(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
"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
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
"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
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
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
Viscardi said the process of redemption is not like building a new
"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."