Our parish is a Metropolitan-ish cathedral that is often crowded with tourists. Combine that with our tendency to be right on time for Mass and we often do not get the best seating choices. My eldest daughter is a petite thing who has more problems than most with being able to see over pews and persons. However, one thing she can always see–and I delight in her pointing out to me–is the crucifix that is carried by the altar servers as they process in and out.
“Look Mommy! Jesus is flying!” she exclaims with glee, and I share her thrill.
“He’s like a superhero,” she concludes with her four-year-old logic.
“The greatest superhero of all time,” I confirm.
The Cross Has Always Been a Symbol of Power
To me, there is something profound about the fact that my child is not only drawn to the cross, but also associates the cross with supernatural powers. Too often in my upbringing, my Catholic teachers put the emphasis for association on the cross and death. I reveranced and treasured it because of Christ, but my heart saw it as something sad and mournful. This is not how the earliest Christians viewed the cross. On the contrary, they saw it as my daughter does– as a source of power.
For the Romans…
To this day, crucifixion remains one of the most gruesome ways a person can die. In fact, it is actually from where the term “excruciating” comes (see the “cruc” in there?). Invented hundreds of years before Christ’s time, it was “perfected” by the Romans. Everything about the process was designed to inflict pain. The placement of the nails in the hands severed the medial nerve causing radial burning and paralysis of the hand while also limiting the bleeding. The placement of the nails in the feet were also precise, ensuring the legs hung in a specific position that allowed for further torture (including painful breathing, with weight born solely on the thighs until their strength gave way causing the body to fall forward and shoulders, elbows, and wrists to dislocate).
From this position, breathing was nearly impossible. Obviously, this caused the entire inner workings of the body to falter and fail. Oxygen and carbon dioxide cannot be moved well and thus organs start to fail. In particular, the lungs collapse and fill with fluid, essentially causing the victim to drown. In other cases, before complete suffocation, the stress on the heart caused it to burst. Some people died of severe dehydration.
This entire process could last up to nine days thanks to the “mercy” shown by the Romans. A small piece of wood was nailed under the behind of those being crucified, providing momentary relief by resting their weight on the seat. This feature did provide some reprieve, but also extended the agony.
Lastly, crucifixions took place along public roads. This served two purposes.
- First, those being crucified were stripped naked and exposed for all passerbyers to see, thus adding insult to injury (though I believe the physical pain had them caring very little about the shaming).
- Secondly, the crucifixions sent a message to the public. It instilled fear in the hearts of those who passed. In short, it was a silent but bold way in which Rome delivered the message: “Stay in line, or this will be you.”
For the Christians…
Needless to say, the tactic was pretty successful. Crucifixion kept people petrified and did manipulate most people into “proper” behavior. No one wanted to experience that tumult.
However, Christ’s death—and more specifically His Resurrection—changed everything. The followers of Jesus knew of His death, some of them even watched it take place before their eyes. Then they saw Him again, gloriously alive!
The negative powers of the Cross were diminished. They witnessed its inability to conquer Christ. Thus, these Christians no longer feared the instrument, or death itself. In fact, they adopted the Cross as a symbol of their belief that God conquers all. With dramatic flair, Christians usurped the symbol. They elevated and exalted it, using it as a sort of “taunt” against Rome, assuring those with worldly power, “You have no power here.”
What is Your “Crucifixion”?
So every Sunday, when my daughter points out the crucifix as it passes by our pew, I picture the tortures of my own life, and throw them back at the voice of the enemy inside my head and remind him (and myself) that I am not afraid. The Cross conquers all.
On this feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, I invite you to reflect on your own life and try to pinpoint your own, modern version of crucifixion.
What is it that you fear most?
What can be or is being used to manipulate, silence, or paralyze you into inaction?
Whatever it is, take that distress and unite it to Christ’s Cross. Find freedom in the knowledge that He has already conquered this evil. The Cross is no longer something to fear. The Cross has been transformed into a source of glory and grace, we have only to sink into that reality.