Pastoral Perspectives

Cross Or Crucifix?

Someone noticed something amiss in the bulletin for English Presbytery’s Maundy Thursday Service. On its top left-hand corner was a logo of a crucifix instead of an empty cross, i.e. it had a figure of person hanging on it. He found it amiss because he had understood that the symbol for the Protestant Church is an empty cross while the Roman Catholic Church uses the crucifix. And he feared that people might be confused because a crucifix had been used here. He asked and so the pastor agreed to address it in his next perspective. So should it be a cross or a crucifix? Or does it matter at all?

First of all, is it true that Protestant Church uses the empty cross and the Roman Catholic Church uses the crucifix? Well, I understand that the Roman Catholic Church would normally use the crucifix although you may find some catholic as well as Christians and even non-believers wearing all kinds of crosses for all kinds of reasons and purposes. But I also understand that the Lutheran and Anglican Church use the crucifix as well as the empty cross. It is hard to establish exactly when and how the empty cross became a symbol to distinguish itself from a crucifix. Theories abound and I suspect it was most probably an initiative by the Puritans in the late 16th century or so. They also came up with the Westminster Confession of Faith and hence it is not surprising that Presbyterians today would associate more with an empty cross than a crucifix. So that’s the historical bits. But what would a crucifix and an empty cross mean to the average laypeople?

If I were to ask, I guess the usual answer would be that we use an empty cross because we worship a risen Saviour and so he is no longer on the cross. True, but wouldn’t this imply that Christ was still dead for those who use the crucifix, which isn’t really the point they are making. And we also need to remember that it was only when the person was confirmed dead that the body would then be taken down from the cross. So an empty cross does not necessarily mean a risen Saviour. It could well mean a dead Saviour for sure! Therefore I would always tell them that we worship a risen Saviour not because of an empty cross but because of an empty tomb, for that was how the disciples began to ask if their Lord had indeed risen, i.e. until they had met him in person and was sure of it.

Then I know of some who think we use an empty cross because we are forbidden by the 2nd Commandment to make any graven image and so woe to us if we make an image of Christ on the cross. But the 2nd Commandment is really about idolatry and is not forbidding believers to make images of Christ per se. That is why we have people acting as Jesus in a musical or skit. So what if the cross is empty? If you bow down before it as or use it to ward off evil like a priest in a Hollywood movie, you would have broken the 2nd Commandment, with or without a figure on it.

And I also know of others who feel that we shouldn’t have the cross in the first place, for it can draw people away from the One who really matters. Some may also feel that the only symbols allowed is the bread and wine, which is commanded in Scriptures. I sincerely think that they have confused sacraments with symbols. The Lord’s Supper and Baptism are the only two sacraments that the Lord gives us in light of the new covenant and it replaces the Passover and Circumcision. Woe to us if we should look back to these OT practices and think that we can draw closer to God with it than with what the Lord had instituted for us. Yes, the bread and wine symbolises something that is true of our faith and so is the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit or the burning bush as God’s eternal presence or the shepherd as Christ’s caring figure. In fact the bible is full of symbols that depict biblical truths. Therefore it is the theology behind the symbols that is more important and so we need to understand what lies behind the cross. Whether there is a figure or not to me is like arguing whether we should have elders serve the elements to the people during communion or have the people go up to receive it from the minister. The form merely describes our denominational distinctiveness.  What matters is the substance, i.e. the desire to partake it for what it means and to do so with reverent fear.

So what is it about the cross? Before the cross became a symbol of the Christian faith, a simple sketch of a fish was used in the early days of the church when the cross meant nothing more than an instrument for capital punishment. But why fish? Well, that’s because the Greek word for fish formed the acronym for Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour. Disciples back then used it as sort of an identification code. It was somewhere in the 4th century when persecution ended and doctrines began to be expounded that the doctrine of atonement gave the cross its central place in the Christian faith henceforth. Therefore the cross is a symbol of Christ’s atoning sacrifice that appeased God’s wrath and made possible the forgiveness of sins. This is how we ought to understand the cross. As to the design of the cross and whether a figure should remain on it, it is really a secondary issue.

Finally, it is still true that an empty cross describes our Presbyterian distinctiveness and so it is good to keep the tradition and order. However these things should not take precedence over and above biblical truths. So if it should happened one fine day that there were no elders or deacons around during communion and the minister has to request the people to come forward or to pass the elements around, it is fine. Or as in our case when the elements had run out and so some had to ‘partake’ without having the elements physically, it is still fine. Therefore, on a Maundy Thursday when believers gather to remember how the Lord would be betrayed and crucified later on a cross, I would say that it is fine when the cross so happened to have a figure on it.

Pastor Ronnie

April 21, 2013