Lent is a time when the Cross is truly front and center, but how much do we really understand it? What exactly did Jesus’ death accomplish and how? Part of the reason some reject Christianity is because they misunderstand the Cross. What they see is God punishing His innocent Son in place of us, and wonder how a God like that could be loving. And if that’s what was actually happening, they would be right to turn away in disgust. But this is NOT the Catholic view of the Cross.
Is the Cross an act of justice? Yes, but it’s not a punishment. The Cross is primarily an act of love and mercy – on the part of both the Father and the Son.
After the Fall we lost our supernatural grace and we became inclined to sin. Having sinned against an infinite God, an act of infinite love was required to make reparation. But how were we, mere creatures, to make such an offering? We couldn’t. The only way a mere human could make such an act of infinite love was if He were a divine person. So in the fullness of time, God sent His Son to redeem us (Galatians 4:4-5). This doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t want to go and had to be “sent” by His Father. God has one will, so the Father and Son have one divine will. Jesus willed to die for us – this is why His suffering and dying on the Cross was an act of love infinitely pleasing to God – more pleasing than all of man’s sins combined!
And so justice was done as Jesus bore away our sins and made reparation. But if Jesus’ Incarnation was only about justice, His death would not have been necessary. One drop of His most precious blood offered on our behalf would’ve sufficed. So why the Cross?
Beyond Justice: Love and Mercy
Jesus died on the Cross because of His love for us. The Trinity is about complete and total self-giving, sacrificial love. Since God IS love, Jesus could not stop at anything less than to give Himself fully to us and for us. Jesus, love itself, could give us nothing less than His life. Confronted with our sin and our suffering, Jesus turned the Cross into a concrete, historical sign of God’s forgiveness and love.
More incredibly, by living a life of perfect obedience and love as both the Son of Man and the Son of God and then dying for us, Christ enabled us to share in His divine sonship. This is so hugely important for us that we need to understand the connection! Upon Jesus’ death, St. John noted in his gospel how the soldiers pierced Christ’s side, from which flowed blood and water (John 19:34). Let us allow St. John Chrysostom to enlighten us:
I said that water and blood symbolized baptism and the holy Eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, “the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit”, and from the holy Eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church
And it is precisely the Church’s sacraments, in particular baptism and the Eucharist, that allow us to partake in the divine life! Through baptism we become incorporated into Christ’s Body, and through the Eucharist we literally receive Christ’s Body. It is through the sacraments that we are truly able to say “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). We become, as St. Athanasius put it, sons in the Son. And the ramifications of this go beyond our earthly life. By partaking in Jesus’ divine sonship in eternity, we will be taken up into the Trinity!
Given all of this, it is love that we should see when we look at the Cross. Jesus’ love was so great that He willingly suffered and died so that we might have a partial participation in the divine life while on earth, and then a full participation in Heaven! May we kiss the Cross, and come to a deeper understanding of it as we pray, “we adore You O Christ, and we praise You, because by Your holy Cross You have redeemed the world!”
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