The Cross


The cross on which Jesus died for our salvation
remains a sign of complete self-sacrifice.

In its combination of the horizontal and vertical axes, which thus embrace the whole symbolism of the cardinal points, the cross has established itself in every culture and in all religions. The intersection of these two lines is a point of meeting, of convergence and of synthesis. Conversely, the cross also evokes images of torture, suffering, and confrontation.

The Cross of Christ contains this dual symbolism, since it is at once the sacrificial altar which must reconcile mankind to itself and bring it nearer to God, and also the instrument of execution on which Jesus died. The cross is without doubt Christianity's most widespread and immediately recognized symbol: and we must now try to grapple with its true significance.

Jesus had come to earth with a mission of redemption and "went about doing good" (Acts 10:38), but he became a target for the jealousy of his nation's religious leaders, whose small mindedness he protested against. The power of his preaching and the size of the movement which he had created made them plot against him, and they were to triumph at the moment of Easter. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator of Judea, gave way in spite of himself under the Jews' pressure and condemned him to death for the capital offense of claiming to be the Son of God. But, for Christians, Jesus' death was not the end of his destiny. Christ was resurrected and dwells at his Father's right hand. Like Moses and Jeremiah, Jesus had to bear the brunt of his people's refusal "by taking their guilt on himself" (Isaiah 53:11) and, by his death and resurrection, fulfill Isaiah's prophecy: "Ill-treated and afflicted, he never opened his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughterhouse." (Isaiah 53:7). Christ was not ignorant of this destiny, which was clearly stated from the beginning of the Gospels when John the Baptist presents Jesus as the Lamb of God. ["The next day... [John] said, `Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world'." (Jn. 1:29).] He walked on knowingly towards his destiny and announced his imminent suffering and death on three occasions to his apostles. [Mt. 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19]

This "paschal" suffering by execution and death in fact obeys a mysterious necessity in the divine plan of salvation, as Jesus, when resurrected, explained to the disciples of Emmaus: "Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer before entering into his glory?" (Luke 24:26). The humiliation which Christ suffered and the crucifixion are, for Saint John the Evangelist, nothing less than a royal investiture. Pilate asks him if he is a king, and the soldiers mock him by calling him "king of the Jews" [Jn. 18:33-37; 19:3-14]. On Pilate's own orders [Jn. 19:19], and in latter-day representations, the cross carries a notice bearing four letters: I.N.R.I. (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum), "Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews." The only way to understand Jesus' willing sacrifice is by seeing it as the supremely lucid expression of his love for us and for his Father. [Jn. 13:1] This love is such that the Son of God unreservedly submitted himself to the plan.

The Cross of Glory is, then, the ultimate revelation of perfect love. Its importance is explained to us by Jesus during the Last Supper, when he inaugurates the sacrament of the Eucharist. [Mt.26:26-28] Some depictions of the crucifixion link it to the symbolism of the Trinity, in the same way which has been described for the baptism of Christ: a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, hovers above the crucified figure. Indeed, the Son of God died as a man on the cross and "gave up his spirit" (St. John 19:30), that is to say that he communicated the Holy Spirit to us.

The water and the blood which flowed from his pierced side gave birth to the Church. A certain similarity can be seen here with the birth of Eve, whom God had shaped from Adam's rib. [Jn. 19:34 and Gn. 2:21-24] The Church Fathers also say that the Cross is the nuptial bed on which the Church, the Bride of God, is impregnated by Christ the Bridegroom. [Eph. 5:25-27]

The Cross is thus at the center of the history of the Christian world. The motto of the Carthusian order is even: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, "the Cross stands firm in the swirling of this world." That is why our universe is full of crosses. Many churches are built in the shape of a cross: the nave and the choir form the vertical axis, the transept (made up of two wings) the horizontal one. The fact that the choir is often off-center can be explained by the way the crucified Christ's head leant to one side when he "gave up his spirit." Inside the church, the twelve crosses of consecration symbolize the "Apostles of the Lamb" (Revelation 21:14). Christians often wear a cross around their necks, and prelates. Christian tombs have, since antiquity, been marked by a cross.

The sign of the cross, which is used to give the blessing, joins the mystery of the Holy Trinity to the mystery of Redemption because, while tracing the cross, the names of the three persons are pronounced: "In the name of the Father (on the forehead), and of the Son (down to the waist) and of the Holy Spirit (from the left to the right shoulder, or the other way round for the Orthodox). Amen." This symbolic progression summarizes life in its entirety, inspired by a love which carries on through to the end and which, going beyond our sufferings and our death, leads us to eternal life with Christ.

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