(RNS) During the early years of the Christian Church, the cross was absent. Images of the tortuous device may have been too painful for many believers 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, the sacred symbol evokes strong feelings among believers. While today everything from 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 seem idolatrous to another. The Rev. S. Albert Kennington of Trinity Episcopal Church in Mobile, Ala., keeps both the empty cross common in Protestant circles and the crucifix traditional among Roman Catholics in his office. If a person focused only on the empty cross, Kennington said, he thinks it's possible "to forget the cost of the sacrifice of love so great, love so amazing, 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 is looked 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, said an 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 a crucifix. "I just like the contrast to emphasize again the sacrifice that he made, the sorrow, the repentance that we experience in the Lenten season," Sturtz said. "It was our sin that caused his death."

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

Reluctance towards illustrating Jesus on the cross was two-fold, according to some accounts. First, some in the early church considered such images idolatrous; and second, many believers wished to place the emphasis on Jesus' Resurrection rather than his Crucifixion. While the crucifix was eventually embraced by Catholics, who believe that images of God offer opportunities for education and inspiration, many Protestants have favored the empty cross. "Part of the Protestant Reformation was a suspicion, really, of icons and any pictorial depictions because of the fear of idolatry," said Cynthia S.W. Crysdale, associate professor and associate dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University of America in Washington. "Just in general there's a kind of Protestant ... suspicion of it that it degenerates into superstition and idolatry of some kind." The notion plays a part in Cecil Taylor's preference for the empty cross today. Taylor, dean of the School of Religion at the University of Mobile, said many Protestants believe the crucifix is a violation of the commandment forbidding believers from making idols "in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below." Furthermore, Taylor said he believes the empty cross speaks of the risen Christ more eloquently than a crucifix. "If you still have a figure on the cross, 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 did was finished and complete on the cross." The Rev. Christopher J. Viscardi, chairman of the theology department at Spring Hill College in Mobile, offers a different perspective, suggesting that Jesus' suffering and death wasn't simply an historical incident, but an ongoing event. Guidelines for art and architecture issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops echo such theology, stating that the crucifix "draws us into the mystery of suffering and makes tangible our belief that our suffering when united with the Passion and death of Christ leads to redemption." Viscardi said the process of redemption is not like building a new library. "It is something that transcends human history and time," he said. "The kingdom of Christ, while it has been completed in God's time, is still being worked out in human time." While in one sense the "sacrifice of the cross is finished forever," in another it continues in "an unbloody manner in the Mass," said the Rev. Edwin P. Beachum, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Mobile. "We see that as a continuation of the sacrifice offered on the cross. ... The reason that the sacrifice has value today in the Mass is because of the valor of the sacrifice on the cross. What Jesus did on the cross enables the Mass to have its value." Viscardi said the New Testament sees Jesus' death on the cross as a
fulfillment of Old Testament sacrifices offered with confidence in God's atonement and forgiveness. "When Jesus at the Passover meal gives the bread and wine that new meaning of his body and blood, that becomes fulfilled the next day when he gives his body and pours out his blood. ... That meal and that sacrifice, in the Catholic view of the New Testament, are very closely intertwined. To eat the 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 different developments," Viscardi said. "It's moved from (the) extreme to other expressions of the Crucifixion which are more discreet, more subtle, not focusing as much on the violence and the torture of the human flesh as on the self-giving ... surrender of the Son of God in human form even to death, death on a cross."

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