Crucifix or Cross? Why the Difference Matters

eucharist, mass, gifts, offering

Among the differences between Catholics and Protestants, is the use of the crucifix or cross. This was keenly brought to my attention when a faithful Protestant friend brought her children to the Right to Life office one day. Hanging in a prominent place above the office door, was my Saint Benedict crucifix. When her son asked, “What is that on the cross?”, my stammering response confirmed his innocent question caught me off guard.

Are We Simply Aware or Do We Fully Understand?

So it is with numerous other aspects of our Catholic lives. Cradle Catholics sometimes take outward marks of our faith for granted because they have always been a part of our lives. Although we are aware of Catholic sacramentals and symbols, can we truly say that we understand them? What reply do we offer if we are questioned about a practice, devotion, sacramental, or belief?

Do We Love Enough to Learn?

Many years ago, my Protestant boss habitually asked questions about Catholicism. Although my answers were enough to satisfy his level of curiosity, I experienced an awakening to the fact that my base of knowledge had not continued to develop as I had matured. Yes, the basic tenets of the Catholic faith were there, a surface awareness of the how and why. However, there was a profound need to develop a deeper knowledge  to care enough to hunger for details.

It has been said if one truly loves, he wants to intimately know the object of his affection. This is true of worldly interests as well as those of a spiritual nature. For example, a continued study of plants and flowers springs from a deep affinity for gardening. Sure, pretty colors and the pleasure they give can be satisfactory, but there is a yearning for more. It benefits the aspiring gardener to study cultivars, growth habits, environmental needs, and seasons. Thus sustained, the garden is well thought out and flourishes throughout multiple growing seasons, consequently extending the pleasure derived.

What are We Willing to Do?

This begs the question: What are we willing to do to nurture our faith life, allowing it to thrive? After all, we’re contemplating Eternity.

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. What better illustration of true love is there on this earth? So it comes back down to love. An unfettered love of God is crucial if our spiritual life is to mature because the eternal well-being of our souls relies on nurture and care. Holy Mother Church has certainly provided everything needed for Catholic Christians to blossom; the Bible, Catechism of the Catholic Church, writings of the Church Fathers, and the examples of great saints are just a few of the resources at our disposal.

Just as a garden requires continual effort, so does the soul. Simply planting, watering, and then walking away results in a disorderly, abandoned garden. Relying on childhood sacraments and our mere presence at Sunday Mass has similarly dissatisfying results. To continue to grow in grace and love, our souls need careful tending. The harvest we reap will then fill us with the Presence of God.

Crucifix or Cross: What Is the Answer?

Answering the little boy who visited me with his mother that day, satisfied his curiosity. It was Our Savior Jesus Christ on the cross, Who had died for our sins. But his mother quickly changed the subject and regrettably, an opportunity for evangelization was lost.

What more could I have shared with both of them? Catholics display a crucifix which includes the body of Jesus (corpus) because it reminds us of the greatest gift of love ever given. An empty cross is a simplified, Christian symbol but doesn’t communicate the full story. Jesus died for our sins, an act to which we return each and every time we witness the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. At the moment of Consecration, we are transported, back in time, to the foot of the cross on Calvary. We partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, as He instructed us to do on Holy Thursday, when He said, “Take and eat”.

The crucifix also serves as a compelling reminder to love as He loves and to take up our own cross to follow Him. Therefore, the crucifix is a fitting symbol of His death for our salvation. He was crucified upon it, He died there, and He was taken down from it after death.

Yet it is the Risen Christ Who is with us always. Perhaps a more suitable symbol of the resurrected Christ, then, is the empty tomb – He is no longer there, He has risen. Alleluia!

And so we continue to “…preach Christ crucified.” 1 Corinthians 1:23

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8 thoughts on “Crucifix or Cross? Why the Difference Matters”


  2. A Protestant pastor in Japan told a group of students on a field trip to his church about the difference between Catholics and Protestants: “Catholics have crucifixes because they emphasize the death of Jesus; Protestants have empty crosses because they emphasize his Resurrection.” Odious. But he got away with it. For some reason, Protestants seem to hate crucifixes.

  3. Protestants accuse Catholics of idol worship. Thus they will display a cross as a symbol but, as the little boy in the story above, shows the symbol is incomplete. One might suggest that removing the symbolic Body of Christ from the cross is analogous to removing a statuesque George Washington from his war horse. One might suggest the Reformation has hidden the Body of Christ, symbolically speaking. When one gazes in awe at the Pieta as a work of art depicting an achingly poignant sorrow, does one commit idol worship? Can Protestants behold the Pieta without awe and sorrow? Has no one ever been mortified to tears at the foot of a life sized crucifix with a realistic depiction of the savagery of man towards the Son of Man? If these barriers separate Christians then Ecumenism is a trivial pursuit.

    1. Birgit Atherton Jones

      Great point! Yes, I’ve run across the accusation of idol worship, at which point I ask if they carry a photo of their loved ones in their wallet. 😉

    2. Good point – but they say “well, we don’t pray to pictures.” Most Protestants down here in SW Virginia will not even pray for saintly intercession. If you ask do they pray for deceased parents or friends they may admit that. I guess no one in heaven, angel or saint, can pray for us. Miracles do not exist. The Blessed Mother never appears to give us guidance. It is just good old John Henry Johnson and his friend Jesus. They seem not to apprehend that they may be unworthy.

    3. Another thing to get worked up over.
      The real issue is Mary worship who in fact needed to be saved from her sins. Luke 1:47.
      I’m not into the idol thing – He is risen and no longer on the cross.

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