Thursday, September 14, 2006

Why do Catholics have crucifixes?

Today, Sept. 14, is the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. The Church commemorates the rescue of the relic of the true Cross of Christ by Emperor Heraclius in a victory over the Persians.

Today's feast reminds me of a TV program that I saw on a Dubuque area Christian network a few months back. On the show, a Baptist pastor in Dubuque (I have forgotten his name and have tried to do a web search for his church but cannot find it) made an odd comment. He said that so many Christians in the Dubuque area "worship a dead Christ"... and stand in need of the true Gospel. The context of the whole conversation suggested that he was taking a scarcely veiled shot at Catholics. Sometimes anti-Catholic Protestants go to great extremes to attack the Catholic Church. Why on earth would someone who believes that Jesus Christ died on the Cross to redeem humanity have anything bad to say about a crucifix? The cross is the only acceptable symbol some Protestants say... because it acknowledges the resurrection. SO, WHICH SHOULD IT BE?... THE CRUCIFIX OR THE CROSS?

There is a history to this issue. Early on the simple cross was the accepted Christian symbol. Christians were being crucified themselves under Nero and a slew of later Roman emperors. Perhaps the image of Christ crucified hit a little too close to home. They would see the cross and it would be enough... it reminded them of the instrument that put Christ to death... and the instruments that would still be visible in their own day... waiting for the next Christian... or empty after the most recent execution of a friend. As the years went by, and as crucifixions became more rare... the symbol of Christ on the cross became more common. People needed to remind themselves exactly what it means that God took human form and physically died for us on the Cross. Remember also, that the cross was never really a symbol of the resurrection. The symbol of the Resurrection in the Bible is the empty tomb. (Jesus did not rise directly from the cross).

Now, let's look at a few Scripture passages to get a handle on this.

1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-24
"The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing , but to us who are being saved it is the power of God... For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Gentiles alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God..."

1 Corinthians 2:2
"I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified."

Galatians 6:14
"But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."

When Catholics look to and even pray before a crucifix, we do so because we follow St. Paul's example. He recommended proclaiming Christ crucified. Does that mean that St. Paul denied the Resurrection? Of course not! What it means is that the crucifixion and death of the Lord is intrinsically connected with the Resurrection. Without Calvary, no Resurrection... no crown of thorns... no crown of glory... no pain, no gain. The idea that God became man and died on a cross was a stumbling block in the time of Jesus and the apostles... and it remains a stumbling block to many people today. As Catholic Christians, we proclaim that Christ died on the Cross for your sins and mine (see Galatians 2:20). It sounds like foolishness to the world, but we boast in the crucifix as the power and wisdom of God. So powerful and loving is God that the Son became man, and suffered and physically died (the Creator of the world DIED!)... and rose again... out of love for us. That is how great our God is. Now that is something to boast about.

Romans 6:5-11
"For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection. We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might no longer be in slavery to sin. ... Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as [being] dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus."

See also: Philippians 3:10

Luke 9:23-24
"Then he [Jesus] said to all, 'If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.' For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it."

We remember that in this world, even after Baptism, we Christians still will experience suffering and eventually are own bodily deaths. Is there a purpose to suffering? Yes, when we prayerfully unite our sufferings (whatever they are) with the sufferings of Christ, our suffering takes on redemptive meaning. We can offer our suffering as a prayer for those whom we love. We offer our suffering in obedience as a gift of love to the Father... through the Son, ... in the Holy Spirit.
Jesus clearly told us to take up our cross and follow Him. When we see a crucifix, we remind our selves of the true (and graphic!) price Christ paid for our redemption... we remember that, through baptism, we have crucified ourselves to the world, nailed sin to the cross so that we can live a new life of God's grace... the life of the Resurrection... freed from slavery to sin. Everytime we go to Confession, we take our sins to the Cross, and experience the joy of the resurrection... new life.

I think part of the problem is that Catholics and some non-Catholics think and worship in a different way. We worship liturgically... certain days and seasons celebrate certain aspects of the the life of Christ. During Lent we focus on sin, the need for repentance, self-denial... during Easter, the focus is on the Resurrection. Every Sunday is a mini-Easter, celebrating the Resurrection. On Friday, we might abstain from meat or do some other sacrifice, pray to the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary or pray the stations of the Cross. Just because we celebrate the joyous birth of Jesus on Christmas one day, does not mean that we have forgotten about His death and resurrection. We focus on different mysteries at different times, always keeping in mind the big picture. Even in Mass itself, we have moments that bring to mind the sacrifice on the Cross... but then we pray: "Christ has DIED (crucifixion), Christ has RISEN (resurrection), Christ will come again. Life in this world is like that for the Christian... times of sorrow and suffering, times of joy, times of continual repentance, times of praise and thanksgiving.

Why would we shutter at the sight of Christ crucified? It was his supreme act of love for us!

This picture on the right is of an Orthodox Christian using the crucifix to protest a Madonna concert in Moscow (who has been attaching herself to a crucifix and wearing a crown of thorns at her concerts--funny how everyone rightly gets angry at Mel Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic tirade--for which he has apologized--and where does anyone repudiate Madonna's anti-Catholicism--something for which she has not apologized?).

Another article on the Crucifix vs. the Cross issue, see the following link:

Now remember that tomorrow - Sept. 15 - is the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Mary remained faithfully at the foot of the cross, offering the Son she loved to the Father.

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