The Catholic Meaning of Jesus Dying on the Cross

The Crucifixion is a central event in the faith history of Catholicism.
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For Catholics, the death of Jesus on the Cross is a key event within faith history. It is known as the Crucifixion, and it is considered both a tragic event and a necessary transaction. It is tragic because it involves the suffering and death of a divine teacher and leader. However, the event also was necessary because the sacrificial death of Jesus is understood to bring about both the forgiveness of human sins and a new covenant.

1 Passion and Crucifixion

According to the Gospels, the persecution, trial, torture (collectively called the Passion), and Crucifixion of Jesus occurred when Jewish leaders became concerned that Jesus' growing popularity among the people was threatening their position and power. Out of fear that their followers might turn on them, these leaders arranged for the Roman government to put Jesus on trial -- and the resulting sentence was death. The method of execution, being hung on an instrument made of two pieces of wood, was used by the Romans in that era as a painful and humiliating means of publicly putting to death criminals, slaves and foreigners. Jesus accepted his trial, torture and execution, because he believed all these events were the will of God.

2 Death of Jesus as Acceptable Sacrifice

According to the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," the Crucifixion represents the ultimate sacrifice and a gift from God to humankind. Because humans had repeatedly sinned and broken covenants (agreements between God and the Jewish people), the only proper atonement was the sacrifice of God's own son, poetically described as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." Through agreeing to be put on trial and then accepting the penalty of death, "Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins." This means that because of Jesus' selfless action, it was possible for God to erase the sins of humans.

3 Death of Jesus as Introducing New Covenant

Not only does the death of Jesus bring about the forgiveness of human sins, the Catholic Church teaches, but it also results in a new covenant between God and humankind. This new covenant replaces the broken covenants of the Old Testament and "restores man to communion with God," according to the "Catechism of the Catholic Church." This new covenant is reflected in the name for the distinctively Christian portion of the Bible, the "New Testament."

4 Significance of Crucifixion

The Catholic Church continues to emphasize the significance of the Crucifixion to the Christian faith. In an official (encyclical) letter to Catholics in 2013, Pope Francis explained that the death of Jesus demonstrated the love of Christ for all people, and that "at the hour of Christ's Crucifixion" it was clear that "the depth and breadth of God's love shone forth."

John P. Moore has been writing about the intersection between faith and culture since 1997. His articles have appeared in both religious and mainstream publications, including the "Ottawa Citizen" and the "Montreal Gazette". He received a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Masters of Theology from the University of Toronto.