Essay on the Significance of the Crucifix
Author’s Note: This column/essay was written in 2007.
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of any Catholic church usually hangs over the tabernacle – a crucifix, adorned with an image of the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Unlike other Christians, Catholics put a big emphasis on the crucifix, rather than simply on a cross. It seems awkward that, as Christians with such a devout respect for human life, we should put so much spiritual stress on an instrument of torture and suffering. However, the crucifix has a deeper message that is important for all men to realize.
The most important aspect of the crucifix is that it serves as a reminder that Christ’s sacrifice won our salvation. By dying for us on Calvary, Jesus built a bridge to Heaven with two boards and three nails. The Son of God became humanity’s bronze serpent (c.f. Num 21:4-9) and “died for us, that all of us, whether awake or asleep, together might live with him” (1 Thes 5: 9-10).
As the means of our salvation, the Cross of Christ is a source of joy and hope. St. Paul even goes so far as to say, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14). Also, Jesus’ selfless sacrifice redeemed Adam’s original sin – “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). In addition, the crucifix is not a symbol of death but resurrection. The Letter to the Romans assures us, “If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection” (Rom 6:5). Thus, the crucifix is not a simply a form of execution, but rather is a symbol of new life in Christ.
Similarly, the crucifix is a daily reminder of God’s infinite love for humanity (c.f. John 3:16). The Second Person of the Trinity took on our human nature to personify the Suffering Servant that Isaiah said would be pierced for our offenses and crushed for our iniquities (c.f. Isaiah 53:5). God loved us so much that He willingly accepted death, and through it, He “purchased for God men of every race and tongue” (Rev 5:9). Ultimately, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross calls us to love one another as God has loved us by laying down our life for our friends (c.f. John 15:12-13).
For us as Catholics, the crucifix is also important because it parallels the Eucharist. Just as the body of Christ is presented on the cross, so the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary is re-presented in an un-bloody way at the Mass. The symbol of the crucifix, like the Eucharist, echoes what Jesus told His disciples at the Last Supper: “This is my body” (Mark 14:22). Additionally, the presence of Jesus’ body on the cross, especially at the Mass, reminds us of St. Paul’s words, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor 12:27).
Ultimately, the crucifix is more than just an instrument of torture – it was the means of salvation for all of humanity. As such, we as human beings should give it due respect. It was not simply the cross that saved us, but Jesus Christ’s self-sacrifice that made our redemption possible. In the end, the crucifix echoes the words of Christ for all eternity:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24).