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The Crucifixion, Our Greatest Inspiration

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The cross is not only a symbol of Christianity; it is, in a way, Christianity itself, for it was on the cross that mankind, including our own, were atoned; it is from the cross that all the graces we receive finally derive; and it is or should be in the cross that we find our greatest inspiration to serve God as we should.

In this meditation, I would like to do two things, and then close with a third: first, briefly describe the facts of Christ’s crucifixion; second, reflect on the further fact that Christ is still being crucified; and then, what all of this should mean to us.

First, the fact of Palestinian history. All four Evangelists, though they are in great pains to describe what preceded the crucifixion, when they come to the crucifixion itself all four simply say, “And they crucified Him.” They give no more details. Consequently, further elements of what actually took place must be drawn from Christian tradition, which for us Catholics is a valid and, in fact, coequal fount of revelation along with the Scriptures. I will number these as I go along because each fact could stand by itself as worthy of its own reflective meditation.

First of all, normally the Romans crucified criminals naked; but we know that among the Jews, as by then their Talmud indicated, they required that a linen cloth be placed around the criminal’s loins. We may be sure, and all of our crucifixes so indicate, that this Talmudic prescription was observed. But otherwise, Christ died naked.

Second, Roman crosses—and it was the Romans who crucified the Savior—were not very high, normally about twice the height of the one being crucified. And there was a wooden peg about midway up the cross on which the feet of the criminal could rest to keep the body from falling off.

Third, not all the crucified were nailed; some were bound by ropes. But Christian tradition is unanimous: Jesus was nailed to the cross. This was always done by having the criminal lie on the cross on the ground; he was then nailed to the cross and the beams were hoisted up on the high. Christ was first crucified on the ground.

Fourth, how was our Savior nailed? Was it both feet and both hands with four nails? Again tradition is unanimous: four nails. It was normally thus done, and it would have been extremely difficult for a single nail to have held two feet.

Fifth, again Christian tradition is equally unanimous that Christ was crucified and the crown of thorns was put back on His head, no doubt to add a final touch of mockery to the inscription that was over His head, that He was king of the Jews. Well, a king should be crowned. He was.

Finally, the Romans specialized in crucifixion and we have both pre-Christian and post-Christian descriptions of crucifixions. Among the most expressive terms to describe crucifixion was that of the Roman statesman Cicero, who called it “the most cruel and savage punishment possible”—so much so that the word “excruciating”; which is derived from the Roman Latin language (its root, of course is “crux”, cross), is the most extreme adjective to describe the greatest pain.

The body of Christ, therefore, was hanging on four digging wounds. The body was further immobilized by the nails. His thirst produced a burning fever, convulsions, and spasms. Oriental writers in describing Christ’s crucifixion, being familiar with their own climate and conditions, carefully note that Christ’s crucified body attracted swarms of flies, drawn by the warm blood.

Yet, as extreme as we know His bodily sufferings were, and the Church over the centuries has made much of this, His moral sufferings were even more extreme. He was abandoned; He was ridiculed; He was being done to death by the very people whom He had come to teach and save; and as He looked down He saw His mother, and her sufferings added to His. By now the Church’s great preachers have exhausted the human vocabulary in order to impress the faithful with Christ’s sufferings on Calvary.

From that, however, we turn to the crucifixion now. Faith tells us that Christ died on the cross in His physical body, that three days later He rose from the dead, and that He can no longer personally die. But the same faith also tells us that Christ is still alive in His Mystical Body on earth. And this Mystical Body can most certainly suffer and, in so many of its members, dies. Remember, Christ identified Himself with these members, as He told Saint Paul (then Saul), “Why do you persecute me?” Saint Paul never forgot those first words of the Master. Four of his fourteen Epistles dwell at length on the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. He kept telling the early Christians, and now we are told, “The Church is the Body of Christ. The faithful in Christ are other Christ’s.”

Is this Christ, the Mystical Christ, suffering today? This is the best way I can make, as I try to do every day, my Way of the Cross, identifying with Christ’s Mystical Body, going through its Via Crucis. Is He being crucified and finally being done to death? Yes, this Mystical Christ is surely suffering. How can I bring home to all of us that this Mystical Body of Christ is suffering indeed, and that we are only truly members of Christ’s Body if we are suffering too. Good God, what has happened to some of us! What Christ are we imitating? How dare we think there is something wrong because we—“I”—have to suffer. Are we Christians or aren’t we? Yes, this Mystical Body is suffering, and we had better make sense of this continued crucifixion if we wish to inspire ourselves to follow Christ, which means to imitate Christ, which means to become like Christ.

There is a passage in the Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council that deals with this subject. I quote in full:

Since Jesus, the Son of God, showed his love by laying down his life for us, no one has greater love than he who lays down his life for him and for his brothers (cf. I Jn. 3:16, JN. 15:13). Some Christians have been called from the beginning, and will always be called, to give this greatest testimony of love to all, especially to persecutors. Martyrdom makes the disciple like his master, who willingly accepted death for the salvation of the world, and through it he is conformed to him by the shedding of blood. Therefore the Church considers it the highest gift and supreme test of love. And while it is given to few, all however must be prepared to confess Christ before men and to follow him along the way of the cross amidst the persecutions which the Church never lacks. (n.42b)

What a marvelous statement of faith in the mystical Christ’s, and what a testimony to the lasting inspiration that Christ’s death on the cross continues to give His true followers today.

Christ is being crucified today in the proportionally few; compared to the whole body of the faithful, some seven-hundred million Catholics and another six or seven-hundred million non-Catholic Christians. Proportionately, the numbers who die a martyr’s death are not that many. But actually, the number of martyrs in our day is immense. The Church has had more martyrs who shed their blood and died for Christ since 1900 than in all the nineteen centuries since Calvary put together. The Society of Jesus has two thousand in Spain alone.

This tells us many things. We are living in THE age of martyrs. Let us be sure we know our era and let us be sure that we live up to the high expectations the Savior has for His followers today. This first of all tells us that the faith of Christians is not as weak as some, who are madly denying it in countries like ours, might lead us to think. “No one”, Cardinal Newman once wrote, “is a martyr for a conclusion; no one is a martyr for an opinion. It is faith that makes martyrs.” This faith, therefore, must be very strong, stronger than death, in thousands, in millions of Christians today.

But martyrs are not born. They are made. And it is the Church’s persecutors who make them. The Church is being persecuted today in communist countries like Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania; in China, North Korea, and now (may God forgive us) in the whole of Vietnam. The Church is being persecuted in nations like the United States, where many of the laws of our country are in contradiction to the teachings of Christ. No wonder it is hard for a Christian to give to God what belongs to God, when Caesar is demanding everything for himself; where the murder of over one-million unborn infants a year is legalized; where contraception is a way of life. How in the Lord’s Name can a young Catholic couple today, unless they are willing to live heroic lives, raise a normal family, when everyone around them is glutting him or herself in pleasure and not conceiving the children that God wants to give them?

In this country the media continues an endless barrage against the Catholic Church, as we know from New York City, where the highly respected New York Times as a regular, consistent, years-long policy denigrates things Catholic, canonizes the Church’s traitors, and literally brainwashes millions in our country with a pagan secularism that is if anything more godless than that of the Mediterranean world in which Christ was crucified. That’s crucifixion.

But saddest of all, the Church is being persecuted from within by her own members—and what an irony, by her chosen souls, priests and religious who had vowed themselves to serve Christ and now have become His crucifiers. No wonder, as on one occasion when I taught a group of seminarians in a diocesan seminary one semester and asked them to write term papers about their vocation to the priesthood, of the sixty students in the class, fully half of them told me that the hardest thing about their going on to study for the priesthood was the sad example of so many priests whom they had known and loved. How they were looking for inspiration, encouragement, models! Or on another occasion, as a deacon who was ready for his priestly ordination the next semester told me, “Father, I’m coming back to a parish to say my first Mass where the last two pastors and their assistants have left the priesthood.” That too is crucifixion.

There are about a dozen volumes of homilies of Pope Paul VI. As we read these homilies, we see how clearly the Vicar of Christ saw the continued crucifixion of Christ in the modern world. It is, in plain words, Calvary reenacted all over again.

What should be our response? The reaction on our part to all of this need not detain us. It should be clear that whatever our following of Christ may cost us, we should not be surprised. In fact, we should be surprised if we were to follow a crucified Christ and not somehow be crucified like Him. This is what the author of the Imitation meant when he wrote,

In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of virtue, in the cross is joy of spirit, in the cross is the perfection of sanctity. There is no health of soul nor hope of eternal life but in the cross. (Book II, 12).

We want to be happy as religious. We want to be at peace. Very simple: accept the cross. All of this we know is true. But the cross and crucifixion—Christ’s then, our’s now—have only as much meaning as we have faith and love. We pray therefore to believe, and we ask to love, because Christ our Spouse whom we love was crucified—yes, and in us is still to be crucified.

Transcription of the Homily
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to the:
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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