The Crucified Christ: An emblem of victory

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). 

Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald, 16th Century

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. 

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.

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. 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.