The Victory of the Cross: Turning Terror Upside Down


Mosaic, Church of San Clemente, Rome

Terrorism is nothing new.  It’s probably as old as the human race.

In fact the cradle of civilization, now Iraq, was the home of the most infamous terrorists of antiquity, the Assyrians.  Their goal was to conquer their neighbors in a way that would minimize initial resistance and subsequent rebellion.  To do this, they knew fear would be their greatest weapon.  Simple threat of death for those who resisted was not enough because many would prefer death to slavery.  So the Assyrians developed the technology to produce the maximum amount of pain for the longest amount of time prior to death.  It was called crucifixion.  This ingenious procedure proved to be very effective terror tactic indeed.

It was the policy of  the Roman Empire to adopt from conquered peoples whatever appeared useful.  They found crucifixion an excellent tool of intimidation.  The humiliation of being stripped naked to die in a public spectacle was particularly loathsome to Jews for whom public nudity was an abomination.  Incidentally, crucifixion was deemed so horrible that Roman law forbade that it be carried out on a Roman citizen, even a traitor.  It was reserved only for slaves and conquered peoples. 

Non-Christians have often asked a very good question — why do Christians adorn their churches, homes, and necks with a symbol of abasement, terror, and torture? 

The feast of the Exaltation or Triumph of the Holy Cross provides the answer.

St. Anselm (12th century) explained it this way.  Our first parent’s sin was all about pride, disobedience, and self-love.  Deceived by the serpent, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in defiance of God because they wanted to exalt themselves as His equal.  The results were catastrophic — loss of communion with God, each other, and the created universe.  The history of the human race has been a story in which each one of us, weakened by the impact of this sin on our nature, have followed its pattern, proudly refusing to obey God and love our neighbor.

Anselm pointed out sin constitutes an infinite offense against the goodness and honor of God.  Having been created free and responsible, bound by the law of justice, our race is obliged to offer acts of love, humility and obedience to God powerful enough to cancel out the long legacy of disobedience, pride, and un-love and restore our friendship with him.

Problem is, our wounded race could not begin to attempt such a task.  So the Father sent His Eternal Word to become man and accomplish the task in our place, to substitute for us.  For the immortal, infinite God to empty himself and unite himself to a limited, vulnerable human nature was already a feat of unimaginable love and humility.  But for redemption to be complete, the hero would have to withstand the greatest fury that hell and fallen humanity could hurl against him — the cross. 

Surely, after the crowds he had healed and fed cried “Crucify him!” and his own apostles fled, Jesus would realize it wasn’t worth it.  Surely he would curse the ingrates and use his divine power to free himself as many suggested in their taunts.  But no.  His was love to the end, love to the max (John 13:1).  His death was the clear and undeniable manifestation of the triumph of obedience over disobedience, love over selfishness, humility over pride.

Good Friday was the D-Day of the human race.  Since Pentecost, the power of Christ’s obedient, humble, unstoppable love has been made available to all who are willing to share it, producing martyrs and saints in every generation, down to the Maximilian Kolbe’s and Mother Teresa’s of our own era.

So the Cross is not only victorious, it is fruitful.  It bore the fruit of salvation in the loving act of Christ but has kept bearing new fruit throughout the ages.  That’s why, if you go to the Church of San Clemente in Rome, you’ll see one of the most stunning mosaics in the Eternal City.  The ancient instrument of subjection and death, wrapped with verdant vines supporting fruit of every shape and size, the triumphant Cross become the tree of life.


About Author

Grew up in Providence RI. BA at Providence college, Ph.D. in historical theology from Catholic University of America. Former professional musician and theology professor at Loyola College in Maryland and the University of Dallas. Currently owner of Wellness Business Ventures LLC and director of Father of five.

  • noelfitz

    As usual everything written by Dr D’Ambrosio is excellent.

    However two thoughts come to mind.

    Jesus is never seen naked on the cross naked.

    Also if “Anselm pointed out sin constitutes an infinite offense against the goodness and honor of God.” then every sin, even apparently minor and venial ones, must be serious and mortal, since they are direct offenses against almighty God.

    • fishman

      “Jesus is never seen naked on the cross naked.”

      Jesus is never ‘depicted’ naked on the cross , but in reality very likely was.
      Most of the time his is depicted as a white man and sometimes with blonde hair and blue eyes. The reality was probably different.

      You are right that all sins are horribly and horrifyingly serious.

      the terms ‘mortal’ and ‘venial’ however are used to designate a difference is the way a sin effects ones covenant relationship with God. There are some sins for which we lose salvation ( deadly aka mortal) and others that are not.

  • Mary Kochan

    The distinction between mortal and venial sins only applies to those who have been saved in baptism and have the life of Christ within them. Venial sin weakens the life of grace, while mortal sin kills it.

  • Even the most venial sin offends God infinitely because God is infinite. Venial sin does not however destroy our relationship with God, it only hinders it like static on an old TV set. But because venial sin remains an offense against our sovereign God, and because venial sin can develop into mortal sin like a growing cancer, all sin is to be avoided. Spiritual directors recommend confessing all sin, including venial sin, that can be brought to mind.

    There’s no basis for saying, “Well, it’s only a venial sin.” That’s like saying to your friend, “I only cut you with a knife instead of stabbing you in the heart.”

    I have always been taught that Jesus was naked on the Cross, and the reason that we ordinarily portray Him with a cloth is to make the image of the Crucifixion at least nominally palatable. Nakedness in our fallen world is a state of complete defenselessness; but nakedness is also the original condition of humanity. The Cross signifies both.

  • noelfitz

    PH,MK, FM,
    many thanks for all your replies. I appreciate them all.

    I agree with everything you wrote.

    your reply is very deep and I might quibble a little with you. To me the distinction between mortal and venal is simple. If one dies in the state of mortal sin one goes to hell. If one dies in the state of venial sin one goes to purgatory.

    I would say sin applies to everyone, Christian or not. But I am out of my depth here, so I express views with the proviso I might be wrong. Limbo has been sent to limbo, so only hell, heaven or purgatory awaits all. Even those who are not baptized with water can achieve any of the above three destinations.

    12 All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

    The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Ro 2:12–16.


    again I agree fully with you. I am reminded of what we learned in school
    “he that contemneth small things shall fall by little and little” (Ecclesiastics/Sirach 19:1). We did not know then (or now!!) what contemneth meant.