If God is love, as we learn in 1 John 4:8, then how does the crucifixion fit into that puzzle? How does a Catholic explain to others why we hold the crucifixion so near and dear to our hearts?
The Atheist View
Atheists I speak to are horrified by the crucifix. They see it as a symbol of a God who was so hell bent on justice against humanity's many crimes that he was willing to slaughter his only begotten son in order to slake his thirst for vengeance.
If God is good, they ask, why couldn't he just forgive our sins? Why did he need Christ to die? These are fair questions. They deserve answers.
The Protestant View
Protestants I speak to are equally horrified by the crucifix, They prefer the empty cross of the resurrected Christ. They prefer the comfort of the redemption of humanity to the image of its need for that redemption.
"If we are redeemed," they ask, "why do we need so many reminders of our past? Why not just focus on the goodness of God's mercy instead?" These are fair questions, and they also deserve answers.
The Jewish View
Jews are upset by the crucifix. They see it as proof that Christians, especially Catholics, still hold them responsible for the death of a Jewish man that lived 2,000 years ago. They see it as a symbol of the oppression that they feel they have lived with due to that misplaced responsibility for 2,000 years.
"Few ideas can have been as poisonous as, or inspired more murderousness than, the idea that Jews were the Christ-killers" - Giles Fraser, "Christians must understand that for Jews the cross is a symbol of oppression"
"It wasn't our fault," they cry. "The Romans crucified him, and if our ancestors had anything to do with it, what of it? We weren't there. Why should we bear the blame? Why should we atone for sins we never committed in the first place?" These are fair questions. And they deserve answers.
One Catholic's View
I am not a theologian with a degree to my name. I can tell you what I see when I look at the crucifix. What I see is love. I see a God who so loved all of humanity - the atheists, the Jews, and the followers of Christ alike - that he wasn't content to keep looking down on them from above but wanted to become one of them. He saw all of the pain and the suffering we were putting one another through and decided that the only way to bring about a lasting peace was to go and become one of us.
God chose the Jewish people to bring Christ into the world. He elevated them above all people because they were the first to follow him and to recognize him as God. He chose a young Jewish woman who loved him enough to give her life to him and allow herself to be the vessel that carried His love into the world in the form of a fusion of divine and human, the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
The Crucifixion was necessary not out of vengeance or spite but because it was the only way to answer the two biggest questions man had about how much love he really owed to his neighbor and how often he was required to offer forgiveness for the sins committed against him. The answer in Christ's choice to allow himself to be put to death, "Love one another so much that you are willing to die in the worst, most brutal possible manner in order to save another's life," and "Forgive one another no matter what is done to you, no matter how painful or terrible or humiliating. Forgive one another the loss of everything - even your own life or the life of the ones you love."
Only for God could that death have been a choice. Only God could have delivered that message so eloquently. And only God united to man would have had the strength needed to bear all of that pain, suffering, and sorrow without losing the love of humanity in his heart. It was necessary that it be as it was in order for that message to be delivered to humanity.
Nobody likes reminders of their past sins, but those reminders are important. It is important to remember that we are capable of such darkness and that only through the grace of God do we have hope of being saved from such a fate. The crucifix is a reminder of both - that though human darkness may be very dark at times, God's love, mercy, and grace are greater still even in the middle of the worst that we can throw at Him.
It is also a reminder that God wraps His greatest gifts to us in the ugliest wrapping paper imaginable. There is no denying the crucifixion was an ugly thing, but what a beautiful gift it brought us. It would be a terrible thing if we turned away from that gift because it was ugly and chose to ignore the beauty of the love it represents.
The invitation of love and forgiveness that is written in the crucifix is yours to accept or to deny. But do not blame Christians or Catholics for oppressing you when you choose to build a cage forged with your own refusal to forgive others for what has been done by their ancestors to yours. You hold the keys to release yourself from that cage. It is your choice what you do with them.
Yes, Hitler did order the death of 6 million Jews. But there were Catholics who also died in those fires, some of them who died to defend your lives. It was the crucifix that gave them the strength to stand up and speak out for you, to risk their homes, their businesses, and their lives for you when yours were on the line. It is your choice which story you write about what the crucifix means. I hope you choose to re-examine the story you've written and find a message that leads to unity rather than division.
To attack the crucifix is to attack the noblest calling of men. It is to call immoral the very essence of goodness - the willingness to lay down your life for the sake of another. Christ's willingness to lay down his life for the sake of those who, like you, deny him or, like the Jews, hate him is the reason we who are Christian and Catholic look to the crucifix to remind us of what response we should strive to give to those who do the same to us.
"Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do."
The crucifix is the triumph of love over selfishness. It's not an easy symbol to embrace, but it is no easy thing to choose to sacrifice yourself so that others might have the very best life they can. However, the rewards are worth tasting.
The Crucifix is a message for all of humanity
I speak to three groups specifically, but the crucifix is for all men. It is a message that God loves you so much that He wishes to be united with you in your suffering and your darkest moments. It is a message that no matter how dark the deeds you have done, there is hope, there is love, and there is forgiveness waiting for you. All you have to do is accept the invitation and receive the gift. The choice is yours.