Cross or Crufix?


I recently received a letter expressing concern about the crucifix in a parish church being replaced by a cross. I am often asked whether it is a cross or crucifix that is venerated at the Good Friday liturgy.
The cross is the distinctive, though not exclusive, Christian symbol because it was the instrument of Christ’s death. The first Christians, however, 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.
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.
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.
All the rubrics (instructions) and all the texts for the veneration of the cross on Good Friday use the word “cross”. The hymns sung during the rite honour the cross as a symbol of hope and of our salvation through the crucifixion. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal refers to a “cross” being carried in the entrance procession, placed near the altar and incensed.
The cross is more appropriate than the 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.
Some Catholics want to have a crucifix with a realistic corpus clearly visible in the sanctuary because they consider the Mass to be another Calvary and believe that the focus of the Eucharist is memorialisation of the passion. Again, this emphasises just one aspect of the mystery of our salvation.
But one cannot say that only the cross and not the crucifix should be displayed. There are many people who have an emotional attachment to the crucifix as a personal symbol of what Christ has done for them. For the devotional life of these people, a crucifix can be enshrined in its own place away from the focal points of the assembly during the liturgy. This might be in a separate chapel or in the gathering area of the church.
We can learn a lot from those people for whom the crucifix has almost sacramental significance. The power of the cross needs to be restored to the community, and this will only happen if the symbol is a significant one and is treated as something significant. Then the cross can again be the symbol of the victory of Christ as it was for the early Christians.

Elizabeth Harrington