A crucifix hangs somewhere in almost every Catholic home, in every Catholic school and institution. The crucifix is the most widely known symbol associated with Catholics and the Church, and has been for over two thousand years. In a world where little seems permanent, where things come and go easily, where passing fads are commonplace, where so much is considered relative, the fact that a symbol has endured for so long should convey something to everyone who sees it, even to those who don’t believe in Christ or Christianity or religion. The crucifix has endured because it depicts and represents the turning point of humanity, and life in this world as we have known it. Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, God Himself, was put to death by his own people, those He came to save, the saddest admission humanity has ever had to make. But, the most hopeful admission we have to make is that Our Lord died for us, and in His death, He saved us. Nothing more important has ever happened in the history of the world than the moment of His death, which we remember today. And we who believe, we who have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, also know that His death was not, and is not the end of the story.
Think for a moment about the cross: two beams of common, simple wood. Originally, it had no other purpose than to be an instrument of a horrible death. What brings those beams together, what makes the simple cross a crucifix is not the intersection of wood upon wood. What brings those beams together and makes the cross a crucifix is the intersection of wood and flesh: a body stretched on a vertical wooden beam; arms outstretched on a horizontal wooden beam, a body attached to the wood with coarse iron nails.
The Romans reserved this feared instrument of death for the worst criminals. The cross that we behold today, the crucifix that is the central symbol of our faith, held the body of the One whose only crime was that He loved us without condition or reservation, and that He was willing to show the depth of His love with the ultimate and absolute sacrifice. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15: 13). This was the love of God for us. It was He, this criminal who was considered by his own people to be unworthy of human life and breath and, so, put to death on a cross, it was He whose death made all human life worthy; whose sacrifice made every human breath holy. In Jesus Christ, God’s love was made real, visible, and tangible. God’s love makes no exceptions. As Our Lord staggered to His crucifixion, He carried on His shoulders not only a cross but also the weight of our sins. “It was our infirmities he bore, our sufferings he endured… he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins… the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all” (Isaiah 53: 4-6).
The crucifix is not a decoration or merely a symbol. The crucifix is the most powerful reminder of the greatest love the world has ever known: one wooden beam pointing from the earth to the sky, pointing our attention to God; another wooden beam pointing from east to west, pointing our attention to our fellow human beings. And what brings those two wooden beams, those two directions together, is a single body, whose life of suffering and transforming love was a life and a love for all: a crucified love that has endured and will continue to endure. A love that turns the wood of a tree, the tree of defeat and death, into a tree of life and victory.