Ours is a happily-Catholic home. You don’t have to get much further than the threshold of the front door to realize it. Like many Catholics, we display statues, holy pictures, and other tangible reminders of our faith. These serve as inspiration for our devotional life and sometimes mark the current liturgical season.
About ten years ago, dear friends came to visit my family for the weekend. Our beloved friends are warm and wonderful. They are not Catholic, but they are devout Christians, and we have had many discussions about our faith lives and our religions. It was a joy to be together, and it was the first time our children had seen one another since the oldest ones were babes in arms.
That particular afternoon, while we were playing with our toddlers on the floor and chatting comfortably, my friend fingered a gold cross around her neck and asked, “Do you mind sharing why you wear a crucifix?”
I was glad that we had the kind of friendship where such a discussion could be comfortable despite our religious differences. I was also grateful for the opportunity to discuss it with her and learn her thoughts as I noticed the beautiful gold cross around her neck.
She went on to say, “We worship the Risen Christ.”
“So do we,” I said gently.
“So we wear the cross, not the crucifix. I have always been puzzled by crucifixes,” she finished.
The Body of Christ
I explained to her that the corpus, or the body of Christ on the crucifix, is a reminder of many things for us as Catholics: of the sacrificial love of God the Father, who gave His only Son to save us from our sins. Of Jesus’ merciful love for us as the children of God whom He came to save. Of His model of perfect obedience to God as He did His Father’s will.
While all this is true and seems only natural for us as Catholics, some Protestants are confused by our desire to wear the crucifix. Our Christian brothers and sisters may see it as strange or confusing at best. At worst, they believe it is morbid or idolatrous. Many Protestants wear crosses but few regard the crucifix in the sacred way that we do as Catholics.
My friend did help me understand the source of their convictions when she explained their belief that to worship the Risen Christ is to worship the victory of God over death. For some Christians, to be reminded of the sufferings of Christ on the cross is painful because of their own part in His death. They may also believe it focuses on His humanity and not on His glorious divinity. My friend said that she learned from her childhood that the empty cross was our sign of Jesus having victoriously conquered sin and death.
So why would Catholics “put Jesus back on the cross”?
Some Protestants believe that the crucifix, or any image of God, dishonors Him by veiling His true glory as God-man and instead depicting His humanity. No image created by man can possibly do justice to the true magnificence of God. For that reason, all likenesses fail to appropriately represent Him.
This is partly why some Christians do not believe that devotional aids such as pictures, statues, and the like are in keeping with the second commandment. Images of Jesus fall into this category. They believe that to eliminate these things is an act of fidelity and love to God. And this is an area in which Catholic and Protestant thought diverges. While the cross is a powerful symbol for all Christians, the crucifix is not similarly accepted or understood by some of our Christian brothers and sisters.
Pope Francis has spoken about wearing the crucifix and what it symbolizes for us as Catholics. "The image of Jesus crucified reveals the mystery of the death of the Son as the supreme act of love, the source of life and salvation for humanity of all times...Jesus wants to make it clear that His extreme affair–that is, the cross, death and resurrection–is an act of fruitfulness.”
He said this as a call for the crucifix to be appropriately honored and understood, rather than worn as a piece of trendy jewelry. For several years now, famous personalities have made the crucifix a decorative accessory. The Holy Father was speaking against this casual use by reiterating its sacred nature.
Why Wear the Crucifix?
Of course, we Catholics can wear the cross without a corpus. There is nothing “wrong” with that. Many of us own and treasure beautiful heirloom cross necklaces or special gifts of cross jewelry given to us by our loved ones. In fact, most Christian jewelry sold today contains the representation of the cross without the corpus. Both the cross and the crucifix are symbols of what God has done for mankind and for each of us personally. Both depict the perfect, radical, and sacrificial love of God for every one of His children. Both are wonderful ways to show our faith and devotion as Catholic Christians.
So why might we consider wearing the crucifix in particular?
1. To know both His humanity and His divinity.
As Catholics, we believe that the divinity of Christ is not obscured by portraying His humanity. It is precisely because he is the God-man that He can be the only mediator between God and us. In this union of His divine person we receive both His humanity and His divinity.
Through His humanity on the cross, we receive the hope, love and encouragement to press on in our own trials. We know that there is nothing we will ever suffer that Christ has not first suffered for us. In this way, we know we are not alone. He was able to suffer such indignities, pains and tortures because of His divinity, yes. But he modeled in His humanity that it is possible, when we suffer greatly, to persevere and to triumph.
He also modeled for us the selfless and generous love to which we should all aspire. Oh, how He loves us! It is only because of this love that we are able to receive our eternal inheritance in heaven. It has been said that if there were only one soul to save, Jesus would have sacrificed Himself to the crucifixion for that single soul. We believe He wanted to leave us this knowledge so that we could love and suffer knowing He is eternally present to us, has gone before us, and awaits us in His glory! We are strengthened by His human responses and struck by the infinite love of His divine person for us.
2. To remind us of His incredible love.
The Crucifix is a reminder of Christ’s incredible love for us, and the sacrifice He made for us. Scripture tells us that He was wounded for our transgressions, and that “with His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). While it is painful to us that Christ suffered such barbaric torture, we acknowledge that sacrifice as the price of our own salvation. All Christians believe that the Crucifixion was the greatest sacrifice in the history of all mankind. This sacrifice of Jesus is mysteriously made present and offered up again through the Catholic Mass. But we believe that the sacrificial love in the Crucifixion is a love that never ends. Yes, Jesus is alive! We know that He is active and working powerfully in our world, our Church, our families, and our own souls. We feel this intimately and we renew this belief at every Holy Mass.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that the.sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Holy Mass are inextricably linked. Does the Holy Mass crucify Christ over and over again, as some of our fellow Christians believe? No. He is not crucified again—He died “once and for all” as St. Peter said. It is the Mass that is being repeated, not the crucifixion. Jesus told His apostles to “Do this in memory of me.” As faithful Catholics, we obey the direction of Our Lord during the Last Supper with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We also receive Him there, in Holy Communion, to fortify us as we carry our own crosses for love of Him. We do not see the corpus on a crucifix as a commemoration of a single event in time. It is so much more.
3. To proclaim Christ Crucified.
It is the goal of every Christian to imitate Christ as we seek to stamp His likeness on our souls. We do this in our daily lives, sometimes well and sometimes not so well. But we seek heaven and union with Him. We recommit our efforts each time we fail.
We know that eternity is at hand, and that the things of this world are passing away—so we are inspired to make every effort to follow Christ as the Gospels, the Church, and the Faith teach us.
But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God for the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
—1 Corinthians 1:23-25
In our times, it is not enough for all of us to quietly practice our faith. Faithful Christians are persecuted all over the world and even mocked, derided, and mistreated in our own country. If we are to withstand persecution, we must be zealous for the Lord. In a culture that seeks to remove God from daily life, let each of us be a bold reminder. In the life of a Catholic, Jesus Christ will always remain our deepest desire and our highest priority. Let us honor Him, love Him, and proclaim every way we can.
Sadly, wearing a crucifix or a cross in some countries is not accepted as a free expression of faith, but as a punishable offense. When we wear our crucifixes, we stand in solidarity with our oppressed brothers and sisters in Christ who are forbidden to wear this powerful symbol of God’s love and their beliefs. We proclaim for them what they cannot proclaim publicly for fear of retribution.
The Embrace of Christ Crucified
Wearing the crucifix or the cross can be a personal way to show our devotion to God. It is a small way to express our gratitude for His sacrificial love, and remind ourselves of what it means to follow Jesus. Wearing it represents Jesus’ obedience to God the Father and our own allegiance to Christ. It can encourage us in times of great difficulty and speak for us when we are seen by others.
The cross is a powerful symbol for all Christians, even if adding the corpus is a cause for theological disagreement. As Catholics, we should not feel uncomfortable with the Crucified Christ if we choose to wear a crucifix. We should feel nothing but His incredible love as he stretches out His arms to embrace us all.
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
—1 Corinthians 2:2
Do you wear a crucifix or a cross? Tell us about your devotion below!