The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Why the crucifix?

This coming week, countless Catholics around the world will venerate the cross with a kiss — and we will be reminded again of the powerful place this instrument of death holds over our imagination, and in our Catholic culture.

Even more compelling is the crucifix: the cross with the body of Christ displayed upon it, in agony, dying.

A lot of our Protestant friends don’t understand that — and columnist Patrick Madrid in The Pilot, the Catholic paper of Boston, explains:

Many non-Catholics have an aversion to crucifixes. While they have no problem [with] an “empty cross,” some Protestants, for example, object to the crucifix because it depicts Christ dying on the cross. “Christ isn’t on the cross anymore,” they say. “He’s reigning gloriously in heaven. So why emphasize his death?” This is a reasonable question that deserves a reasonable answer.


Let’s start by recognizing that Catholics emphasize both the crucifixion and the resurrection, not minimizing or downplaying the importance of either. In our manger scenes, stained glass windows, and statues, we also depict the Lord as a baby in the manger, as a toddler in his mother’s arms, and as a young man teaching the rabbis in the Temple. Each of these stages of the Lord’s life are worthy of depiction. But the focal point and purpose of Christ’s Incarnation and ministry is his death on the cross. As he himself said, “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth” (Jn 18:37).

Archbishop Fulton Sheen summarized the reason for using a crucifix instead of an empty cross when he said, “Keep your eyes on the crucifix, for Jesus without the cross is a man without a mission, and the cross without Jesus is a burden without a reliever.”


Isn’t it true that when you see an empty cross, your mind automatically “sees” Christ there? After all, we recognize that the cross only has meaning because Christ died on it for our salvation. Catholics use crucifixes to avoid what St. Paul warned about, that the cross be “emptied of its power” (1 Cor 1:17).

Christ’s supreme act was to die on the cross as atonement for our sins. His resurrection was proof that what he did on the cross worked — he conquered death — and it demonstrated beyond any doubt that he was who he claimed to be: God. The crucifixion was the act that changed history. The resurrection demonstrated of the efficacy of that act.

By his death on the cross, Christ conquered sin and death, redeemed the world, opened the way of salvation for all who would receive it, and reconciled his people with the Father (cf. Eph 2:13-18; Col 1:19-20). That is why the crucifix is such a potent reminder for us of what he did on our behalf that dark afternoon on Calvary


“Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (Mt 16:24; cf. Mt 10:38). True, resurrection and glory await all those who follow Christ faithfully, but we will only arrive there by traveling the way of the cross.

St. Paul emphasized the crucifixion saying, “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 Cor 2:1-2).

And in 1 Corinthians 1:18-24 he said, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 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.”


In Galatians 6:14 he proclaimed: “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

And lest anyone imagine that the early Christians did not focus their minds on Christ’s death on the cross, consider what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:26, where he again emphasizes the crucifixion: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes.”

Recall the scene of the crucifixion Some in the crowd that was present at Calvary shouted at Christ as he was dying: “Come down off your cross!” (cf. Mt 27:40; Mk 15:30). What a strange and sad echo those words sometimes find today in the arguments of those who object to the crucifix as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice.


We Catholics should strive to emulate St. Paul’s [words] to “know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2; cf. 1 Cor 1:17-18).

He has more to say the The Pilot link, so stop by for more. It’s a worthy meditation during Holy Week.

Image: crucifix in the Conquistador Chapel, Santa Fe. The corpus has human hair. Photo from Father John’s Sabbatical web log.

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Stone of Bethel

posted March 16, 2008 at 12:27 am

Evangelist Tony Campolo mentions in his book Carpe Diem that Christ hangs on the cross looking upon us here and now, suffering for the sins which we commit even today, nearly 2,000 years later. Surprisingly, his insight on the subject provides great justification for the Crucifix over the Cross. We should always be mindful of Christ’s eyes upon us in his suffering on the Cross. Having a Cross with no owner on your wall allows you to forget your sins and permits the idea that you are saved merely by the belief in the risen Lord. It kind of misses the point.

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Paul McCain

posted March 16, 2008 at 10:22 am

While it is true that many Protestants have a knee-jerk reaction against the crucifix, probably given the fact that sadly it has become for some Roman Catholics nearly a kind of “good luck” charm, used mindlessly or superstitiously, it is very much the case that historic Lutheranism never did away with the Crucifix but cherishes it as a devotional tool. Here is an article I wrote about this some years back:

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posted March 16, 2008 at 12:02 pm

The whole meaning of Life is on that Cross. What problem could we ever have, that Jesus, hanging from that cross, didn’t have a billion times more? It took me a long time to “get that” but thanks to Father Corapi and Bishop Sheen, I finally learned to not only love but embace the cross (albeit it’s still painful, but at the same time joyful). As for the Protestants, this is my most painful debate among them. I don’t know why they don’t understand Christ’s life is “timeless” (it’s only WE who our bound by time) and as Stone points out, Christ on the cross will be there as long as our sins are there.Bottom line, it’s the cross and only the cross (crucified of course), that puts life into proper perspective. This Lent has been especially hard for me for various reasons. On my worst “feel sorry for myself day”, I went out to the Abbey and did the prayer walk outside of the Stations. By the time I was finished, I not only was so ashamed of my pathetic self loathing, but could barely remember what it was I was so down about.Indeed, the whole meaning of life is on the crucified cross of Christ. Likewise, what prayer is greater than the Holy Mass, where in real time, we get to actually “be there” under that cross, offering our offerings at the foot of it, for the extraordinary Divine Offering!

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posted March 16, 2008 at 11:01 pm

“God is dead.”–Neitschze”Yeah, but only for three days.”–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

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posted March 17, 2008 at 9:31 pm

This was a very good post, especially for this Protestant girl to read. I am trying to learn more, bit by bit, but it has to come in small bites of time for me. My first thought here is this…As a Reformed Protestant, when I see an empty cross, I don’t see dying Jesus… I see a risen Savior who not only finished the work, but triumphed over death and hell. “…if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ IS risen from the dead…” I Cor. 15:17-19aI would say this is why we wear empty crosses. Our hope is pinned upon the resurrection. Many men have died martyr’s deaths, but only Christ alone throughout history has life in Himself, to give and take up again of His own accord. In this we see victory, vindication, and validation – both Christ’s and our own. I look forward to reading more of your blog in the future. I have many Roman Catholic friends and my kids often have questions that I can’t answer regarding the Catholic Church. I never quite know where to go for info – it’s a bit overwhelming!

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posted March 27, 2008 at 12:06 am

Hi there. I really enjoyed this post. I am also commenting because the photo of the Crucifix you posted is in my Archdiocese and it’s the second time I’ve seen that photo posted on the Internet in the last couple of days. I stumbled upon Father John’s sabbatical blog last night. I was actually in that particular chapel at the start of Lent. I’ve had conversations with non-Catholic friends about the Crucifix and the fact that we portray Jesus on the Cross so often. And while I can answer the question reasonably satisfactory, your post provides a perfect response. Incidentally, in that same chapel where our beloved statue of the Blessed Mother, La Conquistadora is kept, she also has human hair. Maria

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posted July 1, 2008 at 4:29 pm

Should one not be concerned with what God says about the matter?See what God has to say: Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32Romans 1:20Exodus 20:4-5, Leviticus 26:1Graven means “carved”

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posted August 8, 2008 at 4:09 pm

I spit on the fucking crucifix.I laugh at that stupid fucking jesus christ dieing on the cross for our sins.

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