There are few things more distinctively Catholic, in America at least, than the Crucifix.
Among our Protestant brothers and sisters, tradition holds to a bare cross, or some alternate form of identifier as a follower of Christ. In the Catholic Church, though, the image of our Lord’s passion is front and center, both figuratively and literally, with massive sculptures of Christ crucified in nearly every Catholic church, and often a smaller version worn around our necks.
Why such an emphasis on this moment of death? Why do we as Catholics seem to wish to always be reminded of the lowest moment in human history, the public execution of the Son of God? It seemed strange to me as a child, growing up in an assortment of Calvinist and Anglican churches, and I think it bears examination now. We can endorse this practice, I think, on two points (or, rather, I will lay out two reasons among many that it is commendable).
First among these is simply that the higher-minded Protestant points are true: an empty cross would bring to mind the glories of the resurrection, and our eternal victory over death in Christ. Well and Good. We, however, are not in heaven, and the realities of sin and death are still quite present around us at the time of this writing. Home is secured, but we are still on the way there through a dark and dangerous wood.
There is a short story by the great Catholic author Flannery O’Connor wherein the villain, a serial killer, remarks on one of his victims that “she would have been a good woman, if there had been someone there to shoot her every day of her life”. This is one purpose that the Crucifix serves. By reminding us of the greatest evil humanity can commit, it points us to our lowest self. It reminds us that we are not yet good, that Heaven is, at the moment, far off. Pope Saint John Paul the Great called us “an Easter People”, but we are also a Good Friday people, a fact rendered stark when we are led by the liturgy to shout “Crucify Him!” every passiontide.
The Cross must be laden with the Crucified, then, to show us who we are now. It lays out the ugliness and hate present within us, that we would murder the Bridegroom by our sin. How generous of the Church and her artists to present us with a picture of what our sin truly is: not an abstract violation against an abstract Eternal Legislator, but a splintering, bleeding, piercing rejection of the One who loves us.
The second reason, taken with the first, seems to be a paradox. The crucifix reminds us who we are called to become.
The cross is not only, as some would have it, a testimony to our great sin, or to the evil of state violence, or even a payment of debt, though it is of course all these things and more. It is first and foremost an act of extreme love and self-gift.
Christ on the cross is the image of love rendered down to its most basic meaning. We as Catholics define “love” as “willing the good of the other”. The implication in that definition, though, is that this “willing” is without caveats as regards our own comfort. The image of Our Lord Crucified is a challenge to all who come into contact with it. It asks “Are you willing to love like this? Will you settle for your love being nothing more than an abstract regard for abstract persons, or will you follow me by pouring yourself out in blood and water for those who reject you, hurt you, and hate you?”.
The antagonist in the aforementioned Flannery O’Connor story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, says just before he kills a woman that “If (Jesus) did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him”. The great challenge for those of us who believe that Jesus did in fact do what he said is figuring out what that act of following looks like.
The first step is to know who we are and Who it is that we follow. This is a timeless question, asked by Saints such as Francis of Assisi, who famously knelt before a crucifix for hours at a time asking “Who are you, Lord my God, and who am I?”. It was asked by Saint Bonaventure, who was questioned on his inspiration by a more-famous fellow faculty member at the University of Paris. In response, he took St. Thomas Aquinas to his desk and showed him the crucifix which stood above it, saying “This is the book from which I receive everything I write; and it has taught me whatever little I know". The Crucifix reveals humanity at its lowest and highest, and contains all the ground between the two.
Why the Crucifix then? Because it is a sign, a sort of mileage marker, if you will. It does indeed point us home, reminding us of the glories of Heaven where the ugliness of sin and death will be no more. It also shows us how far we have to go by reminding us of our own sin and brokenness. A spiritual mentor once encouraged me to ponder the Crucifix and ask who I was on a day-to-day, or even moment-to-moment basis. Was I self-sacrificing, not begrudgingly but out of a desire for the good of others, or was I in the crowd rejecting the love offered to me by the Bridegroom? This was an incredibly fruitful (if often uncomfortable) practice for me, and one that could be beneficial for anyone.
So thank God, Brothers and Sisters, not only for his sacrifice on the cross, but for the gift he has given us through the artists who remind us of that sacrifice. God sees our needs and answers them, even in ways that seem strange, ugly, or unpleasant at first.
Andy Brandt is a Senior at Kansas State. You can find him writing about Catholicism, Politics, and Justice at https://medium.com/@