By: Nathan

Crosses and Crucifixes are the two central symbols of Christianity.  We see them all the time, at Mass, on rosaries, on jewelry, etc. I know I see them so often I don’t often think about what they are.  They are so common that I usually think about how they look rather than what they are. Like ‘oh, so-and-so has a nice looking cross’, or ‘the Crucifix at such-and-such parish is really impressive’.  I might even notice someone having a particular style of cross or crucifix and note that they must actually be Christian to wear something like that rather than wearing the cross as a fashion statement.

It’s worth taking a moment to discuss these symbols. What are they? What do they really mean? And why do Catholics use both the Cross and Crucifix as different symbols?

A cross, as an actual thing, is a tool used for one of the most brutal and cruel forms of execution that humanity ever devised.  The word ‘excruciating’ was invented to describe the pain of crucifixion. It was so horrible that it was against Roman law to execute Roman citizens by crucifixion.  St. Paul had Roman citizenship so he was beheaded instead of being crucified like St. Peter. If you came across an empty cross on the road it was a threat. If someone was to wear a cross as a piece of jewelry  back in those times it would be like someone today wearing an electric chair or guillotine around their neck. And a crucifix would be even stranger. Imagine someone walking around today wearing a shirt with a picture of an execution on it.  

Incidentally, it is partially for that reason that, in the early Church, the main symbol for Christians wasn’t the Cross.  It was actually the ‘Ichthys’ or ‘Jesus fish’. But, even by the 2nd century, the Cross was being associated with Christians.  For example the Octavius by Marcus Minucius Felix (an early Christian) talks about Christians and the cross.  However it took until the 4th century for the Cross to become so widespread.

For Christians the Cross has become something more than a form of execution.  It has become a symbol of hope. The reality is that Jesus conquered death and conquered the Cross.  Yes, He died on the Cross, but then He rose from death. It has no power over Him. And, He’s promised us a share in the Resurrection.  The empty cross symbolizes Christ’s victory over death and His promise to us. It’s a sign that God can take the worst things in the world and transform them.  The Cross is no longer a promise of death; it’s a promise of eternal life!

For Catholics, the Crucifix is almost as common a symbol as the Cross.  This isn’t true in a lot of other Christian faiths. I remember one of my friends once asking ‘why do you Catholics keep Christ on the cross?  He’s resurrected and the Cross is empty.’ It’s a good question. Why do Catholics keep showing Christ’s execution? And we do show it everywhere.  In fact, one of the requirements of the Mass is for a Crucifix to be placed on or near the altar.

The reason for showing the Crucifix all over the place is that the Crucifix provides a reminder of what God has given for us.  It’s a reminder of the fact that Christ died for each of us. If I were the only person who ever sinned in history, God still loves me enough to die for me.  If you were the only person who had ever sinned ( and you aren’t 😉 ), God would still have died for you alone, because He loves you. The Crucifix is really a symbol of just how much God loves us. It is the physical depiction of what He loves most, His only Son, in the act of being given over for love of us also. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son…” John 3:16.

The Cross and the Crucifix are two of the central symbols of Christianity.  The Cross symbolizes the hope we have in God while the Crucifix shows how much God loves us.  They are the central symbols of our faith because they express the Gospel, the good news. The news that God loves us with an intense and personal love.  A love so great that He would die for us. The news that we have hope to be free from death. Hope of the Resurrection, hope of everlasting life in the loving arms of God.  And how amazing is it that God has transformed an image of death into a symbol of love; a tool of execution into the promise of eternal life!

About Author: Nathan DegVersion 2

I am an astrophysicist working as a post-doctoral fellow at UCT.  I obtained my Ph.D. in 2014, and am currently studying barred spiral galaxies, stellar streams, and the Milky Way.  I enjoy way to many video games, books, movies, and tv shows and have a deep and abiding love for real (ice) hockey.