My Dear Friends,
British historian Tom Holland in his monumental book on the influence Christianity has had on the world entitled Dominion, How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, opens with some graphic descriptions of the horrors of crucifixion. One cannot help but feel terror but at the same time amazement: how did a man who was tortured in this way become the central figure of human history? And how did the religion he founded become the major driving force behind the transformation of the world?
If we look at the life and death of Christ from the outside, that is to say, from what a secular account of history might tell us, it simply makes no sense. Executed criminals do not change the world. They are quickly forgotten and what remains of their memory becomes an execration to future generations.
For us, who have the faith, and who know why Jesus died, and why he died the way he did, such accounts as the one mentioned by Holland, cannot fail to get us thinking. Along with many others, he point out that, for centuries after the event, until the fall of the roman empire, Christians would never portray the crucifix, for it evoked scenes so awful that people simply could not bear it. They had seen men crucified, and it was not a pleasant sight. If we want to make a comparison with our day, one that we all readily understand, what would we think of a religion that portrayed in its places of worship an emaciated corpse sprawling on the floor of a gas chamber in Auschwitz? The shock one would have at such a sight is pretty close to the shock people would have experienced if the first generations of Christians had placed crucifixes in their churches or homes.
That is also why, even when they did start portraying the crucified one, the first depictions of Jesus on the cross show him alive, in royal garments, with a golden crown instead of a crown of thorns. The real horror of the event is left aside, or rather it is understood but not depicted. There are still those who can take a God becoming man, but the God Man suffering and dying on a cross remains a stumbling block. And we must admit that without the virtue of faith, it is not possible to make sense of it. But the fact of the matter is that we are blessed to have the faith. We know that faith is needed to unlock the mystery of these events that we call the paschal mystery of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is precisely this faith which tells us that the man on the cross is not an unfortunate victim who happened to find himself is tragic circumstances without knowing why. In reality, it is He who is in control. St John captures it all in relaying to us some of the most touching and memorable words of the Saviour: The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep…. No man takes my life from me. I lay it down of myself, and I have the power to lay it down and the power to take it up again (St John, ch. 10). Jesus is in control. It was a death He freely accepted.
The great apostle St Paul, who did not witness the crucifixion, but was favoured with a vision of the Risen Christ, gets to the heart of what happened really on Calvary. He writes to the Galatians: He loved me and delivered Himself for me (Gal ch. 2). But we also know that it is not only an offering of His life for us, as one might offer one’s life to allow someone else to continue living in this world. Much more than that, Christ delivered Himself up to save us from eternal death and give us eternal life. And that is why Holy Mother Church begins Mass on this day with the triumphal procession of the palms. Our Lord has won for us the victory, precisely because He stayed on the cross to the very end.
May we all strive to be more and more like Christ, to get to know Him from the inside, the share His love for His Father and for souls, and may we have the grace of suffering something for Him. If that thought terrifies us, let us remember that wherever the cross is, there is Mary, our Mother, the mediatrix of all graces, the Second Eve, the co-redemptrix who, at the side of Christ the only Redeemer, works together with Him. She is there to sooth the pain, and pour maternal balm into the sores.
Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence, Be Thy Mother my defence, Be Thy cross my victory.