Why do Catholic churches have the “crucified Christ” on the cross versus the “risen Christ?”
— Carol from Petersburg
The next time you are flipping through television stations and you land on a televangelist, stop for a moment and look for a crucifix or a cross. Chances are, you won’t see one.
Although this is a tragedy, it is nothing new.
From the church’s beginning, there have been those who either denied or downplayed Christ’s suffering and death. We call them Gnostics, and they still exist today, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses being but two prominent examples.
St. Paul encountered such deniers in his years of missionary work, and he would have none of it, telling the Corinthians, for example: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
No one in the ancient world would have given Paul the time of day if he advocated a mythic hero who traveled to the underworld and returned unscathed. Other pagan religions told similar stories. But that was not what Paul preached.
Paul preaches what the Gospels make explicit: Jesus was not a myth. He was the God of Israel made man who willingly went to the very limits of our sinful disfunction (which is death), diving down into its most terrible manifestation (crucifixion), in order to provide the counterweight necessary to shift us away from sin and toward salvation.
Christ bears his wounds into eternity.
The crucifix reminds us of this, and in its very strangeness and offensiveness, it offers us of two important truths: the undeniable seriousness of sin and that it came about through a body: Adam’s. Second, that God’s radical solution to sin also comes about through a body: Christ’s.
What else can we call the body of Christ? The church and the Eucharist.
Fittingly, the church requires that “either on the altar or near it, there is to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, a cross clearly visible to the assembled people … so as to call to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord.” (GIRM #308)
The crucifix reveals that what happened on Calvary and in the tomb, we see now re-presented before our eyes in the liturgy. Every time we attend Mass, we are at the foot of the cross and the door of the empty tomb.
In other words, when we are at Mass, we are no less privileged than Mary and John standing at the foot of the cross nor Peter and John when they first ducked into the tomb.
MaryThe crucifix is God’s unmistakable sign of just how far he’s willing to go to save us.
Father Seth Brown is pastor at St. Parish in New Berlin, Sacred Heart Parish in Franklin, Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Alexander, and St. Sebastian Parish in Waverly.