Crucifixes or Crosses?

Q: A Protestant told me that we shouldn’t have crucifixes, but bare crosses, because we are to worship Jesus risen, not Jesus crucified, and because he is no longer on the cross. What do you think of this argument?

A: It is difficult to take this position seriously because it is so patently absurd. The arguments used to support it are not the real reason the use of crucifixes is opposed. The arguments offered above are just rationalizations which distract from the real reason; they are a smoke screen of post-Reformation rhetoric.

The real reason Protestants oppose crucifixes is that the crucifix is a three-dimensional image of the crucifixion-including Jesus. Protestants have no problem with two-dimensional images of the crucifixion. If you read their children’s Bible-story books, you will find lots of two-dimensional pictures of the crucifixion. But if one goes from two to three dimensions, suddenly it becomes an unallowable image of Jesus-an idol which people are going to worship, thinking it is the real Jesus who is in heaven. Give me a break!

Having said that, let us address the arguments offered above for the anti-crucifix position. First, there is the issue of when to worship Jesus-when he is being crucified or when he is risen-this is a total red herring. Jesus is to be worshipped both when he is being crucified and when he is risen. The reason is that he is God both times. He must be worshipped all through the Incarnation-before, during, and after the crucifixion. The arrogant boast “We worship Jesus risen, not crucified” is, taken literally, an expression of a grossly defective Christology.

It also fails to give proper significance to the event of the crucifixion. It was not the resurrection which paid the price of our sins. Christ paid the price for those on the cross. Thus Paul tells the Corinthians: “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2, RSV). The message of the crucifixion of Christ, which paid the price for our sins and paved the way for Christ’s resurrection, was the center of Paul’s message, and it is simply arrogant posturing that has a “holier-than-Paul” attitude to suggest that the focus should not be kept on the crucifixion and that we should only honor Jesus in his raised form and not also honor the memory of what he did on the cross.

In fact, remembering and commemorating the crucifixion is the whole purpose of having a cross in the first place. Christians-Protestants included-do not look at crosses to remind themselves that Jesus is no longer there. They look at crosses to remind themselves of what Jesus did there. It is thus entirely natural to depict Jesus as being there when we wish to remember what he did on the cross, as illustrated by all the two-dimensional representations of the crucifixion that one finds in Protestant books. If it wasn’t for the knee-jerk, paranoid reaction they often feel around three-dimensional images, Protestants themselves would never make three-dimensional crosses without a corpus for any reason except convenience-the same reason Catholics sometimes have corpus-less crosses.

As to the ridiculous argument that Jesus is not on the cross now, several things may be pointed out. First, if you want to worship Jesus where he is now then you ought not be looking at a cross at all. Second, the cross on which Jesus died is not standing now, so you are automatically looking at a representation of a cross that stood in the past-again distancing the remembrance from where Jesus is now. And third, there probably never was a time when Jesus’ cross stood without his body on it.

The sequence went one of two ways. Either the whole cross was laid on the ground, Jesus was nailed to it, it was raised, and then when Jesus was dead the whole cross was taken down so that his body might be removed-meaning that nothing was left standing–or the sequence went like this: Jesus, on the ground, was nailed to the crossbeam, which was then raised and hung on the vertical shaft and his feet were nailed, then, after he was dead, the crossbeam was unhung from the cross and his body brought down like that, leaving only the vertical shaft of the cross standing.

We sometimes see artistic representations of Jesus being taken down from a standing cross, but those are archetypal, not historical images. Thus Jesus’ cross probably never stood without his body on it after he had been crucified (especially since Joseph of Arimathea kept it as it had been standing in his garden, where his tomb was [cf. John 19:38-41, Matt. 27:59-60], and it was afterward venerated by the early Christians). Thus, if one has a cross that lacks a corpus for any reason other than convenience, one is representing and “remembering” a circumstance that probably never happened.

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