For many centuries, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and some Protestants have used images of Christ Crucified in their churches and homes, as a sign of their faith and devotion to Our Lord. But in recent years crucifixes have come under attack from both Evangelical Protestants (who erroneously believe sacred images are "idolatrous") and certain "progressive" Catholics (who wish to remove them from churches). Why don't they like crucifixes, and is their opposition valid?
One common Evangelical objection to crucifixes is: "Jesus isn't on the Cross anymore, He is risen!". Well, we Catholics know that! We don't believe Christ is still hanging on the Cross, and we do believe that He is risen - that's why we celebrate Easter! Moreover, we certainly do not make and display crucifixes in order to deny Jesus' Resurrection (this should go without saying, but that almost seems to be implied in the above argument!).
Catholics understand that a crucifix does not portray the current state of Our Lord. It is intended to depict what He endured for our salvation long ago on Calvary. Though it seemed a shameful, humiliating defeat at the time, Jesus' Death was actually a glorious triumph of love and obedience. His Crucifixion brought about our redemption; this is why Catholics love it and portray it in sacred art.
By the same token, we find Evangelical objections to crucifixes a bit puzzling, perhaps even ironic. They put such great emphasis on Christ's atoning death in their preaching and hymns, and say that every sinner must tell Jesus "I believe that You died for my sins" in order to get saved, yet they are so hostile toward artistic representations of the salvific Event itself! This inconsistency must arise from a distaste for anything perceived to be "Catholic" (even though many Anglicans, Lutherans and other mainline Protestants use crucifixes as well. The crucifix is a symbol all Christians can embrace).
Here is a sample Protestant hymn about Christ on the Cross:
At the Cross
Text by Isaac Watts; refrain by Ralph E. Hudson
1. Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that Sacred Head
For such a worm as I?
Refrain:2. Was it for crimes that I had done
At the Cross, at the Cross,
where I first saw the light,
and the burden of my heart rolled away;
it was there by faith I received my sight,
and now I am happy all the day.
3. Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in
When God, the mighty Maker, died
For man the creature's sin.
4. Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear Cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt mine eyes to tears.
5. But drops of grief can ne'er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away,
'Tis all that I can do.
Reading these touching words, it is hard to understand how some Evangelicals could sing it and also oppose a crucifix. The latter portrays Christ's sufferings in art; this lovely hymn portrays the same in poetry! It is, in fact, something of a meditation on the Passion of Christ (and is that not the purpose of a crucifix?).
If crucifixes are unacceptable because "Jesus isn't on the Cross anymore", then surely this hymn is unacceptable for the same reason. "Why recall His suffering and humiliation? That's ancient history!" Catholics use crucifixes the same way Protestants use this hymn; to remember what our Savior did for us.
The fact that Our Lord is no longer nailed to the Cross does not make crucifixes wrong. Otherwise it would also be wrong to portray a Nativity scene, since "Jesus isn't a baby anymore". It would also be wrong to artistically depict Him teaching or healing, or to portray any Gospel event in His earthly life, since "He's not on earth anymore". Yet many Evangelicals have no problem with artistic portrayals of the Life of Christ in art, Bibles, Sunday School classrooms, Christmas cards, etc. (Granted, some Evangelicals object to all images of Jesus. Though their iconoclasm is erroneous, at least they are consistent.)
Many Evangelicals prefer to display a plain cross in their churches. They argue that this is better than a crucifix because "An empty cross signifies the Resurrection". But this assertion is highly questionable; Jesus' Cross was empty the moment His body was taken down, yet He was still dead! The empty tomb is a symbol of the Resurrection, not the empty cross.
Traditionally speaking, the cross is a symbol of Jesus Christ and of Christianity in general (as the Star of David is a symbol of Judaism and the crescent of Islam). It does not signify the Resurrection unless flanked with Easter lilies or surrounded by rays of light. Of course, most crosses in Evangelical churches are completely unadorned, with no such traditional symbols of the Resurrection. So while the plain cross may symbolize Jesus, it could hardly be said to signify the fact that He is risen.
I think that if the early Christians could hear the "Empty Cross=Resurrection" argument, they would consider it absurd. In their day a cross was an instrument of capital punishment, so it definitely signified death, much as an electric chair would today!
Some Evangelicals and "progressive" Catholics who oppose crucifixes will point out that the early Church never used them. This is true; back then crucifixion was the most shameful, humiliating form of execution. So although they reverenced the Cross as a symbol of Christ, they were reluctant to artistically portray His Death.
After crucifixion ceased to be used as a method of capital punishment, Catholics began to cautiously depict Jesus' redeeming Sacrifice in art. In the days of widespread illiteracy, sacred art served as a teaching tool, illustrating the Faith for those unable to study it in books. The crucifix was thus a powerful way to "preach Christ crucified" (I Cor 1:23) to the masses. It can still serve that purpose today.
Though early Christians did not make crucifixes, if you think about it, the first crucifix was actually made by Jesus Himself! As He hung there dying on Calvary for the sins of the world, He and His Holy Cross constituted the very first "crucifix" in history, the one after which all others are ultimately patterned.
Another argument used by "progressive" Catholics is that a crucifix is too "negative" since it focuses more on Jesus' Death rather than on His Resurrection. But His death was not negative, it is the source of our salvation, a beautiful display of God's love for us! This attempt to pit His Death against His Resurrection simply doesn't work, for the two go together - if Christ hadn't died He couldn't have risen! As we have seen, the crucifix is not a denial that Christ is risen; a Catholic church with a crucifix on the altar may also have a brilliant stained glass window depicting the Resurrection! The two are not in conflict at all; both are essential mysteries of our redemption.
Should Christians downplay Jesus' Death? St. Paul didn't; in fact he told the Corinthians "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). Notice that he did not say "Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen". Was St. Paul denying or downplaying the Resurrection? Or what about when he wrote "Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal 6:14)? Was he being "negative" by focusing on Christ's Death rather than His Resurrection?
No, Paul was simply expressing the centrality of the Crucifixion to the Gospel message. "But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (I Cor 1:23-24). I guess "Christ crucified" is still a stumbling block to many today!
Should Christians downplay Jesus' Death? Jesus Himself doesn't seem to think so! When He appeared to His Apostles after rising from the dead, He identified Himself by displaying the Wounds He had sustained on the Cross (Luke 24:39; John 20:20). Even though He is risen He still bears the scars of His gruesome execution in His glorified Body! Why would He forever retain those marks if He wanted us to just forget that unpleasant episode which happened so very long ago and is all over with now?
And even before He died, He gave us the Eucharist, which would be both a perpetual reminder/declaration of His death and an actual re-presentation of His sacrifice on Calvary. No, the Mass is not a "re-sacrifice", Jesus does not die again. It is the very same Sacrifice of Calvary made present on the Altar. Christ wants His once-for-all Sacrifice on the Cross to be an ever-present reality, not just a past event which is over and gone.
The Jews believe that everyone who participates in a Passover supper (Seder) mystically goes through the Exodus with Moses and the Israelites. Even so, everyone who attends Mass/Divine Liturgy is mystically standing at the foot of the Cross with Our Lady, St. John and the holy women! Christ is our Paschal Lamb (I Cor 5:7-8), His Sacrifice on the Cross is our Passover from death unto life. And the Eucharist is our Seder, in which we partake of the Lamb of God, slain for our sins. The Mass/Divine Liturgy actually transcends time, bringing the past event of Jesus' Death to Christians throughout the ages.
So although Jesus Christ is no longer on the Cross, His past Sacrifice on Calvary becomes a present reality at every Mass. This is why it is fitting to have a crucifix on the altar in a Catholic church (in fact, the rubrics require it!). It is a beautiful reminder of what Jesus went through to save us, and a representation of the mystery which we celebrate at Mass. Like St. Paul before us, we Catholics glory in the Cross (Gal 6:14), we are not ashamed of it. We proclaim His Death at every Mass (I Cor 11:26) and display artistic renditions of His crucifixion in our churches and homes, not to deny His Resurrection, but to joyfully proclaim His Death till He comes. Praised be His Holy Name!
We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You, for by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world!
This link has the words to some Protestant Hymns of the Passion
Interesting off-site articles:
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