The Christian crucifix draws the eyes, mind, and heart to the death of Jesus of Nazareth two thousand years ago. To many an atheist the crucifix is too much – for it is an image of a bloody execution and nothing more. To many a Protestant the crucifix is not enough – for it keeps Christ on the cross proclaiming nothing of the Resurrection.
But at the very summit of the Christian Gospel is the crucified Christ; indeed there is no Gospel without it. Yes, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is the point of the Gospel and the crux of Christianity. It is both an image of the infinite love of God for us and of the unconditional love required of us by God.
“You will not be able rationally to read the Gospel and regard the Crucifixion as an afterthought or an anti-climax or an accident in the life of Christ; it is obviously the point of the story,” wrote Chesterton in his biography of St. Francis. Indeed without the crucifixion there is no resurrection; and without the resurrection there is no salvation; for if Christ was not raised then we are still in our sins. The crucified flesh of God is the hinge of salvation.
Yet the image of the Crucified Christ remains a sign of contradiction today – as it always has.
To the secular critics in this hedonistic, post-Christian age the passion of Jesus amounts to nothing more than another gruesome torture in ancient Rome. These critics cannot see beyond what Cicero called “the most horrendous torture” of crucifixion. But beyond the surface it is easy to see that Christ’s crucifixion was very different from any other Roman execution (or any other execution for that matter). This is plainly evident in the plain fact of Christianity. For two thousand years Christianity has gathered steam and snowballed forward along the timeline of history with this sign of contradiction at its center. The crucifix is the sign of man’s salvation. Anyone who sees that will not be offended by it; for they will not merely see “a crucifix.” They will see vastly more and will feel the blessed weight of it. They will be moved to venerate it.
This failure to see Christ’s death as more than just another execution is where the ultimate error of the non-Christian critic lies: for they do not see that this execution is also a sacrifice; and not just a sacrifice – the Sacrifice. From St. Paul who preached that “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed” to the early Church Fathers to Pope Benedict XVI to Dr. Scott Hahn, the great Catholic theologians throughout the ages have asserted that the crucifixion of Christ at Calvary was more than a mere execution. It was the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. It was the beginning of the end of the reign of the Evil One, the frothing author of death, pain, deception, and the destruction of souls. The crucifix, then, does not represent the defeat of Christ; it represents the defeat of Satan. It is the ultimate sign of hope – and of victory.
What About the Resurrection?
Protestants unlike the skeptics aforementioned do not deny the power of Christ’s death. They venerate Christ’s Passion in the Scriptures and in their imaginations; and yet so many reel at the crucifix (this by no means applies to all Protestants). You will rarely see a crucifix in a Protestant home or church. Some go so far as to say that Christians who venerate the crucifix “keep Christ on the cross” and are thus drawing attention away from the fact that Christ rose from the dead. Furthermore, they’ll charge, the crucifix is a graven image of the Christ’s death – a big “no-no” according to God’s commandment in the Book of Exodus:
“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them…” (Exodus 20:4)
Of course anyone who is familiar with the context will know that this is a provision against the Israelites’ tendency to make idols of graven images. A “graven” or man-made image which serves a good and holy purpose are not absolutely forbidden; and this is made clear only five chapters later when God commands Moses to make two gold statues of angels for the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:18-20). The bronze serpent hoisted by Moses is another Old Testament example of a holy image used for God’s purposes (see Numbers 21).
Now look closely at the commandment under consideration. Its bare bones interpretation forbids the making of graven images and likenesses of anything in heaven above or in the earth beneath. Wouldn’t that also include the cross alone? But you’ll find a cross on the premises – and in the worship space – of almost every Protestant church. Furthermore you would be hard-pressed to find a Protestant who has not prayed in front of a cross (and a Bible for that matter) and looked along it in prayer and adoration to God.
This is the practical purpose of the crucifix: to draw our minds and hearts along the image of Christ Crucified to Christ Himself. When a holy image captures our imagination our mind and heart surge towards heaven itself. Veneration of any holy image never ends at the image itself. We may bow down before images of God, the angels, or the saints; but we may not bow down to them. The latter is called idolatry and explicitly prohibited by God.
The Catholic Thing
In his book Catholicism Bishop Barron identifies what he calls “The Catholic Thing.” That thing, he says, is the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity. But isn’t that “the Christian thing,” all other Christians included? Not quite, he argues. For the Catholic Church represents the fullness of the Incarnation in the world as the extension of Christ’s mystical body in time and space down through history (see Rom 12; 1 Cor 12). His body is indestructible. Time has no power over it. And although it bears the marks of torture and persecution it reigns forever.
The hands of Christians then – who are the “members” of Christ’s mystical body – are thus Christ’s hands inasmuch as they act in love; inasmuch as they act in Christ. Thus when they “create” for the sake of glorifying God they act in the image and likeness of God. God is the archetypal Creator; and we create in His image. We are to do as Our Father does. Thus art is the signature of man, suggests Chesterton. This is especially true in light of the fact that we are made in the Creator’s image and likeness.
The great theologian St. Anselm taught that God is the greatest conceivable being. He is infinitely perfect by His mere existence alone, even when considered apart from creation. Therefore, God plus creation is not better than God alone. Creation is thus pure gift; and the same can be said for the Incarnation.
God did not become “better” by becoming man. He was not in the strictest sense changed by it for God is immutable. But matter and, most of all, man was changed by the Incarnation. God took on matter which set the stage for men to become members of His Mystical Body. The Incarnation did not thus result in the angelization of man but rather opened new possibilities to man as a body; and thus new doors to the Giottos, Dantes, and Palestrinas of the world. Indeed, God-made-man opened the holy doors to the holy icon. Christians (unlike the Jews who rejected the Incarnation) could now rightly and justly create artistic images of God with a clear conscience. There was a great spike in religious art once Christianity was legalized, and the crucifix and its representations became widespread after the sixth century on manuscripts, private monuments, and eventually on public monuments.
St. Athanasius has elegantly summed up the Gospel by writing that God became man so that man might become God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church re-affirms this powerful statement (460). But for such a possibility to be re-opened to man, first, God had to suffer His Passion. That was the point of the Incarnation – but not the final result. The final result was of course the resurrection of Christ and the renewal of man.
The image of Christ on the cross is therefore not a dead end but a stop sign: we must pause before it, then look beyond it to Christ’s glorious resurrection – and our own resurrection of the body that awaits. The crucifix reaches out to man and changes him proclaiming “You have been bought with a price” while asking “Will you now take up your own cross and follow Christ?”
The crucifix reminds us of the indispensable fact that we have been bought with a price, once for all. Christ has died for our sins. It is finished. But the crucifix is not only a sign of His death; it also a sign of the Life won by His death. It is a sign of sacrifice for it proclaims the severe price that Christ paid for us; but it is also a sign of hope for it proclaims that we have indeed been bought.