The above accusation is one that some Protestant sects often level against Catholics because we have crucifixes in our parishes, homes, around our necks, etc., rather than an empty cross. These Protestants believe that because Christ is no longer crucified and is in Heaven, that a crucifix sends the wrong message. Some will go so far as to say crucifixes are sacrilegious. Thus, they admonish Catholics for keeping Christ on the cross.
An Odd Accusation
I find it odd that some Protestants believe Catholics have the power to keep Christ on the cross. Obviously, we do not have such power. The crucifix is merely an image of Christ’s redemptive act that He accomplished 2000 years ago (Hebrews 2:14-15). Catholics can no more keep Christ on the cross than an insect could hold an elephant above its head. The charge is, therefore, ridiculous. Regardless, we should examine why Catholics use crucifixes. Before doing this, however, let me say that Catholics also use “empty” crosses, and we have used many types of them throughout the centuries.
Before Gutenberg invented the printing press in the year 1440, the literacy rate was less than ten percent. In fact, due to the relatively few Bibles in print before the printing press, people would typically hear Bible passages read at the Mass only. Bibles were expensive and most could not read them even if they had the money to purchase one. Due to high illiteracy rates and the high price of books, people often communicated Bible stories through art. Now, what better way would there have been to communicate and remind people of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross than through a crucifix? Furthermore, at least two Bible passages support the use of crucifixes.
Scripture and the Church on Keeping Christ on the Cross
In 1 Corinthians 1:23-24, St. Paul writes, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” A few verses later, St. Paul writes that he did not come proclaiming Christ in lofty words. Rather, he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
These two passages convey a few truths about the use of crucifixes: 1) The original Church (the Catholic Church) preached Christ crucified (a crucifix was one way in which the Church preached this); 2) “those who are called” understand the necessity of preaching Christ crucified because Christ’s crucifixion is the wisdom and power of God; and 3) Christ crucified for our sins is simple for anyone to understand and we do not need to use lofty words, so that faith does not rest in the wisdom of men (vs. 5). Therefore, we Catholics preach Christ crucified with words and images.
Also, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal paragraph 308 states, “…either on the altar or near it, there is to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, a cross clearly visible to the assembled people. It is desirable that such a cross should remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations, so as to call to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord.”
Who Would Not Want Christ on the Cross Preached?
Given St. Paul’s statements and the constant teaching of the Catholic Church, preaching Christ crucified by using words or images is a good and holy thing to do. In fact, it seems to me that the refusal to preach Christ crucified by any medium available is sacrilegious or at least negligent. Thus, those who refuse to use crucifixes to preach Christ crucified should ask themselves – Who on earth, or in hell, would not want crucifixes used to preach the central truth of the Christian faith?