Observations: Avoiding the Crucifix

According to tradition St. Thomas Aquinas once asked St. Bonaventure how he had acquired the deep theological wisdom he displayed in his writings. St. Bonaventure pointed to a crucifix and said that he had learned all he knew from contemplating it.

If there are any prayerful Catholics in our pews with St. Bonaventure’s talents or dispositions, they are going to be deprived, for it is nearly impossible to find a crucifix in a Catholic Church in the United States. This became quite clear to me when I visited Mexico. The large crucifixes there, suspended over the main altar, set up in side chapels, or even placed at the entrances to churches, so that the faithful can piously kiss the bloodied feet of Christ, are powerfully realistic. They possess a photographic vividness. A friend of mine was deeply affected by one such crucifix in the Church of Santo Domingo in Mexico City: “You can see that they tortured Him,” he said.

In our land of comfort and theological shallowness, where death is an unmentionable, we have “Risen Christs.” These, of course, are not crucifixes at all. “Crucifix” means “affixed to a cross.” The “Risen Christs” float on air in front of crosses. They are not realistic so much as surrealistic. When He was on the cross, Jesus hung, when He was on the ground, he stood. He never floated. What specific event in the life of Jesus does the “Risen Christ” represent? After Jesus rose from the dead, He left the cross behind Him—He didn’t hover about it. The “Risen Christ” is a religious image a Docetist might invent, not calculated to inspire reflection on the “theology of the body.” Those who believe in flesh and blood and the resurrection of the body cannot be satisfied with it.

Does anyone know the meaning of the “Risen Christ”? Has anyone explained its significance to you? Probably not. Perhaps you, like me, pretend—or, rather, hope—that it is a crucifix. Perhaps you also supply the details in your mind and continue to think of the “Risen Christ” as a kind of polite crucifixion. But what does it represent?

 

One problem is that what it represents can be said in one sentence: “Christ reigned on the cross.” It is an image which aims to state a proposition, and it says no more than that. It appeals to the head, not the heart: no one could possibly be moved to tears of pity by contemplating it. It is a one-dimensional, man-made sign; the crucifix, in contrast, is God’s sign, ordained by Him as the image of His love for us. It represents not a proposition but a mystery that a million Bonaventures could not exhaust.

Another problem is that the “Risen Christ” simply cannot express well what it intends to say. The reign of Christ on the cross was in reality a bloody crucifixion. The best way to express that reality would be to hold up a crucifix. For Christ reigned in suffering; it is not that His suffering was one thing and His reign another. The “Risen Christ” suggests wrongly that, while the body of Christ was suffering, the soul of Christ was confidently triumphant. We would do better to apply here a saying of Wittgenstein: the best image of the human soul is the human body. That applies to Christ on the cross above all.

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). Jesus was referring to the time when God punished the Israelites with a plague of serpents. To heal them, God instructed Moses to put a bronze serpent on a staff and set it up among the people so that “everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8). It would have been foolish, of course, for Moses to depart from God’s instructions and make a symbol more to his liking; how much more foolish, then, are we for tinkering with that image which the serpent on the staff merely foreshadowed.

There is no point at all in trying to pretty up a crucifixion. Take death by electrocution to be a modern analogue: it would be absurd to hang electric chairs in our churches, but have happy and serene figures sitting in them. The cross was an instrument of torture. if we are scandalized by that, what keeps us from pursuing the logic of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who say that to venerate the Cross is as perverse as venerating the murder weapon that killed a dear relative? Do we have secret sympathy with that point of view because we imagine that the Cross was a mistake or an accident?

Perhaps having supposed that the elimination of suffering is the aim of life and of morality, we are confused by the suggestion that Christ desires to suffer, that His purpose in life was to die for us. That Jesus loves us is a consoling thought, but that He loves us that much disturbs as well as consoles. A God Who gives that much might in fact ask that much. Catholicism without crucifixes is so much tamer.

Why is our timing so bad with these misguided reforms? Surely we need to be reminded more than any generation that Christ is crucified anew among us. Do we recoil from the crucifix the way our society recoils from pictures of aborted children? Violent crime surrounds us and stalks us, yet we remove what can be our only solace—the murdered God. Can there be some correlation, strangely, between the absence of violence in our crucifixes and the presence of violence in our society? No culture since the Romans has found the murder and slaughter of fellow human beings as entertaining as we.

We should take our clue from the early Christians: while their pagan countrymen in the colosseum watched thousands of murders for entertainment, they in their catacombs meditated on a single murder as worship. It is necessary for us to sanctify violence, so to speak, by dwelling on it only under the right conditions. The crucifix is the proper instrument through which to view it. Certainly no one who meditates on the suffering of all of humanity in the person of Christ can then flippantly watch violence for pleasure.

To be sure, canon law requires only that a cross be present at the Mass. But a church should be used by the faithful for prayer as well as Mass, and often the choice of the legal minimum is not the best choice. It is even sometimes the case (as in the Reformation) that a choice for the cross alone implies a choice against the crucifix.

We should put the crucifixes back. Whatever the reason they were removed from the churches after the Council, it was a mistake. Our friends around us—we can see this clearly—are suffering dearly from their abortions, divorces, loneliness, drug abuse, and materialism. The superficial trendiness of bourgeois Catholicism won’t draw them into our churches, but we can hope that prayer before the wounds of Christ will.

Michael Pakaluk

By

Michael Pakaluk is Ordinary Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. A Newman scholar, he is working on a book on Newman as philosopher. His latest book is The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark (Regnery, 2019).

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