Today — Good Friday — our thoughts and prayers will focus on Christ crucified. At the center of every Catholic church is displayed the crucifix, the visible reminder of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation.
The display of the crucifix is one of the external differences between Catholic churches and those of our Protestant brothers and sisters. In the churches of most Protestant denominations we will see the cross — but without the body of the Lord upon it.
The reason that is sometimes cited by Protestants for the Catholic fondness for the crucifix is that Catholics do not sufficiently appreciate the resurrection of Jesus. Unlike Protestants, who want to proclaim that Christ rose from the dead, Catholics — it is said —want to keep Jesus on the cross.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. We Catholics celebrate the resurrection of Jesus not only on Easter Day, but for 50 days thereafter. Not only that, Catholics understand that each and every Sunday is a “little Easter.” This overwhelming attention to Christ’s resurrection in the Catholic Church gives evidence of our profound faith in Jesus’ rising from the dead and to the importance of his resurrection in the life of every Christian.
Why is it, then, that Catholics long to look upon the image of Christ crucified and not simply an empty cross? Why do the liturgical directives of the Catholic Church insist that a crucifix — not just a cross — be displayed near the altar during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist? There are several reasons.
The image of the bloody and broken body of Jesus on the cross is a clear and stunning reminder to us of what the Son of God has done for each and every one of us. While there may be something more pleasant about the bare cross, stripped of any sign of suffering, it is looking upon the crucifix that demands that we remember what our sins have done to the sinless Son of God. Jesus died not only for the sins committed before His coming into the world, but for every sin that would be committed — including ours. How could we fail to take our sins seriously when we are confronted with the price that Christ paid?
The crucifix stands at the center of Catholic churches because it is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross that is at the center of our faith. It is true that Jesus’ death on the cross is an event of history that is accomplished “once for all.” But that does not mean that Jesus’ death is relegated to the past. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “I determined that while I was with you I would speak of nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul was not denying or ignoring the resurrection. Rather he was appealing to Jesus’ own words about the here-and-now significance of his suffering and our participation in that suffering: “Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:27).
The crucifixion of Jesus, like all of the events of his earthly existence, took place at a certain point in history. And they are not repeated. Because Jesus is the eternal Son of God, however, all of the mysteries of his life have an eternal dimension to them. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that, unlike the priests of the old covenant, Jesus has an eternal priesthood. At the right hand of his Father now Jesus offers the one sacrifice of himself for all eternity.
It is in the Mass that we enter personally into that once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. “The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross . . . The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice . . . the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner . . .” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1366, 1367).
When we appreciate the invitation of Jesus to join him on Calvary by celebrating the eucharistic sacrifice, we can see clearly why the crucifix is such a powerful help for us to respond to that invitation. Far from being the moment of Christ’s defeat, the crucifixion is, in fact, his glorification. It was in laying down his life in love for us that he gave glory to his Father and was, in turn, glorified by his Father (cf. Jn. 17:1-5).
Whenever we look upon the image of Christ crucified, we cannot but be aware that his suffering ended in the victory of his resurrection. Likewise, when we rejoice in his resurrection, we recall that our savior came to the glory of the resurrection only by enduring the suffering of the cross. It is never a question of the agony of the cross or the joy of the resurrection. We embrace the one paschal mystery and pray that our taking up the cross in our lives will lead us to the triumph of the resurrection life of heaven.
May Our Crucified and Risen Lord bless you and yours abundantly throughout this Easter season!