Have you ever wondered why the Catholic Church uses a crucifix as a symbol as opposed to other Christian churches that use an empty cross? It is common to hear from those outside the Church that He is risen, but we “leave Him hanging there” or that the crucifix reduces the power of the Resurrection. Also, the crucifix is often thought of as gruesome or morbid. These misconceptions are due to a lack of understanding what the crucifix actually means to us as Catholics.
There is, or should be, a large crucifix in every Catholic Church in a central location over the altar. When you have a proper understanding of the Mass – that it is a re-presentation of the sacrifice Jesus made on Calvary – then it makes sense that we have a powerful visual reminder of what is taking place. When the priest raises the Blessed Sacrament and says “This is my body…” we, in the pews, can actually see Christ’s body. Then when he raises the chalice and says, “This is my blood…” we can see His blood. The Catholic Church emphasizes on art and imagery because it helps stir the imagination and assists in elevating the heart and soul to the truths the images contain. So, during the consecration of the Eucharist, we can look at the crucifix to inspire our hearts and minds to see the reality of what is taking place on the altar at that moment. At many parishes, there is a crucifix on the altar facing the priest. This serves as a visual aid for the priest so that he may also engage his faculties in the realities that are taking place through his hands. The Mass is a sacrifice and the crucifix is a representation of that sacrifice. Also, consider that upon entering a Catholic Church, that Jesus is stretching His arms wide to welcome you into this holy place.
The crucifix also does something that a bare cross cannot do with the same impact, which is: illustrate the act of love by Jesus for each and every single one of us. Yes, Jesus rose from the dead, but that was not the act of love. The Passion and Crucifixion were the lengths to which Jesus was willing to go to save us from our sins, and the Resurrection revealed His power over sin and death. When you gaze upon a crucifix you are reminded of just how much God loves YOU and you can be moved by that fact. The crucifix also reminds us that we are called to love to that same extent. Jesus tells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13) and St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” It is not for Jesus alone to love to this extent, but a specific call to all of us to give everything we have in us to the love of God and the love of others. The crucifix reminds us of our own process of self-sacrifice out of love. Like Jesus, we are also called to lay down our lives for our faith and for anything that is true, beautiful, and good, because it is of God. A crucifix can help convict our hearts in a way that an empty cross cannot.
Catholics do not deny or downplay the Resurrection in their use of the crucifix. Both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection occurred, and both deserve to be acknowledged as actual events in the life of Christ. Many artists have been inspired to depict these and other events from Christ’s life in their art. For example, our church has a stained-glass window of the Last Supper and a statue in the Adoration chapel of Mary holding the infant Jesus. We see images of Jesus working as a carpenter with His father, Joseph, as well as images of Him preaching in the temple and healing the sick. We must acknowledge every moment in Jesus’ life, and that most certainly includes His crucifixion. We cannot put His act of love aside just because the horror of it makes us uncomfortable. To do so would be to downplay its importance, which is the opposite of what we should be doing. When you look upon a crucifix, consider Jesus’ discomfort in that moment over your own. Fulton Sheen reminds us, “Keep your eyes on the crucifix, for Jesus without the cross is a man without a mission; and the cross without Jesus is a burden without a reliever.”
St. Paul cautioned us that, “the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning” (1 Cor 1:17). Jesus’ singular saving act, to die in atonement of our sins, is crucial to the greatest event in human history. Nothing more pivotal or important has ever happened before or since His Crucifixion and Resurrection. We must be very careful not to empty the cross of the meaning of this monumental historic act, lest our fervor in embracing and accepting this act for us be lessened. “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1Cor 2:2).
There is certainly nothing wrong with empty crosses. Many of us have them in our homes or wear them as jewelry, and they are wonderful outward signs of our Christian beliefs. They serve as reminders that every day we must take up our own crosses and follow Him. After all, before He was crucified, Jesus Himself carried His own empty cross. However, as Catholics, we should also cultivate an appreciation for the crucifix and what it represents to us. Take some time this week to gaze upon a crucifix and meditate on all of the things it represents. How does knowing that He performed that act specifically for you affect you? How does it convict your heart and move you to act?