A crucifix adorns every Church building because it is meant to be a sign of hope for Christians. The Cross is the source of salvation, and by looking upon it, we know that the death of Jesus is not the last word. This means the Cross points toward the hope of the Resurrection as well. While we are familiar with the idea that the Cross saves, perhaps we are unfamiliar with how the Cross accomplishes salvation.
The Cross’ salvific nature necessitates that we are saved from something — namely, sin and death. God did not ordain these realities; rather, from the beginning, they were a consequence of our disobedience against God — a misuse of our freedom. Because of sin, we were separated from God and unable to repair the relationship ourselves. God’s love, however, proves itself for us “in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8).
If, then, the Cross is the means by which we are reconciled to God, how does the Cross save us? There are two aspects for us to consider: What happens on the Cross, and how that is extended to us.
In the Incarnation, Jesus takes on our nature. While he does not know sin, he submits himself to our sinful condition and its consequences. We are not isolated and alone, but united by a common nature. Thus, through God’s action, the Incarnation effects a change in our nature. The humanity of Jesus becomes the means for our being close to God. As God, Jesus takes all of sinful humanity with him to the Cross. He takes on a humanity like ours after the fall: subject to death, able to be tempted. His humanity is subject to the same conditions ours is, except He never sins. This is what happens on the Cross: Christ offers himself, not just his humanity — but all of human nature is offered through, in and with him.
In order to save us from the death as the wages of sin (cf. Rm 6:23), when Christ dies, he enters into enemy territory and defeats it from within. God is life, so then when Life Himself enters the realm of death, it cannot hold him in — He is there to defeat death with His life. By entering the realm of the dead — which the Church calls Holy Saturday — Christ appears to those who have been waiting for the Messiah, waiting for him. They are presented with the choice to follow his way, the way of this crucified savior. Those who went with him are now in heaven, and those who rejected him enter the place of rejection of God, which is hell.
And how does this salvation extend to us? We know that the Cross is salvific by virtue of Christ’s Resurrection, whereby He is the victor over death. In Christ, we are no longer separated from God. In Christ, we have traveled from death to life. In Christ, we have been crucified with him. In Christ, we have been raised with him. We know the victory has already occurred, and now he lives out the mystery of his life in us in order to draw us along his way to the victory of the Resurrection. The salvation of the Cross is manifested in our Baptism, where we are sacramentally united to Jesus. By baptism, we are conformed to Jesus so that He lives out the mystery of his life, death, and resurrection in us, and gives us the sacraments as the principal means of encountering that salvation. Thus the act of love He offered 2,000 years ago is encountered continually today, in mystery through the sacramental life of the Church — by which we are given the grace to be saved.
Father Harrison Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter at @FrHarrison.