When I was growing up in various Protestant churches, and in all the Protestant churches of my adulthood, one of the few symbols on display in each church was an empty cross. Usually inside the sanctuary, front and center.
Catholic churches, as most probably know, are known for their use of the Crucifix. This practice is odd to some, and unacceptable to others outside of the Catholic faith.
This is why I have embraced the Crucifix.
What’s Missing In The Empty Cross
To start, I would like to share why I’ve come to the conclusion that the empty cross is a less-than-ideal representation of our faith. I’ve been told a few reasons why Protestant churches display only the empty cross. One reason is the idea that Catholics leave Jesus on the cross because we for some reason don’t focus on His resurrection… and that Protestants do focus on his resurrection, hence not leaving Jesus hanging up there. And another reason is that the idea of making “graven images” is clearly forbidden in scripture.
I remember even as a little girl, thinking that the empty cross didn’t make a lot of sense to represent our belief in and focus on the resurrection. Namely, the fact that when Jesus was taken down off the cross, and the cross was indeed empty … he was dead. It feels like to me, wherever there is an empty cross, we are basically displaying an empty instrument of torture. The cross was used to execute many, many people over the ages, including 2 others at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion itself. The cross is how Jesus died, but apart from Jesus being on it, it is an execution device upon which many others died as well.
I always thought that some sort of symbol of the empty tomb, or the stone rolled away from the door would be more appropriate to represent the resurrection. If we want to reflect Jesus risen, let’s make a symbol of the place He rose from, right?! No one else rose from the dead under His own divine power like Jesus did. Lazarus, too, rose, but it was only under the power of Jesus that he did that. So the idea of the empty tomb symbolizing Christ’s resurrection, if that is the ultimate aim of those who leave Jesus off the cross, would probably be a better fit.
And then there is the graven images argument. In my new life as a Catholic, I am so enjoying learning about the Old Testament and how Judaism points to The Gospel in so many different ways. But, as I’ve learned, when one looks specifically about God commanding the Israelites not to make graven images in Exodus, he’s telling them not to make graven images to worship. Not that they can’t make images ever. In fact, shortly after issuing that command, God tells the Israelites to construct two statues of angels for either side of the tabernacle. The Israelites were to make statues, or images of angels. They just couldn’t, and shouldn’t worship them.
Similarly, Catholics don’t worship the crucifix. What a crucifix does is help us focus our minds on Christ, and the love that he poured out for us in his redemptive suffering. Worship is reserved for God alone.
Love in Action
While I still like the idea of the empty tomb, I believe a cross depicting Jesus on it helps remind us of how great the cost of our salvation was, and how great God’s love is for humanity at the same time. Especially in America, we are generally so comfortable. Many, though not all, of us don’t have a context for extreme suffering. And the cost for our salvation was so, very great. Every time I look at a crucifix I see the love of my Savior and I am so thankful.
And, honestly speaking, sometimes, also, the Crucifix is hard for me to look at. I don’t like picturing Jesus up there on the cross and knowing that he needed to do that because of my sin. I also believe that just because it’s difficult to look at doesn’t mean I shouldn’t. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be Mary, seeing her Son up there, dying, and staying by his side. Not even all the disciples were there with Jesus at the cross. I wonder if I would have had the strength to stay. When I pray through the Sorrowful Mysteries on the Rosary, the crucifixion is by far the most difficult decade for me to meditate on. But I also take comfort that Peter, who denied Jesus 3 times and likely was not at the crucifixion, was still the man God called to be the first Pope of the Church.
Even though it is difficult to look at, the Crucifix reminds me of the abundant grace of God then, and now, and forever. Seeing the Crucifix enables me to raise up my eyes and be willing to carry whatever cross I have before me during any particular moment of any particular day. It helps me think on God more. And it helps me grow in my faith and joy at what was accomplished on Calvary and 3 days later. All good, faith building and life giving things.
Embracing the Crucifix has been another of the gifts of my Catholic faith.
Note: This article appeared in its original form on my conversion blog, ProtestantInterrupted, in April 2016, and has been updated for This Catholic Family in November 2017.