Saint Paul said that all religion was contained for him in “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” — and most assuredly he was right. The crucifix is the abridgment of all that a Christian ought to believe and all that he ought to practice.
The crucifix makes known to us all the malice of sin, the excess of our misery, and the still greater excess of divine love and mercy. The crucifix is the greatest proof that God — God as He is — could give us of His love, and it is the strongest motive He could employ to gain our hearts in return. Every virtue is included in the crucifix, and it is the consummation of the way of perfection.
The crucifix is the abridgment of all that a Christian ought to believe. The Divine Person who suffers there, the only Son of God, conceived in the womb of Mary by the operation of the Holy Spirit, proposes to us the two great mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. The object of His sufferings teaches us the mysteries of the Redemption and of Original Sin.
The mystery of predestination, the mystery of grace, and the will of God to save all men are also contained in the crucifix. It is the source of all the sacraments; and all the worship by which the Church honors God springs from the Sacrifice of the Cross.
The crucifix illustrates Christian living
The crucifix is the abridgment of all that a Christian ought to practice. All the morality of the Gospel consists in bearing our cross, in renouncing ourselves, in crucifying our flesh with all its corrupt affections and inclinations, and in sacrificing ourselves to the will of God.
Jesus Christ has prescribed no law and has given no counsel that does not find its perfect accomplishment and its perfect model in the Cross. It is the most striking and living expression of the whole teaching of the Gospel.
The crucifix reveals the malice of sin
The crucifix makes known to us all the malice of sin. What greater evil can there be, indeed, than that which caused the death of God-made-man? Before Jesus Christ came, it was possible to form some idea of what it was to offend God, but it was a very feeble and imperfect idea. The eternal punishment of Hell, although it goes beyond all created intelligence, is not even sufficient for the malice of sin, because it can punish sin but cannot expiate it. It required nothing less than a Divine Person to atone worthily, by His sufferings and humiliations, for the injury done to God by the sin of man. Therefore, it is at the foot of the Cross that we learn what sin really is and learn to feel all the horror of it that it deserves.
The crucifix shows us our own misery
The crucifix makes known to us also the excess of our misery, an excess so great that it was impossible for us to remedy it of ourselves. The whole human race would have been lost, lost without hope, lost for all eternity, deprived forever of the possession of the Sovereign Good, if Jesus Christ by His death had not redeemed it, reconciled it with God, and re-established it in its rights and its hopes. Original Sin alone is enough to condemn us; but how many actual sins, incomparably more grievous, have we not added to that! Into what an abyss of misery have we not willfully plunged ourselves!
The crucifix reveals divine love and mercy
But the crucifix makes known to us at the same time the still greater excess of the divine love and mercy. One abyss has attracted another abyss; the abyss of our misery has been absorbed and swallowed up in the infinite abyss of God’s mercy. Oh, what reason David had to say that the mercies of God are above all His works! All that God has done in the order of nature is nothing compared with what He has done in the order of grace. The goodness of the All-Powerful has infinitely surpassed itself in the work of our redemption. Never, even in Heaven, will our understanding rise to the full comprehension of the greatness of this benefit that faith places before our eyes when we look at our crucifix.
God, all God as He is, could not possibly have given us a greater proof of His love. Whatever proof He wished to give us of His love, it must have accorded with all the rights of His justice, which He could not give up. It was necessary that this justice should be appeased — but by whom? Who could possibly satisfy it, avenge it, and at the same time, spare the guilty?
Oh, admirable invention of divine love! God lays upon His own Son all our iniquities; He punishes them in His Person; He revenges Himself upon Him. And this adorable Son consents with all His heart to be for us the Victim of His Father’s anger. What a love in the Father! What a love in the Son! Who can think of it without being ravished with astonishment and admiration, and penetrated with gratitude? If God had left to us the choice of a remedy for our evil case, would we ever have imagined such a remedy as this? And even if it had presented itself to our minds, would we ever have dared to propose it? Such a way of salvation could have been conceived only in the heart of a God who loved us infinitely.
And if our hearts can resist so much love, what hardness on our part! What malice! What ingratitude!
God strikes His own Son to deliver us from Hell and to open to us the gates of Paradise. He exhausts His anger upon His Son and forgives us. He adopts us as His own children in this divine Son. He gives us a right to share in His Son’s inheritance, and He showers on us all the supernatural help we need to attain it. And what does He ask of us in return? That we should love Him, that we should serve Him, and that we should obey Him.
And we do not love Him! And we look on His service as an insupportable yoke! And we violate all His commandments! And all these crimes, all these scandals reign today, in the midst of a people calling themselves Christians, with as much or even more license than they did among the heathen of old! And irreligion is carried to such a degree that Jesus Christ and His Cross have become an object of contempt, and of mockery, and of horror! The very incomprehensibility and mystery of this love of God is precisely the reason for which it is rejected.
Is it possible to conceive such an excess of impiety? Is it possible to conceive how much this love of God, which is despised, insulted, and outraged, must be irritated against all these so-called Christians, who are really apostates, either secret or declared?
Ah, what a powerful motive this is for good and holy souls to love God with their whole heart and to try to atone, by their devotion, for so many outrages.
The crucifix teaches virtue
And what virtue is there of which the crucifix is not the perfect model? Love of God, trust in God, resignation to the will of God, even when it seems most severe — an invariable patience, charity for others, forgiveness of injuries, love of enemies, humility, poverty, utter self-renunciation — and all these virtues carried to the greatest height of perfection, exercised under the most trying circumstances, and practiced with a courage and generosity worthy of God-made-man. Shall we complain, after all this, of what virtue costs us? Shall we argue with God about trifles? Shall we dare to reproach Him with requiring too much from us?
One look at our crucifix will make us blush for our complaints and our cowardice. What have we ever suffered, what can we ever suffer, for our salvation, that approaches ever so little to the sufferings and humiliations of Jesus Christ for us?
“But,” you may say, “He was God, and I am only a weak creature.” Certainly He was God; that is quite true, and therefore He suffered everything that it was possible for a human nature united to the divine nature to suffer. If the hypostatic union communicated to His sacred humanity a strength infinite in the Giver, it was only that He might suffer in proportion; and the justice of God loaded His sacred humanity unsparingly with the greatest weight it could possibly bear. It is an article of Faith that God will never permit us to be tried beyond our strength.
Weak as we are, we can always bear the trials He sends us, because the measure of strength He gives us also equals and surpasses the measure of our sorrows. Thus, it is wrong for us to complain of our weakness and to think that the example of our Savior is not for us.
The crucifix shows us the way of perfection
Finally, the crucifix is the consummation of the way of perfection. It shows us Jesus Christ as a Priest and a Victim at the same time — Jesus sacrificing Himself for the glory of His Father, sacrificing Himself willingly, and devoting Himself to the justice of God. There are but a very few favored souls whom God calls to this state of victim and this exact resemblance to Jesus crucified. But those who have reason to believe that God has called them to this honor must take their part in the sufferings and humiliations of their Savior; they must plant His Cross in their hearts, or rather, they must let Him plant it and bury it there. Jesus, submissive and obedient even unto death, must be their model, their consolation, and their strength. And if sometimes their sufferings seem to them excessive, if their courage begins to fail, if they are tempted to accuse God of an unjust severity, let them fix their eyes on the crucifix. Jesus on the Cross will be an answer to everything, and they will leave His presence with the desire to suffer more.
Learn from the crucifix
Let the crucifix, then, be our chief spiritual book. Let it be a book, not for our eyes only, but for our hearts! Let us beg Jesus to teach us how to read in it and to reveal to us all its secrets, not only so that we may contemplate them in the sweetness of prayer, but so that we may practice them faithfully during the whole course of our life. Let us enter upon the way of perfection with an absolute and unreserved devotion to the will of God. Let us resign our souls entirely to the workings of His Spirit and His grace. Let us make with a generous heart every sacrifice that He asks of us; and let us beg Him to take from us and forcibly tear from us all that we have not the courage to give Him of ourselves.
In a word, let us try to reduce ourselves to the state of Jesus Christ dying on the Cross, in agony, with the scorn of men, forsaken apparently by His Father, uniting in His soul and body all the imaginable sufferings of a Victim to the Divine Justice and to the fury of human passion.
This article is from a chapter in Fr. Grou’s The Spiritual Life: A Comprehensive Manual for Catholics Seeking Salvation. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.