Cross or Crucifix?


Leading up to the Easter Triduum the Liturgical Commission always receives enquiries as to whether it is a cross or crucifix that is venerated at the Good Friday liturgy. Some historical background is useful when examining this issue.

The cross is the distinctive, though not exclusive, Christian symbol because it was the instrument of Christ’s death. The first Christians did not openly display the symbol because for them this horrible form of capital punishment was an experienced reality and also because of the fear of persecution before the Edict of Milan in 312.

It was natural that the cross, the instrument of salvation, should become the object of special respect and veneration. The focus however was on its saving role in God’s plan and not on the physical suffering and death of Jesus. The cross was seen as a tool of Christ’s victory over evil, opening up God’s grace to all humanity.

The first evidence of the figure of Christ being depicted on the cross comes from the early 6th century. It was a way of contradicting those heresies that emphasised the divinity of Christ to such an extent that any physical suffering on his part was out of the question.

Jesus was represented, however, as the Christus Victor, the victorious God-made-man who triumphed over death. Christ was vested in a long robe, emphasising his priesthood and kingship. A royal diadem replaced the crown of thorns. This image depicted both the reality of the crucifixion and the joy of the resurrection.

Subsequently, the figure of Christ changed to a more human one with the head bowed and an expression of sadness on his face. This style was known as the Christus Patiens. In the 11th century, Byzantine art showed an anguished Christ, the Christus Dolor. Another style, the Christus Mortus, developed during the medieval period under the influence of the physical suffering of victims of the Black Death. It was not until the 14th century that the crucifix gradually began to replace the cross.

All the rubrics (instructions) and all the texts for the Adoration of the Holy Cross on Good Friday make it clear that it is the cross itself which is being venerated. At the showing of the cross, the priest sings: “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world”.

The hymns suggested for the rite honour the cross as a symbol of hope and of our salvation through the crucifixion, for example:
“We adore your Cross, O Lord,
we praise and glorify your holy Resurrection,
for behold, because of the wood of a tree
joy has come to the whole world.”

The cross is more appropriate than a crucifix because we are not looking at a picture. While the crucifix focuses on a moment in history, the cross embraces the whole of the paschal mystery - Christ’s suffering, death, resurrection, and his coming again.

When a crucifix rather than a cross is required, theMissal makes this very clear by referring to “a cross with the figure of Christ crucified upon it” as in the General Instruction paragraph 308.

Elizabeth Harrington