Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Significance of a Simple Crucifix

The crucifixes are covered. The statues, too. We have entered into Passiontide, and the Scriptures and prayers of the Liturgy are helping us intensely dive into Christ's Passion and death before we burst into the glorious celebrations of Easter. Surrounded by the purple cloth that is draped so calmly over the images that fill our church and home, I am filled with longing. Longing for pictures and statues of Christ and his saints to console my heart and capture my eyes when I pray. Longing to rejoice abundantly in Christ's glorious Resurrection.

Images of Christ, hanging battered and beaten on the cross, have encircled me since birth. Bundled under blankets, I was carried into the chapel as a newborn, where I rested under the San Damiano crucifix. Crucifixes of various sizes filled our home as a child, and my eyes grew accustomed to seeing this visible reminder of Christ's sacrifice. As I raise my own children in our home, I am blessed to observe the significance that a simple crucifix carries in their lives. My toddler gleefully carries it around. Sometimes above his head, as he processes across the living room; other times with a youthful sense of innocent fun, like that one time when he gave Jesus a ride in the rocking chair. Children crave stability as they grow, and the crucifix forms a steadfast sign on which my toddler can focus his eyes.

"Why did Jesus die on the cross for us?" I'll ask him.
"Why did Jesus get big owies?" he'll question in response, before answering: "Because he loves me SO MUCH!"

(If only we all could remember this simple catechesis day in and day out, how our perspectives would change in times of hardship!)

A few months ago, another child gave my firstborn a little decorative cross. The simple, plastic, glow-in-the-dark cross was bare, except for the phrase "God is love" that stretched across the beam. It was a very kind gift, but as I looked at it later, I couldn't help but wonder, Why won't it just SHOW ME that "God is love"? I then thought of the old saying: "Actions speak louder than words."

Jesus didn't come to Earth and just off-handedly tell us to "Love one another" (Jn 13:34) before ascending to Heaven. Instead, he illustrated this message with his life, he showed us how to love by undergoing brutal suffering and an excruciating death. The Passion Week Narratives comprise a large chunk of the Gospels (see Matt 26:1-28:20, Mk 8:31-15:47, Lk 19:28-23:56, and Jn 13:1-19:42). Verse after verse, page after page, the Scriptures show us the depth of Christ's love for us. "God is love" isn't just a nice little inspirational phrase from Scripture (1Jn 4:8); it's a powerful statement of a profound reality. It cries out for us to remember that God loves us deeply, personally, passionately, sacrificially. 

Decorating our homes with bare crosses isn't a bad thing; these objects still remind us of Christ's sacrifice for our salvation. However, I've come to realize the value of seeing the cross with Christ's body still on it. Incidentally, the agnostic Sarah Miles-a character in Graham Greene's tremendous novel The End of the Affair, reflects on this significance when she happens to walk into a Catholic church:
"I hated the statues, the crucifix, all the emphasis on the human body. I was trying to escape from the human body and all it needed. I thought I could believe in some kind of a God that bore no relation to ourselves, something vague, amorphous, cosmic, to which I had promised something and which had given me something in return-stretching out of the vague into the concrete human life, like a powerful vapour moving among the chairs and walls...And then I came into that dark church in Park Road and saw the bodies standing around me on all the altars-the hideous plaster statues with their complacent faces, and I remembered that they believed in the resurrection of the body, the body I wanted destroyed for ever."

When our eyes see the body of Christ, hanging on the cross for us, we are smacked with the reality that God became man: that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). He sweat blood, his skin was ripped away from his body as he was scourged, and large thorns penetrated his head. When we suffer, when our bodies and hearts are broken and tired, we can look at the crucifix and remember that Christ knows what our suffering is like. Furthermore, I've found that the more intensely I meditate on Christ's passion, the greater my joy in his Resurrection grows. 


  1. This is beautiful, AnneMarie! I find gazing at a crucifix to be so much more meaningful than a bare cross too. You explained that well. It really is putting into a visual way how much we are loved, which has been so impactful to me to see and reflect on. I'm so grateful for this tradition, and carry it on by having my own crucifixes too! Also, that's adorable your kids know that simple but profound message.

  2. As you know, I'm not Catholic, so I grew up around bare crosses and attend churches with these. I've been told (I don't know if this is accurate or not) that most Protestant traditions use bare crosses as a reminder of the Resurrection (as in, Jesus is not still on the cross or still dead).
    Anyway, I don't know if that is true or if people just didn't want to see the reminder of Christ's suffering. I get this latter possibility because I don't like to think about this either, but I do believe it is beneficial to do so. That is one reason I do observe Lent and take time to read and meditate on the story of Christ's death.
    Perhaps there is a place for both? Crucifixes and bare crosses?

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective, Shannon! I think it's interesting that some traditions use a bare cross as a reminder of the Resurrection. I guess I've mostly experienced (in Catholic circles) that symbols of the Resurrection are often pictures of the empty tomb/tomb with the stone rolled away, or statues and paintings of the resurrected Christ.

      Like you note, it is uncomfortable-but so beneficial to be reminded of Christ's suffering for us. But, I think that bare crosses can still have a place in our lives-they can still be lovely and good reminders of Christ's sacrifice, and incidentally some bare crosses are particularly rich in meaning. For example, the Jerusalem Cross (which, I've read, can represent Christ's five wounds or the four Gospels, among other things) is something that Christians have been using for centuries. There's also the Maronite Cross, which has three crossbars-I've read that those can represent the 3 Persons of the Trinity. Every cross, no matter what it looks like, is a visible reminder of Christ and his sacrifice, which is a great thing!