Why does the Crucifixion matter? Perspectives from Four Saints

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By Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America

The most important event in the life of Jesus, and the greatest event in Christianity, was the Paschal Mystery––but why do we focus so much on the Crucifixion? It was a horrible event, and why do we have to dwell on it; can’t we just focus on Easter Sunday? Misunderstanding the Passion and death of Christ leads to an erroneous understanding of the Resurrection. In this research paper, I will turn to the Medieval theologians to demonstrate the importance of remembering the Crucifixion in worship, prayer, and daily contemplation. The most important point of the paper will be demonstrating why the Crucifixion is the most important event in the history of the world––and what it means for each of us today. The reason why I am answering this question is because many people that I have met do not like to focus on the Passion of Christ; they think that it is too violent or gruesome and only want to focus on Easter Sunday. I want to demonstrate the beauty––and necessity––of Good Friday, showing that suffering and wounds are just as important as the Resurrection. I was inspired by Medieval theologians, especially women mystics, to help elaborate the Passion of Christ and show its reality.

1. The Incarnation: St. John and St. Thomas Aquinas

In order to understand the Crucifixion, I would like to first present a brief understanding of the Incarnation. According to John, “the Word was made flesh, and made his dwelling among us.”[1] God himself became a man, a being with a body and a soul. Rather than understanding why, we just need to follow this claim: God became man. St. Thomas Aquinas comments on John: Christ made his dwelling among humans “to show the marvelous likeness of the Word to men, among whom he lived in such a way as to seem one of them.”[2] Christ came to live among humans as the perfect example of living well. Therefore, Christ is the ultimate teacher, which speaks to the importance of the great commandment of love: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[3] This is one commandment among many where Christ tells the commandment, but then also does the commandment; he lays down his life for his friends. And who are the friends of Christ? “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.”[4] We are the friends of Christ, and he died for us through his Incarnation. St. Thomas Aquinas also notes that Christ lived “with them on close terms without sin, in order to draw to himself men won over by the charm of his way of life.”[5] Christ was a man, but he was like everyone else except in sin. He shared in their joys, pains, sorrows, temptations, etc. but not their sins. He was a perfect man, who drew his disciples closer through his incarnate example. Rather than giving his disciples tablets of commandments (like Moses received[6]), he gave them himself: the living word of God.

2. The Passion of Christ: St. Julian of Norwich and St. Bridget of Sweden

The Passion of Christ is not something that was quick, pretty, or elegant; this is often depicted in typical church artwork. The crucifix is ornate and plain; some crucifixes do not portray Jesus as “in pain” or suffering. For anyone who has seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, they know that it was a bloody mess and a horrific reality. Women mystics illuminate the scriptures that sometimes seem trite or too familiar. St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373) heard revelations from Christ while deep in prayer. Known as the Patroness of Widows and Sweden, Bridget heard the words of Christ revealing a detail that was not shared in Scripture: “I received 5480 blows upon My Body.”[7] This number is astonishing and pretty difficult to comprehend. This number further explains the horrors of the Passion of Christ and the reality that Jesus faced on Good Friday.

Another woman mystic that helps understand the Passion of Christ is St. Julian of Norwich. Born in 1343, Julian was an anchoress in England during the Middle Ages. She received visions of Christ, particularly detailed descriptions of the Passion: “And after this I saw, beholding, the body plenteously bleeding in seeming of the Scourging…the fair skin was broken full deep into the tender flesh with sharp smiting all about the sweet body.”[8] Julian’s imagery is vivid and illuminates the violence of the Passion. When we understand that Christ endured this for our salvation, it helps us further understand and appreciate the Incarnation and Passion. She continues, “So plenteously the hot blood ran out that there was neither seen skin nor wound, but as it were all blood.”[9] The imagery of the blood of Christ is important in the role of salvation. It was by Christ’s blood that we are saved; it is by His blood that we are redeemed and purified. Julian’s insights also bring about a new appreciation for the Eucharist and its centrality in the Christian life. Both women mystics help us understand the Passion, noticing its reality and thus, a deeper appreciation for the ultimate sacrifice.

3. Questions on the Passion: St. Thomas Aquinas

With such claims––and visions––on the Passion, people are ultimately going to have questions and erroneous understandings about the Passion. St. Thomas Aquinas addresses a few important questions to further clarify what Christ actually endured and why. His first question is “Whether it was necessary for Christ to suffer for men’s deliverance?” This question is asked by even people today in 2021! Was it really necessary for Christ to suffer so that we are saved? Thomas claims that salvation is “understood of his exaltation on the cross. Therefore it seems that Christ ought to suffer.”[10] He explains that we have been saved according to the words of John: “The Son of man must be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.”[11] Additionally, Thomas continues saying that the Passion is “foretold in the Scriptures and prefigured in the observances of the Old Testament, had to be fulfilled.”[12] Christ elevates man through his Passion, and was only able to do so by entering the lowest among humans, by enduring the most brutal death. Thomas asks another valid question: Was there another way that humans could be saved besides the Passion?[13] He argues that “it was not possible at the same time for Christ not to suffer, and for mankind to be delivered otherwise than by Christ’s Passion.”[14] Christ needed to suffer in order for mankind to be saved; this claim has extraordinary weight! Because man fell, Christ needed to suffer and pay the price of salvation.

4. The Centrality of the Crucifixion: St. Bonaventure and St. Teresa of Avila

St. Thomas shed light on the suffering of Christ and the necessity of Christ’s suffering for salvation, but I would like to further press the question of why: why does this matter for me? St. Bonaventure in his Itinerarium speaks to why the crucifixion is important for every individual. “The way [the journey towards union with God] is, however, nothing but through the most ardent love of the Crucified.”[15] The way by which humanity is joined to God is through the Incarnation. He cites St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians as an example: “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”[16] Christ lives in us, and he is united to us through his suffering on the Cross. His union with humanity is possible through the Incarnation, but salvation is possible through the Death and Resurrection; Christ saves humanity through the Crucifixion––by shedding his blood for us. Not only is humanity saved; humanity is able to flourish in paradise through the Cross. Bonaventure states that “if we want to reenter to the fruition of Truth as to paradise…we step in through…the Mediator of God and man, Jesus Christ, who is as the tree of life in the midst of paradise.”[17] Christ on the Cross is the tree of life; he is the correction of Adam and Eve’s grasp of the fruit. Christ saves and restores order––what was lost in the Garden of Eden. We hear the words of Christ that he told to the thief on the Cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”[18] Being able to unite our sufferings to Christ’s sufferings on the Cross allows us to be sanctified and restored to what we were created to be: the beloved.

I would like to conclude my research by presenting something that each human being carries: wounds. Wounds are inevitable, and each person carries them from the past: trauma, abuse, regret, anxiety, pain, and so forth. Each wound plays a vital role in our salvation, as do the wounds of Christ. St. Teresa of Avila was a Spanish, Carmelite mystic who lived during the sixteenth century. As a cloistered sister, she spent hours a day in prayer. One day, she received a vision of the Resurrected Christ. She immediately knew that it was not the resurrected Christ, and it was really Satan appearing to her. He asked her how she knew that it was not really Christ; she responded that he did not carry the wounds of the Crucifixion. She––as well as the apostles and women in the Gospel––recognized the resurrected Christ only by his wounds. The wounds of Christ save––and Christ’s very identity bears the five wounds from Good Friday. Perhaps our wounds from moments of suffering will be on our resurrected bodies as a sign of hope and union with Christ. St. Augustine of Hippo thinks “a certain kind of beauty will shine” in the wounds from our lives in heaven.[19]

The Crucifixion must be considered before even thinking––and rejoicing––about the Resurrection. It is only through Good Friday that we can appreciate and be transformed by the morning of Easter Sunday. “By his wounds you have been healed”[20] and are continually sanctified by our own wounds if we unite them to those of Christ. The Crucifixion is important to each person because through our own crosses––whatever may cause pain or suffering––will lead to our own resurrection with Christ. If we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ, we are promised paradise with God alone.

Bibliography

Augustine. The City of God: Volume I, by Aurelius Augustine–A Project Gutenberg EBook. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/45304/45304-h/45304-h.htm. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.

Aquinas. Commentary on John 1. https://isidore.co/aquinas/english/John1.htm. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.

—. ST. III. Q. 46 – On the Passion of Christ (Art. 1-2). https://aquinas.cc/en/la/~ST.III.Q46.A2.SC. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.

“Bible Gateway Passage: Galatians, Luke, 1 Peter, John – New Revised Standard Version.” Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians%202%3A20&version=NRSV. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.

Bonaventure. Itinerarium. http://ldysinger.stjohnsem.edu/@texts2/1270_bonav/05_itinerarium.htm. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.

Julian of Norwich. Revelations Of Divine Love. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52958/52958-h/52958-h.htm. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.

St. Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden. Prophecies and Revelations. http://www.saintsbooks.net/books/St.%20Bridget%20(Birgitta)%20of%20Sweden%20-%20Prophecies%20and%20Revelations.html. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.


[1] John 1:14

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on John 1, para. 178

[3] John 15:13

[4] John 15:15

[5] St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on John 1, para. 178

[6] See Exodus 20

[7] St. Bridget of Sweden, The Prophecies and Revelations of Saint Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden

[8] St. Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

[9] St. Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

[10] St. Thomas Aquinas, ST III, Q.46, art 1

[11] John 3:14

[12] St. Thomas Aquinas, ST III, Q.46, art 1

[13] St. Thomas Aquinas, ST III, Q.46, art 2

[14] St. Thomas Aquinas, ST III, Q.46, art 2

[15] St. Bonaventure, Prologue of Itinerarium, para. 3

[16] Galatians 2:20

[17]  St. Bonaventure, Itinerarium, ch. 4, para. 3

[18] Luke 23:43

[19] St. Augustine, City of God, para. 22

[20] 1 Peter 2:24

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