwell, C.Ss.R., The Resurrection: A Biblical Study, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), 59–107.
29. On sacrifice: Robert J. Daly, S.J., The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 53–83; Christian Sacrifice: The Judaeo-Christian Background before Origen (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1978), provides a much richer treatment, including the Fathers to Origen (summary, 491–97).