In the ancient world, crucifixion was the most barbaric of deaths. It was an instrument of fear and torture designed to keep Roman subjects in line. It was a device of cruelty and shame. Why, then, do we exalt it? Why did early Christians like Paul, boast in it? What exactly happened on the Cross?

This is a question that goes to the heart of the Christian faith. It is also a question that words cannot, strictly speaking, do justice to.

Sometimes, however, we do say too much. We posit theories about how the Cross “works” in order to understand it, resulting in formulaic notions of redemption that we have to accept simply on an intellectual level. This process, put simply, is called “atonement theology”. It seeks to explore how exactly the Cross managed to achieve reconciliation between God and humanity. Most theological traditions recognise that prior to Christ there was an abyss between the two, but somehow, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, that abyss was crossed.

Most likely the version we received growing up, depending on the tradition we were raised in, runs something like this: Someone had to die. Humanity offended God’s infinite justice and in doing that condemned itself to death and eternal punishment. Unable to pay this debt, God stepped in and took our place, taking our punishment on himself and thus paying the debt owed to God. Now humanity is in the clear, so to speak, and we can go to heaven if we accept this in faith.

This is a crude portrayal but probably familiar. It’s more popular in evangelical Protestant traditions. One of the funny things about the Catholic tradition, though, is that it’s pretty quiet when it comes to the language of atonement. Even today, it doesn’t really take up a lot of space in Catholic theological circles. This isn’t because we don’t have some thoughts on the issue; it’s probably because we tend to treat the whole thing mystically instead of legally.

Did the Cross change God?

The person to whom the more legal approach is attributed is St Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD). This, however, is unfair. Fleming Rutledge, in her book The Crucifixion (2017), defends Anselm against his detractors. A careful reading of Anselm reveals something else: God’s “disposition” towards us did not change with the death and resurrection of Christ; it was humanity that changed.

The problem with the popular version of the Cross as outlined above is that it presents God as the one who was being appeased; God was the one whose justice was being satisfied; God was the one being affected and changed by the whole drama. If this is our understanding, then we have deeply misunderstood the Cross.

Catholic theologian James Alison talks about how our understanding of Old Testament sacrifice is more Aztec than Jewish. In pagan sacrificial systems, the blood of humans is shed in order to placate an angry deity; in the Old Testament, however, the high priest stands in the person of God himself – indicated by his wearing the seamless white robe and tiara bearing the name of the Lord, YHWH. Whenever the high priest emerged from the Holy of Holies in order to sacrifice on behalf of the people, it was always seen to be God emerging and reconciling on behalf of his people. If we read the Old Testament in this light, we can see that God’s attitude toward humanity has been constant.

The fact that they had a system of animal sacrifice is quite revealing. It meant that God never needed a human being to die in order to reconcile humanity with him. This understanding is key. Death is seen as a punishment for sin in the Bible – “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) – but this is already a punishment we live under; we live in a world of death and decay and slavery to sin. It was this whole system, this deformed creation, that God came to redeem and renew and breathe life into.

Carrying of the Cross by Duccio

By becoming a man, Jesus lived out the human vocation to its fullest degree; in his death and resurrection he made possible a new creation, a new reality, and a new way of being human. What he did, to use Paul’s language, was not simply die but “swallow up” death in his infinite life. There is something mystical and spiritual going on in the Cross, put beautifully by St Gregory of Nyssa:

the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish.

Likewise, St John Chrysostom preached in his famous Easter homily:

Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive … It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

The path of love

There is something else at play in the Catholic tradition that adds to the mystery and mystical nature of the Cross. It has always been recognised to be unnecessary. This is seen clearly in someone like Thomas Aquinas, for example, who says that whilst the Passion of Christ achieved humanity’s deliverance from sin, so much more happened. God, theoretically, could have chosen to save us some other way. He chose the path of crucifixion, however, not because it was necessary for someone to die an excruciating death, but strangely so that ‘man thereby knows how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love him in return, and herein lies the perfection of human salvation.’

Love is the key to interpreting the Cross correctly. It acts primarily as the demonstration of God’s love for humanity. In fact, Aquinas even goes so far as to say that Christ’s death only did what it did because of the love with which he bore it. It was only due to his infinite love that it has any effect at all. This is why someone like Hans Urs von Balthasar could say that 'love alone is credible' in interpreting who Jesus is: He is nothing less than the dramatic revelation of Absolute and Divine Love, and this Love is glorified in the Cross.

This is also why Paul’s words in Ephesians – that we may grasp 'the breadth and the length, the height and the depth' (3:18) – were interpreted by Gregory of Nyssa as referring to the Cross which is the act of love that encompasses all creation – the depths of the earth, the earth itself and the heavens:

Such is the lesson we learn in regard to the mystery of the Cross.

Unless we perceive the love at the heart of the mystery, in other words, we will never perceive the mystery itself.

The Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on 14 September.