St. Paul and the Cross

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

Weekly General Audience January 7, 2009

During his general audience on Jan. 7, Pope Benedict XVI discussed St. Paul’s concept of “true worship” as highlighted in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. By uniting us to himself, Christ, a temple “not made with hands,” has made us a “living sacrifice,” and Paul exhorts us to offer our own “bodies” — that is, our entire selves — as a “spiritual worship” through the concrete activities of our daily life. By joining us to his body, Christ has the power to unite all people into a “cosmic liturgy” in which the world becomes the glory of God.

Dear brothers and sisters,

During this first general audience of 2009, I would like to express my best wishes to all of you at the beginning of the new year. May we enkindle within us our commitment to open our hearts and minds to Christ in order to truly be and live as his friends.

His companionship will assure that our journey through this year, in spite of its inevitable difficulties, will be full of joy and peace. Indeed, if we remain united to Jesus, the new year will be a good and happy one.

St. Paul offers us a good example of this commitment to union with Christ. Continuing the series of catecheses dedicated to St. Paul, today we will reflect on one of the most important aspects of his thinking — the worship that Christians are called to exercise.

In the past, people liked to talk about Paul’s somewhat “anti-worship” tendencies and about his “spiritualization” of the idea of worship. Today, we are in a better position to understand that Paul saw in the cross of Christ a historic turning point that radically transformed and renewed the real nature of worship.

There are, above all, three passages in his Letter to the Romans where this new vision of worship emerges.

True Worship

In Romans 3:25, after speaking about “the redemption in Christ Jesus,” Paul uses a word that is mysterious to us, telling us about “an expiation, through faith, by his blood,” which God set forth.

By using the rather unusual expression “expiation,” Paul is alluding to the so-called “mercy seat” of the ancient Temple, that is, the cover over the Ark of the Covenant, which was considered the point of contact between God and man, the point of his mysterious presence in the world of man.

On Yom Kippur, the great feast of atonement, this “mercy seat” was sprinkled with the blood of sacrificed animals. This blood symbolically brought the sins of the past year in contact with God.

In this way, these sins were hurled into the abyss of God’s goodness — absorbed, overcome and forgiven through God’s power. Life began anew.

St. Paul refers to this rite, saying that it was the expression of a true desire to hurl all our sins into the abyss of God’s mercy to make them vanish. However, this process could not take place through the blood of animals.

A more genuine contact between human sin and divine love was needed. This contact took place through the cross of Christ. Christ, the Son of God who truly became man, has taken all of our sins upon himself.

He himself is the place where contact between human misery and divine mercy occurs; in his heart, the sad multitude of evil carried out by mankind is undone and life is renewed.

Revealing this change, St. Paul tells us that through the cross of Christ — the supreme act whereby divine love became human love — the worship of old, with the sacrifice of animals in the Temple of Jerusalem, has come to an end.

This symbolic worship, a worship of desire, has now been replaced by real worship — the love of God incarnated in Christ and brought to fulfillment through his death on the cross.

Therefore, this is not mere spiritualization of real worship. On the contrary, this is the real worship, the true divine-human love, which replaces a worship that was symbolic and temporary.

The cross of Christ, his love through flesh and blood, is the real worship that corresponds to the reality of God and man.

For Paul, the era of the Temple, with its worship, had come to an end well before the outward destruction of the Temple.

In this regard, Paul is in perfect harmony with the words of Jesus, who had announced the end of the Temple and proclaimed another temple “not made with hands” — the temple of his risen body (see Mark 14:58; John 2:19ff). This is the first passage.

A Living Sacrifice

The second passage about which I would like to speak today is found in the first verse of Chapter 12 of the Letter to the Romans. We have heard it before, but I repeat it once again: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”

These words reveal an apparent paradox.

As a rule, sacrifice requires the death of the victim; on the other hand, Paul speaks about it in relationship to the life of a Christian. The expression “present your bodies,” due to the subsequent concept of sacrifice, takes on worship overtones of “giving as a sacrifice and of offering.” The exhortation to “offer your bodies” refers to the whole person.

In fact, Paul extends an invitation to “present yourselves to God” in Romans 6:13. This explicit reference to a Christian’s physical dimension coincides with the invitation to “glorify God in your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:20).

Thus, it is a question of concretely honoring God in daily life in ways that are visibly perceptible and to which we can relate.

Paul describes this type of behavior as a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” It is here where we encounter the word “sacrifice.”

According to the usage prevalent at the time, this expression was part of a sacred context and was used to describe the splitting of the throat of an animal, one part of which would be burned in honor of the gods and the other part of which would be consumed in a banquet by those who made the offering.

Instead, Paul applies this expression to the life of the Christian. Indeed, he describes this sacrifice using three adjectives. The first — “living” — expresses vitality. The second — “holy” — recalls Paul’s concept of a holiness that is not associated with places or things but to the very person of the Christian.

The third — “pleasing to God” — refers, perhaps, to the common biblical expression of a “sweet-smelling” sacrifice (see Leviticus 1:13, 17; 23:18; 26:31, etc.).

Immediately afterward, Paul describes this new way of living as “your spiritual worship.” Commentators of this text are well aware that the Greek expression “tçn logikçn latreían” is not easy to translate. The Latin Bible translates it as rationabile obsequium. The word “rationabile” appears in the first Eucharistic prayer (Roman Canon). There we pray that God will accept this offering as “rationabile.”

The traditional Italian translation, “spiritual worship,” (“an offering in spirit” in English), does not reflect all the nuances of the Greek text, nor even those of the Latin text.

In any case, it is not a question of a worship that is anything less than real worship or even of a worship that is merely metaphorical, but of worship that is more concrete and realistic, a worship in which man himself with his total being, a being gifted with reason, becomes adoration and glorification of the living God.

Paul’s formula, which appears once again in the Roman Eucharistic prayer, is the fruit of a long development of the religious experience in the centuries preceding Christ.

Theological developments of the Old Testament and currents of Greek thought are found in this experience. I would like to at least point out some elements of this development.

The Development of Worship

The prophets, as well as many of the Psalms, strongly criticize the bloody sacrifices of the Temple.

For example, Psalm 50, in which God is speaking, says, “Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for mine is the world and all that fills it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Offer praise as your sacrifice to God” (verses 12-14).

Along the same lines, the Psalm that follows it, Psalm 51, says, “For you do not desire sacrifice; a burnt offering you would not accept. My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit; God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart” (verse 18-19).

In the Book of Daniel, when the Hellenistic regime was again destroying the Temple during the second century B.C., we find another step in this direction. In midst of the fire — that is, in the midst of persecution and suffering — Azariah prays in these words: “We have in our day no prince, prophet or leader, no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. But with contrite heart and humble spirit, let us be received; as though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks … So let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly” (Daniel 3:38-40).

Amid the destruction of the sanctuary and worship, in a situation where every sign of the presence of God has been stripped away, the believer offers as a true holocaust a contrite heart — his desire for God.

We see a development that is important and beautiful yet with a danger. Worship is spiritualized and moralized. Worship becomes merely something in the heart and in the spirit. However, the body is lacking; community is lacking.

Thus, in spite of its criticism of worship, we understand, for example, that both Psalm 51 and the Book of Daniel express a desire for the return of the time of sacrifices — albeit a time of renewal, a renewed sacrifice, a synthesis that still was unforeseeable, that could not yet be conceived.

Let us return to St. Paul. He is the heir to this development, of the desire for true worship, in which man himself becomes the glory of God, a living adoration with all his being. In this sense, he says to the Romans, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice … your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

Paul is repeating what he had already pointed out in Chapter 3: The time of the sacrifice of animals — sacrifices of substitution — has come to an end. The time of true worship has arrived. But here, too, there is a danger of misunderstanding. This new worship can easily be interpreted in a moralistic sense: By offering our lives, we ourselves make the true worship.

In this way, worship with animals is substituted by a moralism in which man does everything himself through his own moral strength. This certainly was not St. Paul’s intention.

Union With Christ

But the question still remains: How, then, should we interpret this “spiritual, reasonable worship?” Paul always assumes that we have become “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), that we have died in baptism (see Romans 1) and that we now live with Christ, through Christ and in Christ.

In this union — and only in this way — we can be in him and with him a “living sacrifice” and offer the “true worship.” The sacrificed animals should have been a replacement for man, man’s gift of self, yet they could not do so.

Jesus Christ, by giving himself up to the Father and to us, does not replace us with himself, but carries our being within himself — our sins and our desire. He truly represents us and takes us up into himself.

Despite all our shortcomings, we become a living sacrifice through communion with Christ, which is achieved through faith and through the sacraments. “True worship” becomes a reality.

This synthesis is the backdrop of the Roman Canon, in which we pray that this offering may be “rationabile,” so that spiritual worship may become a reality.

The Church knows that in the holy Eucharist, Christ’s gift of himself, his true sacrifice, is made present. Yet, the Church prays that the community, gathered in celebration, may be truly united to Christ and may be transformed.

The Church prays that we ourselves may become all that we cannot be through our own efforts: a “rationabile” offering that is pleasing to God. In this way, the Eucharistic prayer accurately interprets St. Paul’s words.

St. Augustine clarified all of this in a marvelous way in the 10th book of his City of God. I will cite only two sentences: “This is the sacrifice of Christians: Though being many, we are only one body in Christ” and “All of the redeemed community (civitas), that is, the congregation and the society of the saints, is offered to God through the High Priest who has given himself up” (10,6: CCL 47,27ff).

The Nature of Missionary Work

Finally, I want to speak briefly about the third passage from the Letter to the Romans referring to this new worship. In Chapter 15, St. Paul speaks about “the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in performing the priestly service (hierourgein) of the Gospel of God, so that the offering up of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:15-16).

I would like to highlight only two aspects of this marvelous text and say a word about some terminology that is unique to Paul’s letters.

Above all else, St. Paul describes his missionary work among the peoples of the world to construct the universal Church as a priestly activity. Proclaiming the Gospel in order to unite people in a communion with the risen Christ is a “priestly” activity.

The Apostle of the Gospel is a true priest and does what is at the heart of the priesthood: He prepares the true sacrifice.

The second aspect is as follows: The goal of missionary activity is, we could say, the cosmic liturgy, wherein people, united in Christ, the world, become as such the glory of God, “an acceptable offering, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”

The dynamic aspect appears here, the aspect of hope in Paul’s concept of worship: Christ’s gift of himself implies the tendency to attract everyone to communion of his body, to unite the world. Only in communion with Christ, the model man, one with God, can the world become as all of us would desire it — a mirror of God’s love.

This dynamism is ever present in the Eucharist; this dynamism must inspire and shape our lives. With this dynamism we begin the new year.

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