As a Protestant I believed that it really did not matter if it was a crucifix or a cross. I had seen a crucifix hanging on my grandmother’s wall my entire childhood. She was not Catholic. She was Methodist. I had also worn a cross around my neck almost every day since I become Southern Baptist. I believed they both stood for the same thing: Jesus’ crucifixion for our sins. I was wrong.
I was never uncomfortable with displaying a crucifix or at the sight of one. As I said, my grandmother always had one hanging in her home even though she was not Catholic. First, let’s start by explaining the difference visually. The crucifix contains the image of Christ crucified hanging on the cross. The normal ‘cross’ one sees, particularly in the Bible Belt South, is simply as its name suggest: a cross. Protestants will argue the empty cross stands for the truth that Jesus was resurrected and did not stay on the cross. Catholics will debate that the body of Christ on the cross matters because it exemplifies his death for our sins.
“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning. 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.” (I Corinthians 1:17-18)
St. Paul is writing to the church in Corinth and he speaks about the importance of recognizing and remembering the cross. He references the cross in such a way as to elevate it to a crucial part of being a Christian. It is a sign of Christ’s victory over evil and sin. It is a reminder that Jesus won the battle for us and we have a way to receive forgiveness for our sins and to enter eternal life with him.
A Protestant could look at this verse and declare that it supports their belief the cross is the proper way to go and that the crucifix is ignoring the resurrection of Jesus, or at a bare minimum it is forgetting it. One must also remember that in order to understand Scripture it is necessary to take the totality of Scripture’s teaching into proper context. If we look at what Zechariah says about Jesus all the way back in the Old Testament then we will see that it is, indeed, the crucifix which is the greatest reminder.
“They shall look on him they have thrust through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son, and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a firstborn.” (Zec. 12:10)
Zechariah and St. Paul are not the only ones who highlight the importance of the crucifix. However, the best explanation of the distinguishment I believe to have found is that when I look upon the crucifix, I see Jesus. I am reminded of His sacrifice for me. I am transported back to a time when, on a foreign hill, Jesus suffered and died for me before I was even thought about being born. I gaze upon the agony in His face and am brought to tears. It should have been me.
When I, as a Protestant, looked upon a cross it was not the same result. I was reminded, indeed, that Jesus died for me. It was, however, easier for the cross to become more of a jewelry piece than a tool of power for Christ to impart graces to draw us closer to Him. The empty cross also has never maintained or held a power over evil, demons, or Satan as much as the crucifix according to exorcists. When an exorcism is performed, it is the crucifix and not the empty cross which is used to battle the demons and evil forces of hell. Why? Scripture tells us why.
It is during every Mass I find myself, in the quiet and prayerful moments of the liturgy, gazing at the crucifix and thanking the Lord (as tears many times fill my eyes) that I am so unworthy yet He deemed me valuable enough to suffer. He understands my hurt, pain, and suffering because He endured it.
Many Catholics display crosses in their home or wear crosses in jewelry. The cross is not wrong. Jesus did, indeed, die on the cross and then rose from the dead. However it is lacking in the power the crucifix to change our lives, speak to our hearts, and defeat evil. Let’s gaze upon the crucified Christ on the cross this Lent.