Gazing on the face of Christ: the freedom and love of the cross

By Renae Kranz

Photo by Ellen Keena

When you look at the face of Jesus on the cross, do you see only the face of the God who set us free? Or maybe you see the face of a man in excruciating pain, his head hanging low in agony.

It’s hard to imagine the pain, emotions and thoughts our Lord had while he hung on the cross, dying for each one of us. We do know from the Gospels that he did several important things in his last moments. Some seem somewhat random or unimportant, but each word he says from the cross is carefully chosen to open the door to our salvation and establish the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Father James Morgan, rector of the Cathedral of Saint Joseph, says Jesus came at that time to that specific place to do what only he could do as the Son of God—save us from our personal sin and the original sin of Adam and Eve.

His actions before dying on the cross, done out of a deep love for all of us, set the stage for our redemption.

Why did Jesus die on the cross?

It seems like this question can be answered easily with “to save us from our sins,” but there’s more to it than that. Father Morgan explains there are two sides to consider here: the particular meaning behind Jesus’ death on the cross and the universal one. Let’s start with the particular meaning.

During the years of Jesus’ public ministry, he progressively angered Jewish religious authorities with what was perceived as his defiance of the Mosaic Law. As his hour got closer, those Jewish religious authorities saw him as a serious threat to their power and as a blasphemer because some of the things he said and did were a claim that he was God. By Jewish law, the sin of blasphemy came with a sentence of death, and those authorities plotted to get rid of Jesus.

“There’s this particular moment in history that because of what Christ did in and of himself, in the particular time period that he was in, the people that he was dealing with, the culture that he lived in, all of that had to play a role in why he had to die,” Father Morgan says.

Since Passover was approaching and they couldn’t execute someone over Passover, those plotting against him had to work quickly. They involved the Roman authorities because the Jews were not allowed to hand down a death sentence. The Romans saw Jesus as a trouble maker who was threatening the thin thread of control they had on the region. Although they didn’t really want to crucify him, they did want him out of their hair.

Jesus knew these things but never hesitated in teaching the truth of his identity as the Son of God and revealing the Father. But this would be precisely why the authorities would put him to death.

The universal reason for Christ’s death encompasses the forgiveness of sins and bringing the human family back into relationship with God. It was foretold in the Old Testament scriptures and planned from the beginning of creation by the Father. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) lays out God’s plan beautifully:

“By giving up his own Son for our sins, God manifests that his plan for us is one of benevolent love, prior to any merit on our part: ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.’ God ‘shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.’” (CCC 604)

Father Morgan says this universal meaning that Christ had to come into the world, die for our sins and rectify the disobedience of Adam would restore the order originally intended by God the Father. After Jesus rose from the dead and then ascended to the Father, the early Christians began to understand what had happened and what it all meant.

Jesus had won our redemption and salvation with his free choice to die for us.

Freedom is essential to love

The original sin of Adam, through his disobedience, brought chaos into the world. Father Morgan says from that original sin, now we know how to hate, how to be prideful and selfish. Something radical had to take place to redeem us.

“Christ’s sacrifice helps us to understand that surrender and death and allowing ourselves to be humbled, and in his case humiliated, actually brings us life,” Father Morgan says. “So obedience to what makes us weak is what makes us strong. Saint Paul talks about that, ‘In my weakness, I am strong.’”

Father James Morgan, rector, Cathedral of Saint Joseph (Photo by Siyum Deya)

Obedience had to be restored and could only be done by one who was perfect and therefore worthy of bringing order and obedience back to mankind. But it also had to be a free choice. As God, Jesus could have, at any time during his Passion, called down a legion of angels to rescue him and stop what was happening. He didn’t. Out of love for us and for his Father, he humbled himself to the point of death.

Think about that for a moment. Jesus loves the Father and loves us so much that he suffered an excruciating torture and death so we could have eternal life with Him. And he knew how much he would suffer beforehand. His choice to freely accept his suffering was what made it a redemptive suffering for our sake.

The Father gave his Son the freedom to obey or not. He gave him the freedom to love. That freedom is essential to the love of Jesus for us. And the Father gives that to us as well. We are free to love him and be obedient, or we are free to turn away and live in chaos.

Kym Osterberg, parishioner at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph, understands what Jesus did for her and for all of us.

“I was brought up in South Dakota for the most part. I’m not a celebrity. I’m a Catholic lay woman who’s a wife, a mother, a nurse, and my life has meaning,” Kym says. “It’s breathtaking, that He was willing to die for me.”

She understands that she has a responsibility and a freedom to develop her relationship with Jesus and with the Church. She feels fortunate that unlike the Jews before Christ who offered sacrifices at the Temple, never really knowing if those sacrifices were enough to cover their sins, her sins, and all of our sins, are redeemed by the one sacrifice that saved us all.

“It’s not just for that one moment in time; it’s all through time,” Kym says. “And every time we go to Mass, we participate in that sacrifice. It is fresh for us. The presentation is there for us. And so it is as real now as it was then.”

The redemption Jesus won for us allows us the chance to work out our salvation. Father Morgan says He made it possible, but we have to do our part.

“Jesus Christ has opened the way for us, and Christ didn’t answer all the questions. In fact, he answered very few questions,” Father Morgan says. “He kind of left it up to us to figure it out on our own, but He gave us the blueprint and this is important. He showed us by action, more than word, what we needed to do. And that is to lay down our very lives out of love and out of fidelity, out of fidelity, for love of our God.”

Jesus demanded this of his followers and now of us. As he suffered on the cross, he knew this demand would be difficult, so he needed to leave us help and he needed to do it before he died. It had to be part of his suffering. And Father Morgan says we have to acknowledge that Jesus was very aware of himself and what he was doing.

Remember the freedom he had from the Father to choose this path? That freedom and his divinity gave Jesus the ability to do the things necessary as he neared his death on the cross to establish his church and the new covenant in his blood.

“So, in the particular, this is all happening, and he probably wants it to end as soon as it can,” Father Morgan says. “And yet he needs to hold on, those are my words. He would like this to end as soon as it can, but he knows that he’s also on the universal stage where what he does, what he says, will have a huge significance on people understanding the meaning of the significance of the sacrifice, of his death.”

We don’t have the space to explore all of these significant things Jesus said and did on the cross, but let’s take a look at a few of them.

I Thirst

By the time Jesus says these words, sometime Friday afternoon, he wouldn’t have had a drink since the Last Supper. With blood loss, beatings and physical exhaustion added in, his thirst was probably as piercing as the nails. But his thirst went deeper than that. Many saints and theologians suggest his thirst was a thirst for love and for souls.

St. Teresa of Calcutta famously used these words of Jesus to focus her mission. She felt deeply Jesus’ thirst for the souls of the poor and the forgotten. Father Joseph Langford, the co-founder of her priests’ community, was inspired by her many writings about the Lord’s thirst for souls and wrote his own reflection from the perspective of God:

“I thirst to love you and to be loved by you—that is how precious you are to Me. I THIRST FOR YOU. Come to Me, and I will fill your heart and heal your wounds. I will make you a new creation, and give you peace, even in all your trials I THIRST FOR YOU.”

In looking at some of the details of this moment, Father Morgan points out how the soldier uses a hyssop stick to put the sponge soaked in sour wine up to Jesus’ lips. When sacrifices were made at the Temple by the Jewish people, the priest used a hyssop stick dipped in the blood to bless and consecrate the altar during the sacrifice. Jesus also refuses to drink the wine, knowing he had told his apostles he would not drink again from the cup until he was in his Father’s kingdom.

This is important because He is intentionally fulfilling the law and the prophets and what God had set in motion from the beginning according to Father Morgan. All of these small things that point to him attest to his incarnation and to his unity with the Father.

Behold your mother

This is his last action on the particular level, at least partly. John has stayed at the cross with Mary and Jesus throughout the Passion. Jesus loves his mother and John and knows she will need someone to take care of her after he is gone. He needs to take care of this for her.

“Woman behold your son.” And then, “Behold your mother.” (John 19:26-27)

At this moment, Jesus gives his mother to the universal church. Father Morgan says He uses the word “woman” on purpose, calling us back to the wedding feast at Cana and even further to the first woman, Eve. Mary is the woman, the new Eve who is without sin.

“Christ, because he is God, the knowledge that he has, the ways he’s able to think, the way he’s able to see into Godly, supernatural, divine things,” Father Morgan says. “He’s able to gaze into both of those dimensions. He’s able to gaze into both the particular and the universal and have the right words at the right time.”

Kym has a deep appreciation for what Jesus did at this point as well.

“He left her to the Church as a mother, as that tender figure,” she says. “He left her to John, and helped, I think, be a mother figure to the Apostles afterwards because of their humanness and despair.”

Father forgive them

When Jesus forgives those who condemned him and crucified him, Father Morgan says he is making his last great act of claiming he is the Son of God. Only God can forgive sins, and he does it while hanging on the cross, dying a horrendous death.

“It’s Christ’s last great act of charity, of love and a surrender at that moment when he says, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,’” Father Morgan says. “They know not what they do. Not, father forgive them because they’ve done something wrong. No. ‘They know not what they do.’ He even gives them the benefit of the doubt! Jesus knows that at that point, forgiveness is love. Forgiveness is what leads to love.”

It is finished

Just before Jesus gives up his spirit to the Father, he says, “It is finished.” Kym knows at this moment Jesus has completed the new covenant.

“It’s the overcoming death is finished. It’s the sacrifice is finished, because he has completed it. He has made it whole and complete,” she says.

Father Morgan likes another translation of these well-known words. “It is consummated.” It is the moment Christ marries his Church.

“Jesus uses marriage at the beginning of creation, marriage is used as a symbol of God’s relationship with his chosen people, and related to a covenant, and now the new covenant. Now marriage is related to relationship with Jesus,” Father Morgan says. “So the Church is the bride. He has consummated this marriage to his bride. He will not separate himself from the Church because of the new covenant. That’s how we can be sure that Christ is still present to us now, in this age. No matter what happens.”

Tearing the veil

At the moment of Jesus’ death, the veil in the Temple is torn in two, from top to bottom. The veil separated the Holy of Holies from the people. Christ opens it from heaven to earth and in so doing, opens the door to all people.

“The Lord opens himself up so that all peoples can come to him and all peoples, out of good faith, can gaze upon him and live,” Father Morgan says.

“We have to remember it was Christ who opened it,” Kym says. “And because of him, we have access to his body, blood, soul, and divinity. We have access to that forgiveness that the Jews weren’t even sure they had, even when they did bring that blood sacrifice. He was the blood sacrifice for us. And why blood? Because blood is life and shedding blood is the giving of life from someone to another. It is that covenant, that giving of one to another. And he was willing to do that.”

Gaze on the face of Jesus

Father Morgan spends time in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph gazing on the face of Jesus on the cross, often alone in the morning or evening.

“To look up at it and to see the agony in the face, the pain that’s on the face. In certain instances, sometimes I see a great relief, a great peace in Christ’s face, too, that he has accomplished what he set out to accomplish, because he was truly human,” he says.

“And God will speak to you. Things will come to you. Graces come, spiritual insight comes. And then to ask yourself, well, what did he experience at that moment? Well, he’s true God. So again, he was very aware of what was happening and what he needed to do and what he needed to leave behind so that the Apostles understood. Generations down through the ages would understand the reason for the sacrifice on the cross, that God so loved the world.”

He gave his only Son for us, that we might live.

 

Prayer Before a Crucifix

Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus, while before your face I humbly kneel and, with burning soul, pray and beseech You to fix deep in my heart lively sentiments of faith, hope and charity, true contrition for my sins, and a firm purpose of amendment.

While I contemplate, with great love and tender pity, Your five most precious wounds, pondering over them within me and calling to mind the words which David, Your prophet, said of You, my Jesus:
“They have pierced My hands and My feet; they have numbered all My bones.” Amen.