One might find it surprising, but it is impossible to discover an image of the crucifix existing before the sixth century. Even then, the only one that can be found is carved on the massive bronze doors of the cathedral in Ravenna. It is a mere panel among a number of other panels. Tucked away in the upper left-hand corner, it is easily missed by the casual observer.
This seemingly strange circumstance is easily understood by putting ourselves in the mindset of the ancient Roman world, albeit drawing its last breath. Crucifixion was one of the most humiliating sentences devised by the Roman Imperium, imposed for the most shameful crimes, involving one of the most excruciating deaths. Understandably, crucifixion was not a matter of boasting. One would want it kept hidden, like a relative who suffered execution by a firing squad. Even though suffered by a loved one, it would never be spoken of except in embarrassed whispers.
Seen that way, it is no wonder the early Church kept Our Lord’s crucifixion locked away in the silence of red-faced shame. If a cross did appear, it was encrusted with jewels as a boisterous reminder of Our Lord’s glorious resurrection. After all, who would not want to forget the hours of that awful Friday when the world turned dark, the earth shook, and temple curtains were mysteriously torn from top to bottom? And those grisly details of Roman soldiers pounding the plaited crown of thorns deep into the skull of Our Savior, the blows of the hammer that spiked His hands and feet to the cross, and the outsized, clumsy rusted nails that broiled Our Lord’s open nerves whenever he tried to lift His body even a little—to relieve the strain on His hands, or to take a small breath into His drowning lungs. This was an ordeal that anyone would want forever forgotten.
Even us. Even today. It is understandable why the world turns away from the Crucifixion. It sees only senseless death. Nothing else. It is exactly how they look at their lives in this world—senseless. And then they die. When John Maynard Keynes was asked about deficit spending, and the numbing legacy of debt left to our children, he quipped insouciantly, “In the long run we’re all dead.” Spoken as a true man of the modern world. Even worse, a certain slice of modernity sees faith in Christ as a failure to grow up, like a bad case of thumb-sucking into adulthood. The late Elizabeth Fox Genovese expressed the attitude perfectly. This preeminent professor of history and women’s studies at Emory University converted from the chic atheism of the university to the Catholic Faith. She later wrote of the price she paid:
Thus when, in December 1995, I was received into the Catholic Church, my non-believing colleagues tactfully refrained from comment, primarily, I suspect, because they literally did not know what to say. More likely than not, many assumed that, having lived through some difficult years, I was turning to faith for some form of irrational consolation, consequently from their perspective, to acknowledge my conversion would, implicitly, have been to acknowledge my vulnerability… From their perspective, I had exiled myself from acceptable conversation of any kind.
But why do Catholics look away? Why has it become a seeming commandment in many Catholic churches to depose the crucifix from its sanctuary? Why have even more replaced the crucified Savior with an epicene resurrected One? Differing theological emphases? Oh, no. Perhaps changing artistic tastes? Most definitely not. Something graver is afoot here. Displacement of the crucifix is always a demand for an easy Catholicism—Catholicism lite—and a protest in favor of cheap grace. Hiding the crucifix is a march for a religion of short cuts rather than the steep road; the reward of heaven without exertion; a religion without cost and redemption without sacrifice. A stretch, you say. But the evidence abounds.
Where are the millions of Catholics boldly protesting the incursions of a crusading secularism against our holy religion? Most prefer the easier path of keeping quiet. Where are the large Catholic families that were the shining jewels of Christ’s holy Church? Catholics now prefer to hide from the cross and its sacrifices, electing to mimic modern man with his carefully planned boutique family of one and a half children, never realizing that such chicly modern families are the very nooses from which society will hang in its unwitting suicide.
The holy Gospel tells us that Peter kept a distance when Christ was taken in Gethsemane to face Pilate. Like Peter, we, too, keep our distance from Christ. We dread not fitting in. We fear the sacrifices of fidelity. We don’t want to commit the faux pas of appearing too closely associated with a Church so clearly out of step with the times. In our desperation to go along with the rest, we forget Chesterton’s warning that only dead things go along with the current while living things swim against it. In keeping our distance from Christ, our souls become mummified. We think we’re alive, but we are the walking dead—a heavy price to pay for getting on with the world. Can’t you hear the haunting words of the Savior, “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” (Mk 8:36)
When the fifth-century chieftain Clovis, pagan king of the Franks, first heard the story of Our Lord’s crucifixion, he shouted, “If only I had been there with my Franks!” Charming. But charmingly naïve.
We must realize that the Jews did not perpetrate this atrocity against God. The Romans cannot be blamed. This crucifixion is our doing. Each time we find excuses to hide from the cross, Good Friday is put on hold. And Easter never comes.
Image: The Descent from the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens