The crucified Christ is both the most popular and powerful image in the Catholic Church. It sits upon every altar where the Mass is celebrated and hangs in a prominent place in every parish. For a lot of Catholics, however, the crucifix can fade into the background of the decorum of the Church simply because we are so used to seeing it. My former pastor once posed a question in the middle of a meeting. Looking at the crucifix, he told us, “We have to consider our reality. Is that wall holding up that crucifix or is that crucifix holding up that wall?” It put a lot into perspective for me. How much of my reality is dependent on the saving action of Christ? Furthermore, what am I to make of this sacrificial decision of Jesus? How am I to respond to it?
As a younger person, when I would meditate on the Crucifixion of Jesus, or pray the Sorrowful Mysteries, I focused on how bad the Crucifixion must have been and how much Jesus suffered for us. My goal was to increase my gratitude for what Jesus had done on my behalf. I actually remember the moment I learned that Jesus wasn’t the only person who was ever crucified and how it was a common form of capital punishment for the Romans. I was conflicted because my gratitude was based, at that time, on the idea that Jesus’ physical suffering was unique. Learning that so many other people suffered the same thing pulled the rug out from beneath my assumptions and caused to me to press deeper into the meaning of his Crucifixion and death. Just like everything else I experience with God, what the Lord then revealed to me was so much greater than what I thought before.
There are a number of things Jesus accomplishes through the Crucifixion and many incredibly rich aspects to explore. Among the most important of these is Jesus’ obedience in approaching the Crucifixion. Jesus was not surprised that his life and ministry culminated in a gruesome death. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus foretells his death: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21). Jesus chose to travel to Jerusalem, he knew he would die, and he did all of it because his Father told him to. Certainly, it was difficult, but he says, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour” (Jn 12:27).
In a certain sense, Jesus intends to die. Remember that the same Jesus that was beaten to exhaustion by Roman soldiers and nailed to a cross is also the same Jesus who regularly escaped angry mobs by seemingly vanishing into thin air. It was the same Jesus who healed thousands, raised several people from the dead, and killed a fig tree simply by telling it to die. Jesus is never powerless, he is never helpless. Even on the cross, Jesus is in control. The Scripture tells us of Jesus’ disposition as he approached his passion, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God…” (Jn 13:3). Jesus approached his passion and death fully knowing that the Father had placed all things into his hands. In other words, he was in control and he freely chose to be obedient to his Father’s plan.
But why die? It’s a great question. A lot of times, when people die at a younger age, we commonly hear about all the good they were doing in their lives and how little sense it makes for God to allow that good to stop. If anyone ever had claim to that reasoning, it would be Jesus. Everything he did was good and frankly, he did a lot of it. But death in his lower 30s was the path set out for him. More than that, it was the best path. In becoming man, Jesus united himself to every human being (CCC 618). It’s important to note that just because he was born, does not mean he had to die like the rest of us. That was Adam’s curse, but Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and not subject to Adam’s sin. When he approaches the cross, Jesus takes the sin of Adam and the sins of all upon himself. St. Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin…” (2 Cor 5:21). By his obedience, Jesus’ suffering and death redeems Adam’s disobedience. Adam’s action, which created a painful separation between man and God, is now reconciled by Jesus’ action, which unites man with God once more.
When Jesus died, death came upon him, but it could not hold him (Acts 2:24). On the cross, Jesus turns the tables on death. Before Christ’s life and sacrifice, the fear of death dominated mankind and was the just consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin. When Jesus dies, his death is just in one sense because he took on the sin of the world and offered a perfect and unrepeatable sacrifice. In another sense, his death is unjust because he is truly innocent and free from Adam’s curse. So death, in a way, comes upon Jesus unjustly, and he, in turn, changes the use of death itself. St. Paul finishes his statement above with the purpose of Jesus becoming sin, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Before Jesus’ sacrifice, death condemned man; after Jesus’ sacrifice, dying in Christ condemns sin. Jesus’ sacrifice condemns death and converts death’s use to condemn sin in us. Every Christian is invited to take up their cross and follow him (Mt 16:24-26). By the power of his cross, we can put the sins of the flesh to death in our hearts because we are united to him. We are his children, born from the power of his obedient sacrifice. St. Paul summarizes this beautifully in his letter to the Romans:
“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:12-17).
Jesus’ main goal in submitting himself to the Crucifixion and ultimately to death was not to increase our gratitude, although gratitude is a fitting response; he did it to set us free. This is a key distinction that has implications on our disposition whenever we see the crucifix. Do we see something that makes us consider how much we are falling short compared to a savior who laid everything on the line for us, or do we see the emblem of Christ’s victory over the greatest tyrant in the history of the world? Does it compel us to be more “mindful” of what Jesus has suffered on our behalf or does it motivate us to live courageously out of the grace he won for us? In some ways, they are two sides of the same coin, but we cannot let the power of the Cross be relegated to the realm of historical events. The power of the cross to condemn sin in our lives is very much alive and active today in every believer. Let us pray that in reflecting upon the Crucifixion, the Lord will fill us with hope and inspire us to do whatever he tells us that we may join our deaths with his and live in the promise of resurrection.