If you ever have religious conversations with our Protestant brothers and sisters, chances are you’ve been asked why Catholics insist on keeping Christ on the cross.
Protestant places of worship will prominently display a cross, but not a crucifix. Sometimes even Catholics shy away from the crucifix, especially if it’s too graphic with blood and suffering.
There are several reasons why the crucifix is so central to Catholic worship and spirituality.
First of all, for the celebration of Holy Mass, the Church requires us to have not just a cross or a statue of Jesus, but a crucifix.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:
“Section 117: The altar is to be covered with at least one white cloth. In addition, on or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a Holyday of Obligation, or if the Diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candlesticks with lighted candles.
“Likewise, on the altar or close to it, there is to be a cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified. The candles and the cross with the figure of Christ crucified may also be carried in the procession at the Entrance.
“On the altar itself may be placed a Book of the Gospels distinct from the book of other readings, unless it is carried in the Entrance Procession.” (emphasis added)
The Mass is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ, so the Church requires a crucifix to help the faithful more easily make that connection.
The crucifixion is a one-time, historical event that has infinite value down through the ages, including our own time.
The Risen Christ comes to be present on the altar through the Eucharistic Prayer, but even then as the Gospels state (for instance, John 20:20), He still bears the marks of the cross, though now they are glorious and bring salvation and healing, rather than suffering.
The title of this article is a quote of the early Church writer, Tertullian (who died in A.D. 220) from his work “On the Resurrection.”
The flesh is specifically the flesh of Christ and through our sharing in His flesh, we come to share His salvation.
In the Gospel of John, chapter 6, Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you,” (John 6:53).
But then a few verses later, He says, “It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life,” (John 6:63).
To understand the seeming contraction, the crucial question is: Whose flesh is it? The flesh of Jesus is spirit-filled and gives life. The flesh of the rest of us does not. Another reason why the flesh (of Christ) is the hinge of salvation!
Finally, there’s a marvelous quote from St. Paul where he shares that in his preaching, worshiping and ministry, the crucifix played a prominent role: “O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?” (Galatians 3:1)
Paul likes to tell it as it is, but his outburst toward the Galatians was a beautiful window for us to see the importance of the crucifix for the New Testament Church long after the crucifixion itself.
Elsewhere in Paul’s writings, we see not only his devotion to but insistence on the crucified Christ as part of the central message for Christians: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
So, the next time you’re asked about the crucifix, or wonder about it yourself, remember that the spirit-filled flesh of Christ is the hinge of our salvation.
Remember that the early Church used the crucifix in witness and worship. And remember that the Church continues to require the crucifix for the celebration of the Mass so that we never forget the infinite value of His death for us on the cross.