I have often heard complaints about the Catholic use of the crucifix. The typical remark is something similar to, “Jesus rose from the dead and is alive. Why do you keep Him on the cross? We use an empty cross because Jesus is alive!” There are also people who think that the crucifix demonstrates that Catholics believe in “re-killing” Jesus at every Mass, which is a misunderstanding of the Mass.
Catholics know very well that Jesus is alive, and we do not “re-kill” Him in the Mass. In fact, for the six weeks of Easter, the crucifix in my parish church is replaced by an image of the risen Christ. Throughout the year, every weekend is a “little Easter” as we are expected to acknowledge the soberness of Good Friday and the celebration of Easter Sunday. Catholics do not minimize Christ’s resurrection. After all, it is His resurrected, glorified body we partake of at every Mass.
The Romans put crucified people on display to frighten the population into submission. Catholics put the crucified Christ on display to say, “We’re not afraid of death or of you.” In his Catholicism television series, Fr. Baron points out that holding up the crucifix is actually a kind of “taunt.” It’s an “in your face” way of saying, “Christ has conquered death. Do your worst to us and we will still overcome because Christ has overcome.”
We can also point to the Apostle Paul’s statement that “we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1Cor 1:23). The crucifix is a visual aid for preaching the Gospel. It stands in stark contrast to worldly expectations of what power and leadership are about. But, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1Cor 1:25). The Romans crucified thousands of people, but only Jesus conquered death. Only Jesus was crucified willingly and for our sake. His “foolishness” and “weakness” show God’s true power and leadership. Catholics are showing the world, not just any cross, but the cross of Jesus. That’s the one cross that changes everything. Like Paul, Catholics “preach Christ crucified.”
When we look upon the crucifix, we also see more than the cross of Jesus. We are also reminded that we are not yet finished with our own crosses. Jesus has risen, but we still have a cross to bear in this life. The servant is not above the Master. The servant follows the Master. The crucifix is a daily reminder that Jesus does not remove all of our suffering in this life. In this life, we are called to embrace whatever suffering comes our way for His sake. The crucifix indicates that Christians are still called to follow His lead to the cross. The empty cross is a bit too sanitized and easy to look upon. Christ calls us to life as it is here and now. Life is messy.
Catholics absolutely rejoice in Christ’s resurrection and we await the day when we can join Him in that blessed hope. Yet, we also realize that we must presently be about the business of carrying our crosses. We, like our Master, must die to self before we can live with Him. So, we look upon the crucifix now and place our future hope in the resurrection. We’re not finished yet. We’re still running the race and fighting the good fight. The crucifix reminds us.