The figure of Christ on the cross, which plays so important a part in the Catholic religion, is called a Crucifix. "Crux" was the ancient Roman word for the gallows on which criminals were put to death. It was an upright tree-trunk or beam of wood with a cross-beam near the top. The hands of the condemned man were fixed to the cross-beam and his feet to the upright by means of ropes or, for the worst types of criminals, by nails driven into wrists and feet.
The limbs stiffened in terrible cramps and quickly went rigid. The body, sagging on tired arms, dragged down the chest and the victim had to heave himself up on wounded hands for every breath. In the end he became too weak to lift himself, the lungs became congested, the strain on the heart was unbearable and he died in agony!
Christ suffered this terrible death and rose from the dead to save men from the effects of sin and unite them to God. (This is the central truth of the Catholic religion.)
Christ had to carry the cross on which he was to be crucified to the place of execution, a hill called Calvary outside the walls of Jerusalem. At Calvary he was nailed to the cross. He hung on it for about three hours. Two thieves were crucified with him, one on either side. On his cross was written the charge on which he had been condemned to death, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." Passersby scoffed at him and told him to work a miracle to save himself. One of the thieves crucified with him jeered at him, but the other asked Him to remember him in heaven, and to this one Jesus said: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
The act of crucifying Jesus Christ was for those responsible a terrible sin. Yet in itself his death was not a tragedy but a triumph. He made it clear on several occasions that he knew he was going to be put to death. He used the wickedness and sinfulness of his enemies as an instrument through which he offered his life in sacrifice to God on behalf of all men.
It is impossible to understand fully the meaning of this terrible death of Christ on the Cross, because the death of God-made-man will always be in part a mystery to us. Yet the Bible in both Old Testament and New Testament helps us to understand something of it. The English word "atonement" suggests the main idea. Man had separated himself from God by his sins. God became man to make man "at-one" with God again.
"Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" Every man must answer yes to that question. Looking back on his life he feels guilty for the evil things he did and the good things he did not do. Every evil deed and failure in duty harms the doer and ultimately the whole human race. It is part of the horrible mass of evil for which Christ made himself responsible and which caused his agony and death. Everyone was there when they crucified the Lord, helping to drive in the nails, hoist the cross and jeer as Christ died.
He died to save all and he alone was able to accomplish this. But he will not save a man in spite of himself. All are free to accept or reject the benefits of this work of atonement. Every man must play his part in his own salvation. He does this by his daily work in the service of his fellow men, with all the hardships it entails. He does it particularly by sufferings meekly borne, for Christ united to his own sufferings the whole mass of human suffering, to make amends for the whole mass of human evil.
Source: The Catholic religion.