When we bought our oldest daughter a crucifix as a gift last year, she joked that it was time to finally “come out” to her friends at law school. Up to this point, she’d never really let on that she was a practicing Catholic. I get this. It’s a bold statement to say that you’re Catholic in today’s secular society, where being “spiritual, but not religious” is the new norm.
My daughter’s feelings are justified, but they’re certainly nothing new. In fact, I don’t imagine they’re too far off from what the very first Christians would have felt. Fearful of being persecuted – or even killed – for their radical, new beliefs, they were none too eager to reveal their Christian identity. Today most of us don’t have to worry about being literally tortured or crucified, but being “socially crucified” is still a real possibility. So why have we hung onto this image of Jesus on the Cross? What does a crucifix mean, and why is it used in Catholic devotion today?
While it seems almost inevitable that the Cross would become the definitive symbol of Christianity, it didn’t happen over night. In the early days of the Church, followers of Jesus used less obvious symbols, like a fish (the “ichthus” seen on emblems and bumper stickers) or an anchor. Once it was no longer illegal to be a Christian, a simple Latin cross (shorter cross bar raised above the center) was adopted.1 Over time, though, the body of Christ was added to remind the faithful of the great suffering which brought about their redemption.
When we fix our eyes on the crucifix, we are reminded that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is truly the sacrifice of Calvary – that we are at the foot of the Cross, adoring the Lord as He offers himself to the Father.
Seeing the agony that Jesus endured makes us uncomfortable; it grates at our sensibilities, our sense of decency and decorum. Until The Passion of the Christ, I don’t think most people understood how gruesome and bloody Jesus’ death really was.2
We must never be ashamed of Our Lord on the Cross, of proclaiming as only a crucifix can that “Christ died for me.” That He was “wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.”3 This is what a crucifix says, what it speaks so loudly. Seeing Jesus on the Cross, in all its graphic detail, helps us to “relive” that moment on Calvary and to be grateful for the gift of salvation that we’ve been given. The crucifix is an icon of His sacrifice – indeed, of His love!
Perhaps, then, this is a good place to start: to wear the crucifix and display it in our homes, to allow it to silently bear witness to the truth of Christ’s life and death, and to the truth in our hearts. Like St. Paul, we “preach Christ crucified…the power of God and the wisdom of God.”4 The Cross of our Lord is at the heart – the crux – of what it means to be a Christian. It is our identity. May we all come to embrace it with great joy.
Hail, O Cross, our only hope!
– Kelley Holy
1 “Archaeology of the Cross and Crucifix;” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04517a.htm, Accessed 19 February 2014.
2 The movie was based on the visions of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, as chronicled in The Sorrowful (Dolorous) Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. For more information, go to http://www.jesus-passion.com/DOLOROUS_PASSION_OF_OUR_LORD_JESUS_CHRIST.htm
3 Isaiah 53:5
4 1 Corinthians 1:23-24