Why The Crucifix?

Altichiero da Zevio Crucifixion 1376-79 Fresco, 840 x 280 cm Basilica di Sant'Antonio, Padua

Altichiero da Zevio
Fresco, 840 x 280 cm
Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua


One startlingly visible aspect of the Catholic faith that engenders consternation, and even revulsion, among non-Catholics, and even some Catholics, it is the crucifix. This symbol — a cross with the figure of a tortured Christ nailed to it, often emaciated, bloody, crowned in thorns, a gash from a spear in his side, eyes closed in final surrender or open and cast to heaven — hangs above every altar. It’s a visible reminder of the darkest night, as opposed to the jubilant light and white robes of a risen Christ, or elegant austerity of the bare cross.

Why would we Catholics choose the crucifix as the symbol at the heart of the mass, rather than the risen Christ? There are theological reasons. I have been struck this summer by a deeply personal psychological one.

On June 15, there was a mass at my daughters’ school to commemorate the last day of the year and the graduation of the sixth graders. All of the children, wide eyes, laughing faces, delighted in the prospect of a long summer, in each other, themselves, all the parents who took the morning off from work to attend, what to do they have to do with the gruesome figure on the cross that looms behind all these rituals?

Everything, I think. Because when the celebration ends, we need to remember that the mercy of God is not there for us only when we are living the scrapbook-worthy moments, or in the perfectly curated Facebook feed of our lives. We are living in a messy, dark and dangerous world, and when it fails us, or we fail it, (and both must happen again and again) we need to know that’s exactly the time we’re welcome back at church. It is for the broken. We belong there then, at the funerals, as much as we belong there for the baptisms and weddings.

That day, the nation still reeled from a massacre of forty nine young people in a nightclub in Florida. Fear and anger ruled the airwaves, spewed from the mouths of pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle for whom identifying “others” to hate and rally the troops against is the only solution. An alligator had just dragged a two year old child to its death at a lake near Disney World. And that was just the beginning of what would turn out to be a long, bloody, terrible summer.

It is all too much. Too much to process that horror and these beautiful children as existing in the same world.

The crucifix, with all of its medieval barbarity, is a constant reminder that church is not for the sanctimonious, the sinless or the placid (as there are no such people): it’s for the embattled, the suffering, the confused, the anguished. And at one time or another, that’s going to be all of us.

There’s a scene in Herman Hesse’s Demian where the protagonist feels that he, through immoral choices and secrets kept from his parents, has been forced from the garden of his childhood into the outer darkness, from which he cannot return to that earlier, idyllic state – the place of light.

The horror of crucifix reminds us that we are always welcome; can always return from even the most utter defeat, as Christ did and does, in a way gleaming modern architecture never could. We will always feel unworthy before the Lord, but never unwelcome.

The Christian apologist and scholar, CS Lewis, commenting on “comfort” hit near this truth about the crucifix:

“The Christian religion does not begin in comfort; it begins in dismay. In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth you may find comfort in the end: If you look for comfort, you will not get comfort or truth – only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.”

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