Catholics are often criticized for our use of the crucifix (a cross with a corpus on it). Many non-Catholic Christians believe that a simple cross is a better representation of the Christian faith. Jesus has risen and is no longer on the cross so we shouldn’t depict him still there by using a crucifix. But many of the same people who say this have no problem depicting baby Jesus in a manager in their nativity scenes. Why still show baby Jesus in the manger? He grew up you know.
Another argument against the bare cross is the fact that the cross came down at the same time Jesus did. The cross did not stand after his death. It was not up when he rose from the dead. A bare cross cannot possibly represent the risen Lord because it did not exist when he rose. It only existed before he was nailed to it. If you want to better represent a risen Christ wouldn’t an empty tomb be a better visual?
Cross or crucifix? That question is very similar to Protestant or Catholic. It is a decision only you can make for yourself. All I will try to do here is to give witness as to what they mean to me.
When I look at a cross with modern day eyes I see the symbol most commonly used to represent Christianity in the world today. When I look at a cross through historical eyes I see one of the most horrendous torture devices ever created. The cross was designed to kill a person with great pain and suffering over the longest period of time possible in the most humiliating way possible. Every last bit of dignity was stripped from those crucified. Regardless of what the crucifix looks like, every person crucified was hung on the cross naked, including our Lord.
The cross was thought to do more than that. It was believed that anyone who died on a cross was cursed. They could not go to the god in the heavens as they did if they were burned. Likewise, they could not go to the god of the earth as they would have if they had been buried.
“If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.” - Deuteronomy 21, 22-23
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” – Galatians 3, 13
The cross cannot provide salvation. The cross is no more the sacrifice than the chalice used to hold the Sacred Blood is the sacrifice. An empty cross is nothing more than just that – empty. By itself it holds no value.
Now when I look at a crucifix I see something very, very different. When I look at a crucifix I see what true, sacrificial, agápe love looks like.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” – John 3, 16 – 17
If you want proof to this passage just look at a crucifix. There is nothing that happens in my life that a crucifix cannot help me with.
When I am suffering the physical pains my aging body provides I can look at a crucifix and be reminded as to what true suffering really is. My pains aren’t so bad.
When I am feeling lonely I can look at a crucifix and be reminded what real loneliness looks like. I am not so alone.
When I am feeling like all of life is against me I can look at a crucifix and see what it truly means to be hated.
When I am not feeling loved I can look at a crucifix and be instantly reminded of how much I am loved.
This is something a bare cross simply cannot do. A bare cross states for the person who wears it, “I am Christian.” Add the corpus and a crucifix states for Jesus, “I am love.” The first is a statement about who I am, the second is a statement about who God is. There is no comparison.
One of the criticisms of the movie The Passion of the Christ was that the torture of Jesus in the movie was too brutally depicted. It is heart wrenching to watch. For many, including myself, it was the first time we connected the reality of Christ’s sacrifice to our understanding of that reality. I can never look at a crucifix the same way ever again. It is also the reason why a bare cross doesn’t move me as it once did. A bare cross is to Christianity what a porterhouse steak is to the modern consumer. Both are great as long as we don’t have to see the reality of where they came. As a hunter I have a deeper appreciation of meat because I know firsthand where it comes from. As a Catholic I have a deeper love for the crucifix because I know the reality it represents.
Jesus is agape. A crucifix is the visible representation of that agape. A cross represents the Christian, the crucifix represents Christ.
My heart is full because the tomb was empty.