The Crucifix is the Sign of our Hope: A Lenten Reflection

A Lenten Reflection Presented at the Conclusion of the Stations of the Cross.

     Having just celebrated the beautiful devotion of the Stations of the Cross, we have been blessed to walk the path of Calvary with our Lord while meditating on His great salvific act. This ancient devotion leaves us at the foot of the cross awaiting the resurrection on Easter Sunday. In meditating on the Stations of the Cross, I cannot help but be brought back just two months ago to when I physically walked the same way of the cross in the ancient city of Jerusalem. As I finished walking the stations and arrived at the exact place where our Lord was crucified I found myself simply kneeling before the cross. I’m not sure what kept me at the foot of the cross, after all the next logical step would have been to walk across the basilica to the Sepulcher itself, but I found myself simply drawn to stay up at Calvary. As I meditated on the biblical account of the crucifixion I realized, this is the life we, as Christians, are called to live; we are called to live at the foot of the cross, so that we too, one day, may rise with Him to eternal life.

     As luck would have it on my return flight to St. Louis from Jerusalem, my cabin was located right across from a very kind Protestant gentleman who wanted to know why we as Catholics use a crucifix and not a cross in our churches. He wanted to know why we have images of the bloody and beaten Christ while Protestants only have images of the risen Christ. If we, as Christians, are called to be an Easter people, why do we need to display the passion, why not simply display the resurrection?

     Certainly we are an Easter people, in fact this whole season of Lent concludes in the octave of Easter the greatest feast of the Church year, but we who are undertaking our fasting, penances and mortifications are well aware that there is no resurrection with out the passion and so there is no need to run from Christ on the cross. St. Paul reminds us that we are heirs to Christ and if we wish to rise with Christ we must first die with Him. St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians says he wants “to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[1] Simply put, just as Christ freely endured His passion and death, so too we are called to endure suffering and death so that we may rise with Him. Friends “the cross alone is a symbol of absurdity: the contradiction of the vertical bar of life by the horizontal bar of death. Only by putting someone on the cross Who can make death the contradiction of life does one ever escape the absurdity of life.”[2]

     In reality there are only three possible attitudes towards the cross.[3] The first is an attitude of antipathy towards the cross, these people, like those who stood at the foot of Christ and said “let the Messiah, the King of Israel come down from the cross that we may see and believe,”[4]  want the creed without the cross. These people crying out for our Lord to come down off the cross were ready to believe, but they were not willing to embrace the cross. Sadly today many people have bought into the prosperity gospel, the belief that worldly success is the will of God for Christians and they have taken this attitude towards the cross. They are not looking for proof or an explanation of the faith, but rather are refusing to obey the command to be crucified with Christ. The second attitude is one of apathy. Like those who sat around the cross and cast lots for our Lord’s cloths[5] many people today want to be spectators to the cross rather than follow Christ to the cross. The third and proper attitude is one of empathy, which we see in the Blessed Virgin and the women who stood at the foot of the cross. Friends we have no option “everyone in the world is either on or underneath the Cross. No escape is possible. Some are on it through actual physical suffering or because they are identified with the suffering of others in Christ’s name sake … Others are beneath it, demanding His crucifixion, ridiculing sacrifice or being indifferent enough to play games under its shadow.”[6] What is our attitude towards the cross? Are we on the cross or are we underneath it?

     When we as Catholics take the attitude of empathy towards the crucifixion the problem of pain and suffering no longer seems like a problem. Suffering came into the world as a result of sin,[7] and while God could have left us alone to our own devices, He does not stand off in the distance and watch mankind suffer; rather He enters into our suffering. Christ experienced the many hardships of man, suffering with us, even to the point of death on a cross. The image of the crucifix thus invites us to enter into suffering for our own salvation and reminds us that even in the midst of our suffering Christ is their present with us.

     While the crucifix may appear to be a moment of weakness for God it is not. A closer look shows us that Christ transformed what appeared to be the moment of His greatest physical weakness into His greatest act, the act of redemption. This paradox applies to us as well. Even in our greatest sufferings we can offer them to God and they can become the cause of our redemption. While we may be called to endure many hardships we can have confidence that if we enter them in faith with Christ we will be victorious because Christ has already won the battle through His resurrection from the dead.

     St. Paul reminds us that we are to glory in the cross. “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”[8] When we unite our sufferings to the suffering of Christ on the cross we are blessed to participate in the crucifixion of Christ and can cooperate with His suffering for the salvation of souls. St. Paul is clear “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”[9]

      I don’t know about you, but the world seems to be getting darker and darker. Now I’m not one who tries to predict the future but if I was one of those people, I think my crystal ball would be telling me the end of the world must be near. As we pray the Stations of the Cross and kneel before our Lord exposed in the Blessed Sacrament I cannot help but once again realize the great sins that are present in our world and even in our Church. It’s getting to the point where things are so awful in the world today that I dread looking at the news. The news of Christians being burned alive by Islamic terrorists, politicians directly attacking the sanctity of marriage and the family, and confusion with some of the faithful over fundamental Church teaching is cause for great concern. God certainly has the power to remove all suffering from our life, but if He removed suffering from our life, He would take away our ability to choose, which would also take away our ability to love Him and others, so God did the next best thing, He made suffering the means of our salvation. “Christ took our painful condition and made of it the way of true life.”[10]

     Christ’s great act of love came at the price of the greatest human suffering. The crucifix teaches us to love one must suffer. The crucifix is a stark reminder that “God is a sufferer because he is a lover; the entire theme of the suffering God flows from that of the Loving God and always points back to it.”[11] “While we can often fall into the trap of believing that suffering is a bad thing, our Lord has transformed suffering into the means of our salvation for the fact that God allowed His son to die “shows two things very clearly. The first is that suffering and even total ruin do not signify a lack of love on the part of the Father. The second is that suffering is not in vain; it bears fruit and has redeeming power.”[12] This understanding of the truth of the crucifixion makes it clear that to reject the image of the crucifix is to radically change the meaning of Christianity.

     While suffering is by its very nature painful, we must realize the necessity of suffering. We are called to be people of hope, yet without suffering we would not know what hope is and a superficial desire for hope is a superficial desire for happiness. Through suffering we can learn to place our complete trust, not in the things of this world, but in God. As we journeyed the way of the cross we commemorated the truth that the crucifix is the seed of the tree of life which leads to the blossoming of new hope. It seems that through suffering greatness shines through. God permits suffering then works greatness through it. “Suffering is never a reason for discouragement or lack of confidence in God since it proves the truth of his love for us.”[13]

     Our Lord takes the sufferings we face in this world, either those brought on by the world, or those freely undertaken by our fasting, penances and almsgiving and uses them to give us opportunities to participate with His grace in our own salvation and the salvation of others in the Church. You see “ultimately, far from ruining Christian hope, suffering is advantageous for it; it is even necessary. Without it, hope would be vague, an ill-defined yearning for happiness.”[14] It is only because we suffer that we can hold out hope for eternal life for in suffering we imitate God. Since God came into this world to suffer for us we need to follow His example and rigorously undertake acts of fasting, mortification and almsgiving. It was Christ’s suffering that lead to His resurrection. Why should it be any different for us?

     Often when we are faced with evil and suffering we try to come up with an explanation or an excuse as a means of escaping the pain. We try to have the triumphant cross of Easter without the crucifixion of Good Friday. “In the face of suffering and death human beliefs and ideologies are all, more or less, explicitly doctrine of escape … No doctrine of escape is worthy of God.”[15] My brothers and sisters the crucifix is not a curse to run from, but a witness to hope so as we continue this season of lent rather than run from the crucifix, let us run towards it through our fasting, penances and almsgiving.

[1] Phil 3:10

[2] Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Those Mysterious Priests. New York: The Alba House, 2005. pg. 102

[3] Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Those Mysterious Priests. New York: The Alba House, 2005. pg. 100 – 101

[4] Mk 15: 32

[5] Mt 27:36

[6] Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Those Mysterious Priests. New York: The Alba House, 2005. pg. 101

[7] Rom 5:12

[8] Gal 6:14

[9] Gal 2:20

[10] Cardinal Albert Vanhoe. Our Priest is Christ. (1969) pg. 20.

[11] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Behold the Pierced One. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. (1986) pg 33.

[12] Wilfrid Stinssen. Into Your Hands, Father Abandoning Ourselves to the God Who Loves Us. San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2011. pg 15

[13] Cardinal Albert Vanhoe. Our Priest is Christ. (1969) pg. 56.

[14] Cardinal Albert Vanhoe. Our Priest is Christ. (1969) pg. 57.

[15] Cardinal Albert Vanhoe. Our Priest is Christ. (1969) pg. 56.

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