At the beginning of Holy Week and in anticipation of Easter I was reflecting on our Lord’s passion, suffering and death on the cross. I began to think about those non-Catholic Christians and wondered what they did in preparation and how they reflected on the events leading up to Our Lord’s glorious resurrection on Easter morning. One of the things that came to mind was that there were people who identified themselves as Christian but did not believe in the divinity of Christ. Some say he has a divine nature but it is not, as we Catholics describe it, consubstantial with the Father. As such, they do not believe in a Triune God (one God in three divine persons). This, of course, is a heresy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) defines heresy as “the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith.” (CCC 2089) (Note the small ‘c’, meaning the universal Christian church, i.e., all who are baptized in Christ.) And, it is actually an old heresy, going back to the early Church, and has reappeared throughout history in various forms.
Somewhat surprisingly, there are many who call themselves Christian who do not believe in the divinity of the Holy Spirit. If this is true, then how can the Spirit keep them in the truth as Jesus promised? At the Last Supper Jesus told the apostles he will send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, to them who “will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (Jn 14:26) So, now we see the Triune God at work as Jesus approaches his passion and suffering.
Consider Jesus’s divinity while he washes the feet of his apostles. This action was considered so menial that even slaves of the time could not be required to wash their master’s feet. Yet, here is the master, the Christ, washing the feet of his followers. He tells them that they must do likewise. In other words he is graphically showing them how to be humble and that they, too, and by extension we, must be humble. (Note, however, that this action of ritual washing was part of commissioning the Apostles in their priesthood, in accord with Jewish tradition.)
At the Last Supper, Jesus prays to the Father, and as he had done previously, shows his unity with the Father, when he prays for his followers, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me; that they may be one, even as we are one.” (Jn 17:11) Again, reflecting on Jesus’s suffering I go to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus went to pray after the Last Supper, and “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling upon the ground.” (Lk 22:44) Soon after this, Judas and a band of soldiers came for Jesus. He asked them, “Whom do you seek.” (Jn 18:4) When they told him “‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am he.’” (Jn 18:5) By using the phrase, “I am,” Jesus again united himself to the Father, as this was the way God identified himself to Moses when He sent him to free the Israelites. There are many other places throughout the Gospels where Jesus is identified as the Son of God (in addition to the term “Son of Man, which has the same meaning). (Mk 1:1, 1:11, Mt 17:5, Mk 9:2, etc.) The devil recognized Jesus as the Son of God in his attempts to test Jesus in the desert. (Mt 4:1-11, esp. 4:7, Lk 4:1-13, esp. 4:12) Jesus was identified as the Son of God at the moment Mary consented to God’s request to bear his son through the angel Gabriel. (Lk 1:26-38) Thus,throughout his ministry, Jesus was and is identified as the Son of God, the Most High. And, at the foot of the cross, even the Roman centurion recognized Jesus’s divinity, “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Mt 27:54)
Oddly enough, like those who don’t believe in the Triune God, the divinity of Christ, or the divinity of the Holy Spirit, there are some who suggest that we are wrong to use the cross as a symbol for Christ and Christianity. Without the advantage of 2000 years of Church teaching and the historical record of Roman cruelty and crucifixion they suggest that Christ actually died “on a tree.” They base this on a few statements of Peter. (Acts 5:30, 10:39, 1 Pet 2:24), while neglecting all of the descriptions in the gospels, particularly the description in John, “He went out bearing his own cross, to the place of the skull.” (Jn 19:17) In doing so, not only do they ignore the Holy Spirit’s influence on the Church, but also the words of St. Peter warning against individual interpretation of Scripture. (2 Peter 1:20)
Of course, as Catholics, the cross is a focal point of our faith. We sign ourselves with the cross when beginning any prayerful endeavor, we wear crucifixes with Jesus’s body affixed, and pray the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross, especially during Lent. As St. Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” (1 Cor 1:23)
The cross was Jesus’s path to glory and, therefore, our path to glory as well. Saint (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta reportedly once said: “When you look at the crucifix, you understand how much Jesus loved you then. When you look at the Sacred Host, you understand how much Jesus loves you now.” The Eucharist is directly connected to the crucified Jesus and his cross. We need to remember that every time we attend mass or participate in Eucharistic adoration and bear our own crosses every day, as Jesus commanded. (Mt 10:38, 16:24, Mk 8:34, Lk 9:23, 14:27) These daily crosses unite us to Jesus and his suffering. For this reason we keep crucifixes in our homes, wear them on our bodies, pray with them in our minds and use images of them in many ways.
“We adore you O Christ, and we praise you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.” (Via Crucis prayer)
“Christ as God is the country to which we go–Christ as man is the way by which we go.” Complete Works of St. Augustine, Sermon 123, sec. 3
I once had a poster of Salvador Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross” which had the caption, “I asked Jesus how much he loved me” and he answered, “This much.” Then he stretched out his arms and he died.” Other than the Eucharist, the crucifix is the ultimate symbol of Jesus’s love for each of us and all of us.