The following is from A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen (Ignatius Press, 1985).
Without a doubt, at the center of the New Testament there stands the Cross,
which receives its interpretation from the Resurrection.
The Passion narratives are the first pieces of the Gospels that were composed
as a unity. In his preaching at Corinth, Paul initially wants to know
nothing but the Cross, which "destroys the wisdom of the wise and wrecks
the understanding of those who understand", which "is a scandal to the
Jews and foolishness to the gentiles". But "the foolishness of God is
wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor 1:19,
Whoever removes the Cross and its interpretation
by the New Testament from the center, in order to replace it, for example,
with the social commitment of Jesus to the oppressed as a new center,
no longer stands in continuity with the apostolic faith. He does not see
that God's commitment to the world is most absolute precisely at this
point across a chasm.
It is certainly not surprising that the disciples were able to understand
the meaning of the Cross only slowly, even after the Resurrection. The
Lord himself gives a first catechetical instruction to the disciples at
Emmaus by showing that this incomprehensible event is the fulfillment
of what had been foretold and that the open question marks of the Old
Testament find their solution only here (Lk 24:27).
Which riddles? Those of the Covenant between God
and men in which the latter must necessarily fail again and again: who
can be a match for God as a partner? Those of the many cultic sacrifices
that in the end are still external to man while he himself cannot offer
himself as a sacrifice. Those of the inscrutable meaning of suffering
which can fall even, and especially, on the innocent, so that every proof
that God rewards the good becomes void. Only at the outer periphery, as
something that so far is completely sealed, appear the outlines of a figure
in which the riddles might be solved.
This figure would be at once the completely kept
and fulfilled Covenant, even far beyond Israel (Is 49:5-6), and the personified
sacrifice in which at the same time the riddle of suffering, of being
despised and rejected, becomes a light; for it happens as the vicarious
suffering of the just for "the many" (Is 52:13-53:12). Nobody had understood
the prophecy then, but in the light of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus
it became the most important key to the meaning of the apparently meaningless.
Did not Jesus himself use this key at the Last Supper in anticipation?
"For you", "for the many", his Body is given up and his Blood is poured
out. He himself, without a doubt, foreknew that his will to help these"
people toward God who are so distant from God would at some point be taken
terribly seriously, that he would suffer in their place through this distance
from God, indeed this utmost darkness of God, in order to take it from
them and to give them an inner share in his closeness to God. "I have
a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!"
It stands as a dark cloud at the horizon of his active life; everything
he does then-healing the sick, proclaiming the kingdom of God, driving
out evil spirits by his good Spirit, forgiving sins-all of these partial
engagements happen in the approach toward the one unconditional engagement.
As soon as the formula "for the many", "for you", "for us", is found,
it resounds through all the writings of the New Testament; it is even
present before anything is written down (cf. i Cor 15:3). Paul, Peter,
John: everywhere the same light comes from the two little words.
What has happened? Light has for the first time penetrated into the closed
dungeons of human and cosmic suffering and dying. Pain and death receive
Not only that, they can receive more meaning and
bear more fruit than the greatest and most successful activity, a meaning
not only for the one who suffers but precisely also for others, for the
world as a whole. No religion had even approached this thought.  The
great religions had mostly been ingenious methods of escaping suffering
or of making it ineffective. The highest that was reached was voluntary
death for the sake of justice: Socrates and his spiritualized heroism.
The detached farewell discourses of the wise man in prison could be compared
from afar to the wondrous farewell discourses of Christ.
But Socrates dies noble and transfigured; Christ
must go out into the hellish darkness of godforsakenness, where he calls
for the lost Father "with prayers and supplications, with loud cries and
tears" (Heb 5:7). Why are such stories handed down? Why has the image
of the hero, the martyr, thus been destroyed? It was "for us", "in our
One can ask endlessly how it is possible to take someone's place in this
way. The only thing that helps us who are perplexed is the certainty of
the original Church that this man belongs to God, that "he truly was God's
Son", as the centurion acknowledges under the Cross, so that finally one
has to render him homage in adoration as "my Lord and my God" Jn 20:28).
Every theology that begins to blink and stutter at this point and does
not want to come out with the words of the Apostle Thomas or tinkers with
them will not hold to the "for us". There is no intermediary between a
man who is God and an ordinary mortal, and nobody will seriously hold
the opinion that a man like us, be he ever so courageous and generous
in giving himself, would be able to take upon himself the sin of another,
let alone the sin of all. He can suffer death in the place of someone
who is condemned to death. This would be generous, and it would spare
the other person death at least for a time.
But what Christ did on the Cross was in no way intended to spare us death
but rather to revalue death completely. In place of the "going down into
the pit" of the Old Testament, it became "being in paradise tomorrow".
Instead of fearing death as the final evil and begging God for a few more
years of life, as the weeping king Hezekiah does, Paul would like most
of all to die immediately in order "to be with the Lord" (Phil 1:23).
Together with death, life is also revalued: "If we live, we live to the
Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord" (Rom 14:8).
But the issue is not only life and death but our existence before God
and our being judged by him. All of us were sinners before him and worthy
of condemnation. But God "made the One who knew no sin to be sin, so that
we might be justified through him in God's eyes" (2 Cor 5:21).
Only God in his absolute freedom can take hold of our finite freedom from
within in such a way as to give it a direction toward him, an exit to
him, when it was closed in on itself. This happened in virtue of the "wonderful
exchange" between Christ and us: he experiences instead of us what distance
from God is, so that we may become beloved and loving children of God
instead of being his "enemies" (Rom 5:10).
Certainly God has the initiative in this reconciliation: he is the one
who reconciles the world to himself in Christ. But one must not play this
down (as famous theologians do) by saying that God is always the reconciled
God anyway and merely manifests this state in a final way through the
death of Christ. It is not clear how this could be the fitting and humanly
intelligible form of such a manifestation.
No, the "wonderful exchange" on the Cross is the way by which God brings
about reconciliation. It can only be a mutual reconciliation because God
has long since been in a covenant with us. The mere forgiveness of God
would not affect us in our alienation from God. Man must be represented
in the making of the new treaty of peace, the "new and eternal covenant".
He is represented because we have been taken over by the man Jesus Christ.
When he "signs" this treaty in advance in the name of all of us, it suffices
if we add our name under his now or, at the latest, when we die.
Of course, it would be meaningless to speak of the Cross without considering
the other side, the Resurrection of the Crucified. "If Christ has not
risen, then our preaching is nothing and also your faith is nothing; you
are still in your sins and also those who have fallen asleep . . . are
lost. If we are merely people who have put their whole hope in Christ
in this life, then we are the most pitiful of all men" (1 Cor 15:14, 17-19).
If one does away with the fact of the Resurrection, one also does away
with the Cross, for both stand and fall together, and one would then have
to find a new center for the whole message of the gospel. What would come
to occupy this center is at best a mild father-god who is not affected
by the terrible injustice in the world, or man in his morality and hope
who must take care of his own redemption: "atheism in Christianity".
 For what is meant here is something qualitatively completely different
from the voluntary or involuntary scapegoats who offered themselves or
were offered (e.g., in Hellas or Rome) for the city or for the fatherland
to avert some catastrophe that threatened everyone.