(RNS) During the early years of the Christian Church, the cross wasabsent. Images of the tortuous device may have been too painful for manybelievers to behold, so the first Christians used the fish--not the cross--to symbolize their new faith.

Some 2,000 years after the implement was used to crucify Jesus, thesacred symbol evokes strong feelings among believers. While today everythingfrom sweatshirts to stained glass windows is emblazoned with the emblem,many Christians care deeply about how the cross is rendered.

What's more, a depiction that's inspirational to one believer may seemidolatrous to another. The Rev. S. Albert Kennington of Trinity Episcopal Church in Mobile,Ala., keeps both the empty cross common in Protestant circles and thecrucifix traditional among Roman Catholics in his office. If a person focused only on the empty cross, Kennington said, he thinksit's possible "to forget the cost of the sacrifice of love so great, love soamazing, so divine. I think it can get antiseptic, clean, painless,sentimental. Those are the dangers there. "And I think the potential is there if it is only the crucifix that islooked upon that it is possible to forget that the story did not end there." The Rev. Arlyn Sturtz, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Mobile, saidan empty cross is placed on the altar there at all times excluding Lent.During the liturgical season of prayer and meditation, he replaces it with acrucifix. "I just like the contrast to emphasize again the sacrifice that he made,the sorrow, the repentance that we experience in the Lenten season," Sturtzsaid. "It was our sin that caused his death."

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the "undisguised cross" firstappears in the early years of the fifth century. About 200 years passedbefore a realistic image of Jesus was depicted as adhering to the cross;several hundred more years went by before Jesus was portrayed as a sufferingsavior.

Reluctance towards illustrating Jesus on the cross was two-fold, according to some accounts. First, some in the early church considered such imagesidolatrous; and second, many believers wished to place the emphasis onJesus' Resurrection rather than his Crucifixion. While the crucifix was eventually embraced by Catholics, who believethat images of God offer opportunities for education and inspiration, manyProtestants have favored the empty cross. "Part of the Protestant Reformation was a suspicion, really, of iconsand any pictorial depictions because of the fear of idolatry," said CynthiaS.W. Crysdale, associate professor and associate dean of the School ofTheology and Religious Studies at Catholic University of America inWashington. "Just in general there's a kind of Protestant ... suspicion of it thatit degenerates into superstition and idolatry of some kind." The notion plays a part in Cecil Taylor's preference for the empty crosstoday. Taylor, dean of the School of Religion at the University of Mobile, saidmany Protestants believe the crucifix is a violation of the commandmentforbidding believers from making idols "in the form of anything in heavenabove or on the earth beneath or in the waters below." Furthermore, Taylor said he believes the empty cross speaks of the risenChrist more eloquently than a crucifix. "If you still have a figure on thecross, it's pointing in the wrong direction," he said. An empty cross,however, "reminds us that he is no longer on the cross.
The work that he didwas finished and complete on the cross." The Rev. Christopher J. Viscardi, chairman of the theology department atSpring Hill College in Mobile, offers a different perspective, suggestingthat Jesus' suffering and death wasn't simply an historical incident, but anongoing event. Guidelines for art and architecture issued by the National Conference ofCatholic Bishops echo such theology, stating that the crucifix "draws usinto the mystery of suffering and makes tangible our belief that oursuffering when united with the Passion and death of Christ leads toredemption." Viscardi said the process of redemption is not like building a newlibrary. "It is something that transcends human history and time," he said. "Thekingdom of Christ, while it has been completed in God's time, is still beingworked out in human time." While in one sense the "sacrifice of the cross is finished forever," inanother it continues in "an unbloody manner in the Mass," said the Rev.Edwin P. Beachum, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church inMobile. "We see that as a continuation of the sacrifice offered on thecross. ... The reason that the sacrifice has value today in the Mass isbecause of the valor of the sacrifice on the cross. What Jesus did on thecross enables the Mass to have its value." Viscardi said the New Testament sees Jesus' death on the cross as afulfillment of Old Testament sacrifices offered with confidence in God'satonement and forgiveness.
"When Jesus at the Passover meal gives the bread and wine that newmeaning of his body and blood, that becomes fulfilled the next day when hegives his body and pours out his blood. ... That meal and that sacrifice, inthe Catholic view of the New Testament, are very closely intertwined. To eatthe Passover lamb, you had to kill the lamb. ... He is the lamb of God." While the symbol has had a presence in Catholic circles for centuries,Viscardi noted some changes in its representation over the years.

"In Catholic spirituality from the Middle Ages there's been differentdevelopments," Viscardi said. "It's moved from (the) extreme to otherexpressions of the Crucifixion which are more discreet, more subtle, notfocusing as much on the violence and the torture of the human flesh as onthe self-giving ... surrender of the Son of God in human form even to death,death on a cross."