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The Real Reasons Catholics Love the Crucifix

When we know that Jesus is inviting each of us to join him at Calvary, the value of the crucifix becomes obvious

It wasn’t until I found myself wanting a crucifix that I felt force of Protestantism’s opposition to this particular sign. It happened during my “homecoming” to the Catholic Church. I remember having the strange notion that it would require courage for me to be seen wearing a crucifix.

Why? Because to most of my Protestant friends a crucifix was “a sign to be spoken against” (cf. Luke 2:34). It was seen as a Catholic symbol—bad enough in itself—that revealed Catholicism’s lack of appreciation for the resurrection and its desire to “keep Jesus on the cross.” The implication was that a real Christian doesn’t wear a crucifix.

I’d gone along with the Protestant prohibition against crucifixes without giving it much thought. When it became an issue for me, I realized that was exactly the problem. Not only I, but, it seemed, the vast majority of Protestants hadn’t given their objection to the crucifix much real thought. It was a part of Protestant culture that we accepted and handed on unquestioningly.

Upon my return to the Catholic Church, I was struck by how far from the truth Protestant beliefs on this subject really are. Does the Catholic Church cling to the crucifix because it would rather avoid the resurrection? Consider this: My Protestant church celebrated Easter for one day. The Catholic Church celebrates Easter for 50 days—not including each Sunday of the year, which are seen as “little” Easters. The Mass never fails to proclaim the resurrection of Christ. And the Church’s daily prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, is filled with Scripture and prayers rejoicing in the resurrection.

The idea that the Catholic Church downplays the resurrection is so obviously erroneous that anyone can unmask this misconception with only minor effort. But my fellow Protestants and I hadn’t made that effort. Instead, we professed to know the answers before we asked the questions.

Having discovered just how wrong we were, and as a result growing in my own appreciation of the crucifix, I couldn’t help but wonder, “If Protestants understood the real reasons Catholics love the crucifix, if they could see what we see when we look at Jesus crucified, wouldn’t they too come to love it?”

It’s not surprising the crucifix offends many Protestants if they see it as an attempt to keep Jesus on the cross and to keep from Christians the benefits of the resurrection. But what they see when they look at a crucifix is not what I see, nor what Catholics through the centuries have seen.

What I see is not a dead Jesus who offends me but a vivid reminder of the very essence of salvation—my own sinfulness that made such an extreme sacrifice necessary and the incomprehensible love of God incarnate laying down his life for me. In the crucifix, I see the hope of the human race, victory over Satan, the cleansing of sin, and the open door to heaven. I see a school of love, humility, forgiveness of our enemies, and all the other virtues. “Consider Jesus on the cross as you would a devout book worthy of your unceasing study and by which you may learn the practice of the most heroic virtues” (Dom Lorenzo Scupoli, The Spiritual Combat, 155–156).

When I look at Christ crucified, I don’t see weakness and defeat but “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1: 23–24)—the holy wisdom of divine love. And I hear “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

The crucifix also tells us that suffering is not something to fear as though it could rob us of the fullness of Christian life. Because Jesus made suffering a servant in the cause of redemption, if received with faith, suffering can unite us to him in a way few things can. Only Jesus crucified can make sense of and give purpose to human suffering.

And what does it stir in a heart that loves Jesus to look upon the crucifix? Faith and confidence to trust in such a God as this. Hope—in the knowledge that salvation is firmly founded on this one perfect sacrifice. And love—a desire to return love for love. Giorgio Tiepolo writes, “Anyone who does not fall in love with God by looking at Jesus dead upon the cross will never fall in love” (The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, 11).

And love refuses to forget the suffering of the Beloved. Why would we want to dismiss from our minds what he went through for us? We memorialize the sacrifice of our war veterans. And Holocaust survivors implore us to “never forget.” Why? Because love remembers.

Does focusing on the crucifix cause the resurrection to slip from view? On the contrary, it brings to mind the great gift that the slain Lamb of God gained for all who believe—life everlasting. We fall victim to a false dichotomy if we think the crucifix is an offense to the resurrected Lord. The Catholic Church teaches that the crucifixion and resurrection are part of one whole: the paschal mystery.

When we look at a crucifix, it is never without the awareness that Christ’s suffering ended in the victory of the resurrection. And when we rejoice in the resurrection, we are to be always mindful of the fact that it sprang from the perfect sacrifice of our Lord on Calvary.

The Catholic Church is in love with all of Christ’s life. Depictions of its stages can be found in her art and churches. Nothing in the life of Christ is thought to be insignificant. What sense, then, would it make to exclude representations of the central mystery of the crucified Lamb?

There’s more, however, to Protestantism’s aversion to the crucifix than misconceptions about why Catholics love it. Although not explicitly stated as a tenet of faith, in many Protestant denominations the work and suffering of the crucifixion are seen as being fixed in the past. Now is the time to reap the fruits—-salvation, healing, deliverance. The suffering is over; the work is done. (The “health and wealth” teachers take this idea to the extreme. No suffering for us—just the perks.)

A plain cross, as opposed to a crucifix, serves this theology nicely. It can indicate the source of salvation without too vivid a reminder of the actual suffering involved—the wounds, the blood, the death. Now, I’m not opposed to the plain cross. It’s a beautiful symbol, but not to the exclusion of the crucifix.

Error results whenever we cling so tightly to one aspect of the truth that we can’t open our hands—or our minds—to receive its fullness. Yes, the crucifixion is past in history, but it’s not just a historical event. Yes, Jesus’ work on the cross is “finished,” as he said, but that does not preclude our participation in his work.

The idea that Jesus suffered so we don’t have to is not biblical. Peter says, “For to this [suffering] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). And our Lord himself tells us, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Not only are we called to suffer like Jesus, i.e., in imitation of him, but we are called to suffer with Jesus, to participate in the one redeeming sacrifice of Calvary.

Scripture leaves no doubt of this:

“The cup that I drink you will drink,” says our Lord (Mark 10:39), referring to his passion and death. “Rejoice in so far as you share in the sufferings of Christ that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Ptr. 4:13). “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). “I have suffered the loss of all things . . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8, 10–11). “[We are] fellow heirs with Christ provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).

Then there’s this clincher:

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24, emphasis added).

Notice the vital connection between our personal participation in the sufferings of Christ and reaping the fruits of those sufferings—i.e., grace for other members of the body, glory, resurrection, the inheritance of Christ.

But, we may ask, how can this be? The crucifixion took place almost 2,000 years ago—can we go back in time? If Jesus finished the work of redemption on the cross, what’s left to be done?

The temporal factor, of course, isn’t a problem for God, who operates outside time. It’s true that the crucifixion happened at a particular point in earthly history, and Jesus doesn’t relive it over and over again. But it is, so to speak, “preserved” in eternity, ever present to the Eternal One. In addition, the actions of Christ, because he is infinite God, reverberate through the centuries, and are, in a sense, ever-living.

That leads to the second question: What need is there for me to share in the crucifixion? What could possibly be “lacking” in the finished work of Christ?

In Jesus, who is the head of the body of Christ, nothing is lacking. His work is perfect. What remains to be done is for this perfect work to be “distributed” to each of the members of his body throughout time. After all, how can we claim to share the mission of Jesus if we take no part in his most important work—the work of redemption accomplished on the cross? And how can we be one with his heart if the idea of suffering for the sake of others is foreign to us?

If the suffering and work of Calvary are, as some Protestants claim, past history, leaving nothing for us to do, then maybe using only a plain cross might make sense—maybe. But when we know that Jesus is inviting each of us to join him at Calvary, the value of the crucifix in helping us respond to him becomes obvious. This call to suffer with Christ is an invitation to transforming love. Through the experience of the cross, we touch the inner heart of God. The saints tell us that’s where joy and power reside.

In spite of many Protestant misconceptions regarding Catholics and the crucifix, I remain hopeful that their objection to this symbol may someday be overcome, that—even if never embraced as fully as among Catholics—the crucifix may find a meaningful place in those Protestant faiths that oppose it. There’s evidence to suggest we’re not as far apart on this issue as it might seem.

Without thinking of it as such, Protestants have already been making use of the crucifix in a variety of ways. Films produced by Protestants contain scenes of the crucifixion more vivid than any crucifix. On the back cover of a magazine published by a prominent Baptist minister, a painting of the crucifixion was displayed.

Then there was the night I attended a dinner at an Evangelical church. The guest speaker was illustrating her points with overhead transparencies. At the end, she began to give the usual invitation to accept Christ as Savior. Just then, I looked up and there it was, projected front and center: a crucifix. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).

Just as Moses knew that for healing to occur, the people needed to see not just a plain pole but the serpent on the pole, so too it seemed our speaker instinctively knew that, in order to grasp the message of salvation, the people needed to see not just a plain cross but the lamb slain upon the cross. They needed to see a crucifix.

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