Each year on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Church celebrates the Cross as the sign and instrument of Christ’s victory. But, apart from a vibrant Christian faith, it is very difficult to see how the Cross could ever be a symbol of triumph.
In the ancient world it was an instrument of execution, of torture, and degradation, normally reserved for the most serious crimes. The way that we would think of the electric chair, or a torture chamber, that is how people of the ancient world would view a cross.
It was a symbol of horror to people.
It was so bad that it was even illegal to put Roman citizens to death by crucifixion. That is why St. Paul wasn’t crucified, he was beheaded because he was Roman citizen. At the time of Jesus, the Romans lined the entrances of cities with crosses as a convincing deterrent to all who would oppose them. It was a terrible and humiliating way to die.
It was the expectation of Israel that the Messiah would be a victorious and conquering King. The Gospels reveal what a shock it was for the disciples of Jesus to see their beloved Messiah condemned to death by crucifixion.
Even though the Lord had prepared them, even though he predicted his passion, even though he had spoken of the cross, it was too much. They just couldn’t fathom it. To see him there in that state was such a shock to them.
During his passion, Jesus was subjected to insults, mockery, repeated beatings, a bloody scourging, crowning with thorns, and carrying his own Cross along the Via Dolorosa, or the way of sorrows, to be crucified.
The nails that pierced his hands and feet caused excruciating pain, because they cut through central nerves, during endless cycles of hanging by the arms and pushing himself up on nailed feet to gasp for breath.
Hanging on the cross, Jesus also suffered greatly from dehydration, copious loss of blood, and shock.
Had you been at Calvary, looking past the jeering crowds, past the figures weeping in horror at the foot of a rough-hewn Cross, you would have beheld, what Isiah prophesied in Chapter 53 “a man of suffering… a man so marred in his appearance he no longer looks human… a man taken away by a perversion of justice… [a man] crushed in pain…” (Isaiah 53:3, 52:14, 53:8, 53:10).
Like water his life drains away, all his bones grow soft, his heart has become like wax, his throat dry, his tongue sticks to his palate, lying in the dust of death. So wasted are his hands and feet, you can count every one of his bones (See Psalm 22:15-18).
Paints a pretty ugly picture doesn’t it. The victorious cross?
Yet these grisly physical tortures were not the worst of His suffering. “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross” (1 Peter 2:24) – Think about that. Every sin and wound of every soul who ever lived or ever would live – the centuries and millennia of oppression, greed, lust, stealing, lying, brutality, murder, abortion, genocide, wars, concentration camps, famine, adultery, unfaithfulness, exploitation of the poor – the tremendous weight of sin crushing the human race.
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa would say, ‘If you imagine a pyramid turned upside down with all the weight of all the sin of the world focused on one point crushing on Jesus.’
The unblemished Lamb was enveloped in the most horrifying blackness imaginable.
Finally, Jesus endured demonic jeering, pressure and provocation: As blessed John Henry Newman said, “In horrible rage and hatred, [Satan] determined to insult and torture while he could the great King whose throne is everlasting” (Bl. John Henry Newman, Meditation for the Ninth Station, Meditations and Devotions, 164).
When you take all that in, the Cross would appear to be the very epitome of a shameful defeat (“Let us condemn him to a most shameful death.” [Wisdom 2:20]). Not just a shameful defeat; but, the most shameful defeat that anyone could possible endure. This looks like total loss. How then is it a sign of triumph?
We must take a closer look at Calvary with the eyes of faith to understand how the Cross is in reality the victory of God’s love from beginning to end.
It is the victory of God’s love. What is the triumph of the cross? It is the triumph of God’s love.