Was Christ's Sacrifice Real?
First, as I write elsewhere, "It was the supreme sacrifice, because Jesus, 'though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.' (2 Phil 2:6-8) To be sure, Jesus was rewarded by the Father amply for what He did, but this does not mean that He did not suffer. And for God to agree to suffer for our sake, given His dignity, is an enormous sacrifice."
In other words, for God to humble Himself so our of charity for us is both tremendously awful and the most glorious deed ever performed, apart from creation and sanctification of the sinners.
Second, Christ endured practically every possible type of suffering:
First of all, on the part of men: for He endured something from Gentiles and from Jews; from men and from women, as is clear from the women servants who accused Peter. He suffered from the rulers, from their servants and from the mob... He suffered from friends and acquaintances, as is manifest from Judas betraying and Peter denying Him.
Secondly, the same is evident on the part of the sufferings which a man can endure. For Christ suffered from friends abandoning Him; in His reputation, from the blasphemies hurled at Him; in His honor and glory, from the mockeries and the insults heaped upon Him; in things, for He was despoiled of His garments; in His soul, from sadness, weariness, and fear; in His body, from wounds and scourgings.
Thirdly, it may be considered with regard to His bodily members. In His head He suffered from the crown of piercing thorns; in His hands and feet, from the fastening of the nails; on His face from the blows and spittle; and from the lashes over His entire body.
Moreover, He suffered in all His bodily senses: in touch, by being scourged and nailed; in taste, by being given vinegar and gall to drink; in smell, by being fastened to the gibbet in a place reeking with the stench of corpses, "which is called Calvary"; in hearing, by being tormented with the cries of blasphemers and scorners; in sight, by beholding the tears of His Mother and of the disciple whom He loved. (ST, III, 46, 5)
The "weapons" of the lower temperaments are: violence (Monster), deception (Barely Human), accusation (Guardian), and temptation (Idealist). Jesus was hurt with all of these brutally.
Third, Christ's pain was greater than anyone else's:
There was true and sensible pain in the suffering of Christ, which is caused by something hurtful to the body; also, there was internal pain, which is caused from the apprehension of something hurtful, and this is termed "sadness." And in Christ each of these was the greatest in this present life.
This arose... first of all, from the sources of His pain. For the cause of the sensitive pain was the wounding of His body; and this wounding had its bitterness, both from the extent of the suffering already mentioned... and from the kind of suffering, since the death of the crucified is most bitter, because they are pierced in nervous and highly sensitive parts -- to wit, the hands and feet; moreover, the weight of the suspended body intensifies the agony, and besides this there is the duration of the suffering because they do not die at once like those slain by the sword.
The cause of the interior pain was, first of all, all the sins of the human race, for which He made satisfaction by suffering; hence He ascribes them, so to speak, to Himself...
Secondly, especially the fall of the Jews and of the others who sinned in His death chiefly of the apostles, who were scandalized at His Passion.
Thirdly, the loss of His bodily life, which is naturally horrible to human nature. (ST, III, 46, 6)
Moreover, Christ's pain was magnified as a result of
the superior constitution of His body made by the Holy Spirit, and hence "Christ's sense of touch, the sensitiveness of which is the reason for our feeling pain, was most acute" (Ibid.);
His great enjoyment of earthly life due to His perfect virtue and the proportionate distress over both losing it and the suffering He was to undergo;
Fourth, Christ's passion was voluntary due to His omnipotence and Father's love for His Son. Thus Christ could save Himself very easily but didn't, e.g., "Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels?" (Mt 26:53) We surmise, therefore, that the temptation to use His power to free Himself was present in Jesus as man, and so had to be "overcome" by Him.
Fifth, because of His very innocence:
The sufferer's innocence does lessen numerically the pain of the suffering, since, when a guilty man suffers, he grieves not merely on account of the penalty, but also because of the crime, whereas the innocent man grieves only for the penalty: yet this pain is more intensified by reason of his innocence, in so far as he deems the hurt inflicted to be the more undeserved. (ST, III, 46, 6, reply 5)
This in a way rebounds towards (3), because Christ grieved for the sins of not only of His tormentors but of all human beings, for all men are responsible for Christ's suffering and death, being all in need of redemption brought about by the Incarnation.
We may ask at this point: Since the infliction of suffering on Jesus was the gravest of crimes, was the Incarnation an opportunity for men to sin still more, in addition to all the other sins they committed regardless of the event of the Incarnation? I think that the Passion was, in addition to everything else, a sign of men's universal culpability and of the necessity of their taking recourse in Christ's offer of forgiveness.
Sixth, what of Christ's reward? Must not the fact that He would rise in three days have given Him comfort? Yes and no:
But such was the dignity of Christ's life in the body, especially on account of the Godhead united with it, that its loss, even for one hour, would be a matter of greater grief than the loss of another man's life for howsoever long a time.
Hence the Philosopher says... that the man of virtue loves his life all the more in proportion as he knows it to be better; and yet he exposes it for virtue's sake. And in like fashion Christ laid down His most beloved life for the good of charity... (ST, III, 46, 6, reply 4)
Since saints go to heaven, as well, and are perfectly happy there forever, are their sufferings and sacrifices in this life thereby made irrelevant? Of course not, and neither were Christ's because of His reward (which was kingship over the world). The benefits outweighed the costs, but that does not mean that the costs were 0 either for Christ or for any merely human being.
This line of argument is like the argument from evil for the non-existence of God turned upside down: it claims that the suffering experienced by Christ is not really important, because, why, all's well that ends well. I think we can both acknowledge that for the blessed in heaven their trials on earth should seem like "one night in an inconvenient hotel," as Mother Teresa put it, and at the same time justly dismiss this fact as having no weight with respect to our argument.
It might be further objected that Christ was not unsure of His salvation. In this He differed from human saints who have the theological virtue of hope but who usually do not know for sure whether they will be saved. In fact, their hope is somewhat like a self-fulfilling prophesy: one is saved partly because he believes he will be saved. This doubt and uncertainty were not present in Christ; as a matter of fact, He had neither faith nor hope normally understood but the vision of God and full knowledge of the future. Were not his trials therefore easier? Indeed so, but remember that doubts of one's own salvation are essentially sins of despair. One's faith and hope must be immovable, in which case one will never doubt. Hence a human being is not supposed, if he is virtuous, to doubt the reality of his eternal reward. And thus Christ's certainty and men's hope are made equal.
Seventh, is Christ's suffering of any more significance than that of any righteous person? Is the injustice of His Passion greater than that of the sufferings of any martyr or saint?
The first answer is, according to the foregoing, yes. The second is that Christ's suffering does not detract of the suffering of the just in any way; on the contrary, it gives meaning to such suffering, viz., that patience in trials now leads to glory and life everlasting, which was not thus before, for then heaven was closed to men. Third, the question may arise why we focus on His suffering as opposed to on anyone else's. The answer is that, again, first, His dignity and therefore men's fault for which Christ suffered; second, the effects His Passion wrought, the chief of which is salvation.
Eighth, one of the key effects of the Passion of Christ is to prevent one from uttering the following excuse during his heavenly trial: "You don't know what it's like to be human." "Actually," God can say now, "I do. I am familiar with suffering intimately, both of pain that I experienced during the Passion and of rejection of pleasure which I experienced during the temptation," as per Mt 4. "Yet I conquered, and therefore so could you."
NB: Christ's temptation was all three of the flesh: "The tempter came to him and said, 'If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.'" (Mt 4:3); of the world: "'All this I will give you,' he said, 'if you will bow down and worship me.'" (9); and of the devil: "'If you are the Son of God,' he said, 'throw yourself down. For it is written: "He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone."'" (6)
St. Thomas writes that "Christ resisted these temptations by quoting the authority of the Law, not by enforcing His power, 'so as to give more honor to His human nature and a greater punishment to His adversary, since the foe of the human race was vanquished, not as by God, but as by man'; as Pope Leo says." (ST, III, 41, 4)
It follows from these that Christ's Passion was indeed a real and worthy sacrifice, more so, in fact, than anyone else's.