According to tradition, in the fourth century the Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, discovered the true Cross of Christ while on a pilgrimage in Jerusalem. Helena and Constantine ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be built on the holy site where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected from the dead.
Constantine abolished crucifixion c. AD 337. Until then crucifixion was an extreme means to kill the victim in an excruciating and dishonorable way. Before Constantine, the early Christians saw the cross as torture and capital punishment.
Eventually the cross became a symbol of life and love, rather than death, through the Resurrection. Jesus Christ died on the cross, and changed the course of history by being resurrected.
His death on the cross is what saves us, and the Resurrection is proof that He is the Son of God.
“For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting.” – John 3:16
Jesus loves us so much that He was willing to die on the cross for our sins. God the Father did not punish Jesus on our behalf, rather, Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, took upon Himself to lay down His life so that we too may have everlasting life with Him in heaven. Jesus willfully, out of pure love, laid down His own life to save us.
As Christians we look at the Cross today as an instrument or symbol of what love really is.
“But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness.” – 1 Corinthians 1:23
The reason we have crucifixes, rather than empty crosses, is to remind us of the ultimate sacrifice Christ made for us out of love. He loves us so much that He gave up His life for all of salvation. As Catholics we do not leave Christ on the cross (e.g. crucifix) as punishment, rather it’s a fitting reminder of what He did for us. Save us from our sins so we make have everlasting life.
The cross was a brutal way to die. We see the cross is a symbol of love. We look to the cross and give thanks to God almighty for his love for us. His willingness to sacrifice Himself on our behalf. We do not deserve it, but we can certainly appreciate by receiving and accepting this precious gift of new life.
That is why we venerate the cross certain times of the year, such as Good Friday, and celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross every September 14, to remind us of the love God has for us and the cross was used as a means to save us from our sins.
God could have chosen any manner to save us, but He chose to die for us. Sacrificial love is the most perfect act of love. In Greek, the word agape refers to the highest form of love one can offer to someone.
The next time you’re at Mass and you see the crucifix, remind yourself of the love (agape) God has given you. We can offer our love back to him at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
by John Connor