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Christ Crucified
Diego Velázquez, c 1632

On this day that Christ died on the cross, we offer you a mediation by Fr. John Riccardo of ACTS XXIX. We found this meditation transformative in our understanding of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It has given us new insight in how Christ conquered sin and death in a cunning and brilliant way. We pray that you too will find this inspirational.

The Powers of Darkness are Defeated: What Was Jesus Doing on the Cross?[1]

Classically, there are three ways to understand what Jesus was doing on the cross. None of these is exhaustive; together they help us better understand the crucial events of [Holy Week]. In my experience, one of the answers is practically unknown and almost never preached about. And yet it was accentuated over and over again in the preaching of the early Church.

The three ways of understanding what Jesus was doing on the cross are these:

  • He was showing us the love of the Father (think Jn 3:16, among many possible passages);
  • He was making atonement for our sins (think 2 Cor 5:21 or 1 Pt 2:24);
  • He was going to war to rescue us from powers we cannot compete against.

Each of these is true, to be sure, though, again, none of them is exhaustive. We need to keep them all in mind as we…pray to understand the Passion more clearly, so that we can respond all the more generously and wholeheartedly. But as we face abysmally bad metrics with regards to pretty much every key performance indicator in the Church, and as we are confronted with so many challenging and scandalous issues in both the culture and the Church, it’s easy to fall prey to discouragement or worse. It’s critical, then, to remember that Jesus is Lord! He has defeated the powers of Sin and Death. He has bound the strong man, and He is not nervous or anxious in the face of all that’s going on. He has triumphed!

On the cross, Jesus was not only showing us the Father’s love, and not only making atonement for us — crucial as those both are! He was also defeating the dark powers and liberating us. And, as the early Church Fathers often remarked, how fitting it was that the one who deceived our race at the beginning should himself be deceived — by God! — into bringing about his own defeat.

[In related podcast, Fr. Riccardo explained that Jesus is not simply hanging passively on the cross. He is assailing Satan. He is an “ambush predator!” An ambush predator is a hunter that lies motionless and still, for one purpose, to draw the prey close. Once the prey is close, the predator launches a surprise attack. This is what Jesus is doing on the cross.

This is so clever by God! It would never dawn on Satan that God would become a creature to save His creatures. Satan, in his pride and his arrogance, would believe that there is no way that God would lower Himself, humble Himself, to do this. It is not fathomable to him. That is how Jesus tricks him.[2]]

There’s so, so much that could be said to make this point, but in this Great Week, let’s listen in on just four excerpts from homilies of old. As we do so, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to help us celebrate Easter like never before. Ours is an age riddled with fear and anxiety and despair. Ours is the task of being heralds of hope to those around us, a hope that is anchored in the glorious and real resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and His defeat of the dark powers that had enslaved our race since Eden.

In this way the wicked one, by pouring forth deadly words, frequently ensnares some of those who live a good life, but we must not believe his promises or fear his threats for he always deceives and none of his promises are true. For if everything he says were not a lie, how is it that when he made such infinitely extravagant promises the Lord hooked him like a serpent using the hook of the cross and he was bound with a halter like a beast of burden, and tied up in chains like a runaway slave, his lips pierced by an iron ring, and he was not given the chance to devour any of the faithful at all? Now he is as miserable as a sparrow caught by Christ in the net to be mocked at; now he groans for his companions who have been trodden beneath the Christians’ heel like scorpions and serpents. He who took pride in the fact that he had destroyed all the seas, he who promised that he would hold the world in his hand, look at him! You have conquered him and look how he is unable to prevent me arguing with him. St. Athanasius, Life of St. Anthony (emphasis added)

Death trampled our Lord underfoot, but he in his turn treated death as a highroad for his own feet. He submitted to it, enduring it willingly, because by this means he would be able to destroy death in spite of itself. Death had its own way when our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying his cross; but when by a loud cry from that cross he summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.

Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death. Concealed beneath the cloak of his manhood, his godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying our Lord, death itself was slain. It was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.

Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which he received from the Virgin; in it he invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strongroom and scattered all its treasure. St. Ephrem, Sermon of our Lord

The devil was deluded by the death of the Lord…for through the visible mortality of His flesh, Christ—whom the devil was trying to kill—concealed his divinity, like a snare in which He might entangle him like an unwise bord by a clever trick…The devil, although he attacked the flesh of the humanity in Christ that was evident, was captured as if by the fishhook of His divinity that was lying hidden. For there is in Christ the fishhook of divinity; the food, however, is the flesh; the fishing line is the genealogy that is recited by the Gospel. Holding this fishing line truly is God the Father. St. Isidore of Seville, Sentences (emphasis added)

And, the best for last…

Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ.

I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ. Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins.

I am your forgiveness, I am the passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand. This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human via the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.

This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen. Melito of Sardis, On the Pascha (emphasis added)

Fr. John Riccardo serves as Executive Director of ACTS XXIX, an outreach that helps parishes create an evangelization and discipleship road map. Fr. Riccardo also has a wealth of experience in marriage and family ministry. He holds a Sacred License in Theology (STL) from The Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family and has served as the Director of The Cardinal Maida Institute for Marriage and Family.

He was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1996 and has served as pastor at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, and St. Anastasia Catholic Church, and as associate pastor at Divine Child Catholic Church. He also hosts the radio program Christ is the Answer produced by Ave Maria Radio and broadcast on the EWTN Radio Network.

Before receiving his STL, he studied philosophy at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, and theology at the Gregorian University in Rome.

[1] ACTS XXIX, The Powers of Darkness are Defeated: What Was Jesus Doing on the Cross?, https://mailchi.mp/actsxxix/the-powers-of-darkness-are-defeated?e=ebafe0a251 (accessed march 30, 2021).

[2] You Were born for This, Episode 120: What Was Jesus Doing on the Cross? Yes, Doing!, March 29, 2021, https://www.actsxxix.org/you-were-born-for-this-podcast (accessed March 30, 2021).