As a Catholic, I am often challenged about our use and reverence for the crucifix. The most common charge has been that the crucifix focuses on Christ’s death and fails to celebrate the Resurrection. But as Catholics we recognize these two events are necessarily intertwined. Each time we reflect on the image of Christ on the cross, we also call to mind the joyous event three days later.
While evangelizing, I recently met a woman who was a lapsed Catholic. She took some of the rosaries I was handing out, but she refused to take any of the crucifix medals. She stated the image of Christ on the cross disgusted her. She hated to look at it since it called to mind such horrific events. She wanted nothing to do with it and could not believe anyone would hang a crucifix around their neck or in their homes.
This gave me the opportunity to explain why, for me, the crucifix was one of the most beautiful images for meditation. Anytime I gaze at Christ on the cross, it gives me hope in suffering, calls me to repentance and conversion and reminds me of the infinite love God has for me.
Suffering and the Cross
One of the inevitable realities of this life is suffering. Though the forms and degrees will vary, none of us is immune. Suffering does not discriminate between the good or wicked, the young or the old. Though inescapable, we should not fall into despair. The image of the crucifix is a constant reminder that not only is God is intimately aware of the miseries of this life but also that through this sacrifice of Christ we are given hope.
I reminded her how, throughout the Scriptures, we meet men and women who, like us, suffer. They experience oppression, injustice, endure agonizing illnesses, lose loved ones, are persecuted and are martyred. But even in their darkest hours, God reveals how He never abandons them and understands their pain.
To illuminate His loving concern for humanity even more, two thousand years ago, God freely embraced our plight when He became man. Jesus Christ, the second divine Person of the Trinity, was born to the Virgin Mary, and became like us in every way except sin. Through His Incarnation, Jesus freely bore human hardships and torments. He wept, experienced hunger and thirst, mourned and was tempted. He withstood mockery, abandonment by loved ones, betrayal and encountered resistance when sharing the truth. Jesus was tortured and executed by the most excruciating method – crucifixion. He confronted human suffering because of love for each one of us.
Redeeming the world by His sacrifice for our sins and making salvation possible for us all, He then rose from the dead three days later. Alive again He offers us glorious hope – God will bring good out of suffering for those who love Him (Romans 8:28). Though these rewards may not be fully realized until the next life, we are called to follow Him. This entails picking up our own crosses daily (Luke 9:23) and realizing the closer we draw to Christ the more we are embracing Him on the cross. Though this involves suffering now, if we persevere, we are given the promise of salvation and glorification. This should give us great hope.
As Saint Pope John Paul II wrote in Salvific Doloris:
…Though the victory over sin and death achieved by Christ in his Cross and Resurrection does not abolish temporal suffering from human life, nor free from suffering the whole historical dimension of human existence, it nevertheless throws a new light upon this dimension and upon every suffering: the light of salvation.
And Pope Francis writes in Lumen Fidei:
To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light. In Christ, God himself wishes to share this path with us and to offer his gaze so that we might see the light within it. Christ is the one who, having endured suffering, is ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:2)…In this sense faith is linked to hope, for even if our dwelling place here below is wasting away, we have an eternal dwelling palace which God has already prepared in Christ, in his body.
Holding up a crucifix for this Catholic lady, I pointed out how this image vividly portrays Christ suffering with us and for us. It demonstrates how evil and grave injustice are overcome – through sacrificial love. And it gives me nothing but hope because regardless of what adversity befalls me, it is an ever-present confirmation that if I remain united to Christ in love, God will transform my suffering into something glorious.
Conversion and the Cross
As I continued speaking to her, I acknowledged how meditating on the image of Christ on the cross does provoke a wide range of emotions, including uneasiness and horror, because is a terrible outrage. If a person had no reaction to this image it would suggest a numbing of the conscience or worse – a disregard for all our Creator has done for us. The abhorrence of God, beaten and bloodied, hanging from the cross is a witness not only of the extremes God is willing to go to for us out of love, but also an exposition of the depth of destruction caused by our sins.
In a talk on Good Friday (March 22, 1940), Archbishop Fulton Sheen said:
We can look on the other scenes of injustice without feeling we are involved in them; but we cannot look on a Crucifix without feeling that we had something to with it, either for better or worse; either as a robber brought before his victim for judgment, or as a drowning man brought before his rescuer for thanks…If you can stand the gaze of a Crucifix long enough you will discover these truths. First, if sin cost Him, who is innocence, so much then I who am guilty cannot take it lightly. Second, there is only one thing worse in all the world than sin – and that is to forget I am a sinner. Third, more bitter than the Crucifixion must be my rejection of that Love by which I was redeemed.
Looking at the crucifix, we shudder at the cruelty of men, but more than that, we must turn inward to acknowledge our role as a direct cause for Christ’s suffering. Our sins – my sins – are the reason for this tremendous price Christ had to pay. With this awareness, I give thanks to God, without hesitation, cry out in repentance for the many ways I have failed in my love for Him. This image of Christ enduring His own suffering for my sake is a call for conversion and one I am to answer daily.
The Image of Infinite Love
Finally, the beauty of the crucifix is in the fact it is a culmination of the many ways God, in His love, has intervened to lift man up and save us.
In the fullness of time, Christ was sent:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
Then Christ accepted death:
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).
And in God’s infinite love, Jesus did not die only for the righteous but for all of us:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
Even when we were far from God, He offered us all the gift of eternal life (Romans 5:10), and, because of Christ’s sacrifice, God in his merciful love bestows abundant grace onto us all (Ephesians 2:4-5). God created us out of love and desires eternal communion with each of us (1 Timothy 2:4). Throughout history God has intervened and most perfectly in the Incarnation.
The crucifix is a testimony to all God has done and a beautiful image of God’s abounding love.