The Cross and the Crucifix
Fr RALPH DE HAHN looks at the meaning of the crucifix to us today.
We know from the four evangelists that during his three years of ministry on earth, Jesus of Nazareth preached from many pulpits.
He preached from the mountains, from the temple, from the streets of Jerusalem, from the barque of Peter, from Pilate’s portico, even at Jacob’s Well in Samaria.
Yet we cannot fail to acknowledge that the sermon preached from the pulpit of the cross was his greatest and is forever present; it is the unforgettable sermon! All this in the background of brutal tragedy and utter humiliation, and still a drama that speaks of triumph!
The whole Calvary scene speaks a loud message to the sinful world. In his first utterance from his heart overflowing with love and mercy, he forgives his enemies, “for they do not know what they are doing”.
Then from his elevated position, his arms outstretched and embracing all humanity, came his second word as a response to the cry alongside him, “Lord, remember me…” And from his parched lips flows the promise of paradise.
That was his mission as the Lamb of God, the Innocent One chosen and sent to take away the sins of the world.
His third cry from the cross was “I thirst”, yet he took nothing to his parched lips. He cried for a response to his love, he thirsted for love — and that hurt deeply!
What is interesting as we view the greatest pulpit in all human history is the presence of three vital figures at the foot of the cross: the immaculate mother of the Lord, St Mary Magdalene and St John. This could be interpreted as Pure Innocence, Repentance, and Priesthood.
There is no shame in our confessing that we cannot possibly comprehend the infinite love of God in his son, Jesus. That word, “love”, is universally abused, so misunderstood in so many circles. And yet it is so clearly proclaimed in the sacrifice of our Lord.
Love is properly defined as the desire to give all for another, and it always involves sacrifice — and that is strongly proclaimed by the cross and the crucified. The Saviour struggled in great agony between the two kingdoms: heaven and earth! He was rejected by the one and abandoned by the other; he was heard to cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There is no true love without sacrifice.
St John Vianney rejoiced living his priestly life on a cross close to the crucified. Sin separates us from God, he said, but not suffering, nor death.
St Paul claimed that the only message he needed to preach is “only about Jesus as the crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) The language of the cross, he writes, may be illogical to those without faith, but to all believers it reveals the power, the love and the wisdom of Christ (1Cor 1:18).
The cross. with its horizontal and vertical beams speaks of that necessary union, man with God, and man with man.
With Jesus or Without?
There still remains the controversy of the wooden cross without the corpus and the other with the dead Christ nailed to the wood.
Most of the Protestant churches insist that the risen Lord is no longer to be found nailed to a cross. However, the Catholic Church will always display the crucified Christ from the rising of the sun to its setting, at every sacrifice of the Holy Mass being offered, as the crucifix is the only meaningful symbol in the context of the memorial celebration of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The celebration of the Holy Mass is never a new sacrifice, but the one and only sacrifice, recalling the Last Supper, the passion, and Jesus’ death on a cross.
True, the cross alone is still seen as an instrument of torture, but with the crucified it is the testimony of our salvation, our triumph over all sin.
“All is now consummated,” cried Jesus. His mission was accomplished, and his resurrection would prove it!
The argument persists that the Lord is no longer on the cross and therefore it should not be remembered as such. But, then, Jesus is no longer a babe in Bethlehem, yet we recall this event each year with the manger crib in churches and homes throughout the world. So where is the difference?
In the earliest days of the Church the most popular symbol for Christ was the fish and at times the chi-rho, from the first two letters of the Greek word for “the anointed one”, but with the passing of the age of punishment by crucifixion, the Christians began revering the cross, and on it the Crucified—the perfect symbol of sacrificial love and victory.
We are reminded that the wooden cross itself did not die for our sins, but the One crucified. The wooden cross without the corpus is meaningless. God’s foolishness is indeed wiser than human wisdom, says St Paul.
The apostle then goes on to state that our continued sinning, in some deep sense, opens the wounds of the crucified still on that cross.
Jesus is still on trial in the hearts of men; there are still people like Judas, the arrogant Peter, King Herod, Pontius Pilate and a long stream of others.
There is little doubt that our veneration of the cross and the crucified strikes a chord to honest repentance. Many may feel humiliated to be seen at the foot of the cross, but it is far more agonising and humiliating to be on the cross — and as an innocent victim!
Jesus is asking us to follow him: not to hang on a cross as he did, but to accept the crosses and sacrifices to which we are called because we believe, we love and, therefore, we repent.
Fr Ralph de Hahn is a priest in the archdiocese of Cape Town.