To many, many Christians, and especially to those who only know the faith from a fair distance, it looks as if the Cross is to be understood as part of a mechanism of injured and restored right. It is the form, so it seems, in which the infinitely offended righteousness of God was propitiated again by means of an infinite expiation. It thus appears to people as the expression of an attitude that insists on a precise balance between debit and credit. … 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.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger