When we think about the passion of Jesus Christ, we typically imagine the figure of the scapegoat—the sacrificial victim who suffers because we have sinned, and who, in that suffering, atones for us, that we may live in the freedom of grace. To truly understand this idea, however, we have to go back to the story of the Fall (Gen 3:1–24), where we learn that the guilt of one man never really stops with himself. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18), but sin makes the man alone, because the very act of sin is a turning in upon the self. This insight lies at the very heart of the mystery of original sin: when I sin, my sin touches those around me, implicating every human being.
We Americans generally recoil at this idea. We are individualists who think that our neighbor’s sins are our neighbor’s business, our neighbor’s problem, and no one else’s. The concept of original sin strikes us as unfair—asunjust—as a kind of design flaw in God’s creative blueprint.
But God does not make mistakes. Original sin is, indeed, unjust, but that is just the point. It is the lack of original justice—the disruption of harmony in the cosmic structure: a fourfold alienation of man from God, man from man, man from himself, and man from the created order. When we speak of the “felix culpa” or “felicitous fault” of Adam, we mean, precisely, to call to mind this fact about sin: its communicability; and exactly in this, the injustice of original sin is absolutely fair, because we all have a share in it. Even the Immaculate Mary, precisely because of what it means for her to be completely free from sin—even Adam’s sin—in her own person, must suffer in her heart a still more unspeakable pain on account of it (Cf. Luke 2:35). This is good news. For it is only because one person’s sin is able to implicate others—only because other persons are able to assume its consequences—that anyone’s redemption is possible at all. This fact about Adam’ssin is true for all our sins.
In the end, therefore, Adam’s sin, with its earth-shattering effects, reveals, in spite of itself, the possibility of the Cross, and elicits from God the promise of it (Cf. Gen 3:15). Indeed, Paul tells us that, “[f]or our sake, God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21). This means that when Christ assumed human nature, he did not simply assume an abstraction, but united himself to every man (Gaudium et Spes§22); for Christ is the New Man, the New Adam, and “it is not good for him to be alone” (Cf. Gen 2:18). In this fact, Christ is the definitive “Son of Man”: the only human being able to assume the role of the cosmic high priest, standing before God in the place of each and all (Cf. Heb entire). The communicability of sin means that Christ, though he is sinless in himself, can bear our guilt—that he can suffer in himself our alienation (Cf. Matt 27:46), and in doing so, resolve it, definitively, in love.
Indeed, Pontius Pilate could not have imagined the profound depth of his words when he called out to the crowds, “Look upon the man” (John 19:5)! For without knowing it, he was speaking to both man and God at once. Christ the New Adam is the Man; and as high priest, he is every man. Before God, he is you and me. When Pilate calls to us—you and me—to look upon the man, Christ is calling us to look upon ourselves: to finally see in Christ’s own absolute transparency, what our sinfulness means. For the flesh of Christ is scourged with our iniquity and bears the lacerations our sins have wrought in our own souls, and in the fabric of the cosmos itself. On his head he wears a crown of thorns on our behalf; for we, who would presume to rule the universe on our own terms, have woven out of our very lives a tangled, stinging, knot of self-subjection. Christ is Man; and Christ is me. He reveals me to myself and invites me to find my own freedom and redemption in that very moment. For he does, in my name and on my behalf, what I cannot do for myself. He “whose spirit is incapable of deceit” (Psalm 32:2), removes the spiritual fig leaf, and reveals me to the Father in his own perfect transparency. Christ calls us from the wasteland of our sins and offers himself as, “a hiding place for us” (Psalm 32:7), giving us refuge and sanctuary in the vast intimacy of his Sacred Heart. Exposing his heart, Christ shows each one of us to the Father as we truly are and, in that very act, shows us the Father who is all Mercy, and “surrounds us with songs of deliverance” (Cf. v. 7).
This is what it means for Christ to suffer for us. This divine Scapegoat does more than simply serve out a sentence for crimes he did not commit. Rather, in becoming the “Lamb of God who takes upon himself the sins of the world” (Cf. John 1:29), he brings our shrouded, tarnished souls into the purifying light of the consuming fire of the Father’s Love. This is the reason Christ’s sorrowful Passion actually redeems the world and does not make things worse; and it is why you and I must “look upon the man” each Passiontide and throughout the year, and, through the grace of the confessional, accept that truth he reveals to us about ourselves. For if sin is communicable, so, we must remember, is righteousness—and the two can be exchanged, but not until we face ourselves in Christ, who draws us to himself in the merciful judgment of the Cross (Cf. Luke 23:39–43).