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Symbols: Plain Crosses & the Crucifix

Giotto di Bondone: Crucifix

Today on my prayer sites (here and here), I publish a photograph as above, of the crucifix by Giotto di Bondone, the first of the great painters of the Italian Renaissance.

As you can see, his Jesus has very long arms. He’s a bit skinny, and almost seems to have a pot belly. But maybe that’s a result of his suffering; I wouldn’t look my best nailed to a cross and neither would you.

But noticing these minor details reminds me of an old controversy in the depiction of Christ, and a conversation I had with Grandma Clara many years ago.

She did not approve of crucifixes. She informed me in a mild voice, “We believe Christ rose from the dead.”

She’s one of the gentlest persons I ever knew; I love my Grandma. Still, her rebuke stung a little, and struck me as rather odd; was she saying Catholics don’t believe in the resurrection? No, I don’t think she’d go that far; she wasn’t one to judge someone else’s religion. But she had a clear preference for a plain cross, as many Protestants do.

Sometimes that’s just a wholesale rejection of anything Catholic. It leads to absurdities like putting a steeple on a church building without a cross on top. If it doesn’t lift up the Cross so the whole city can see it, why is the steeple even there?

Protestants can be pretty ignorant sometimes. But so can we all. Catholic churches don’t put up crucifixes on steeples, but plain crosses; the cross is the symbol of Christianity, lifted high above the city. We all can agree on that.

But Grandma didn’t like a crucifix. I do. What’s behind that?

It seems to depend on what we think the cross means.

For all Christians, I think, the cross is a symbol of terrible persecution and death, turned into a badge of honor. In one way or another it’s displayed in hundreds of millions of Christian homes.

I prefer to see a depiction of Christ’s body on the cross. The corpus is important to me and moves me more deeply than a plain cross.

I don’t think the Protestant version tries to sanitize anything; Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians take the crucifixion as seriously as anyone else.

But they don’t like the body there. Why is that?

It’s probably just what they’ve been taught, what they’re used to. It’s likely they don’t realize their preference for the plain symbol relates to angry theological arguments 500 years ago. And that’s okay; they’re allowed to like what they like.

So am I. What does the corpus mean to me? Why does it have a power over my soul, such that I have three crucifixes in my house in all the important rooms? (Bedroom/office, kitchen, living room.)

Let me interpose this: I don’t like the dripping, gory, manipulative crucifixes formerly seen in ethnic Catholic churches. Neither do I like a hammer to my head.

High above my kitchen, in a place where I know to look but visitors seldom see, hangs a stylized metal crucifix, inexpensive, black cross, faded gold body barely visible. I bought it 40 years ago and it’s still my favorite. It doesn’t scream; it’s very quiet. Jesus died for your sins.

My most recent purchase, hanging in the living room opposite my prayer chair above the TV, is an iconic reproduction of the cross in the chapel of the Order of the Holy Cross. It reminds me of the brothers, and two Gay guys in their orbit, Chet and George, longtime lovers who may be better monks than the monks are. I visited OHC two years ago to find out if I had a vocation there, but I did not. God bless them all, especially Chet and George.

In my bedroom/office hangs the first crucifix I ever bought, with a brass-plated corpus on a wooden frame.

I remember buying it at a store in Market Square in Lafayette, which was once the predominant mall but has long since fallen upon hard times. I was barely catholic then, but I knew I wanted that cross.

What does the body mean?

It shows the man suffering, as I have and you have.

It shows his taking on the sins of the world, and forgiving us.

It shows his taking on my sins, and forgiving me, which feels very different from “the whole world.” He forgives my sins, a big wow. He and I are the only ones who know every way I’ve screwed up.

But I think the real reason I love the crucifix more than the plain cross is this: it’s a picture of the self-sacrifice to which all of us everywhere are called. When you love someone, you sacrifice for them.

I moved in with my mother to care for her as she died of cancer. At times that felt like a sacrifice. But I had previously cared for a lover through 14 amputations and two heart attacks – so I was used to it, and being with Mom as she died was just the right thing to do.

I don’t write this to get your praise – I don’t deserve it, caring for your loved ones is the right thing to do – but to mention that we need to see the body on the cross if we’re to understand Christianity at all. The whole point is self-sacrifice – which is why my beloved Grandma was wrong. We need the example before us, in our line of vision, because without it we won’t rise to the occasion.

Jesus died once for all and I don’t intend to repeat it. There was one Messiah and I ain’t it. I don’t deserve one bit of praise for doing the right thing; I thank God for knowing what the right thing is.

Where did I get that? From the body on the cross.

Fact is, there are many aspects to “self-sacrifice” which we do well to remember. There’s a certain reflected glory; “See me, acting like Jesus!” Yeah, right.

Much deeper, there’s the real pain of “God, my loved one is suffering, what can I do?”

“Why don’t my prayers help? Why are Jack and Mom still sick?”

We all have hopes and dreams that get crucified. In the immortal words of Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront,” “I coulda been a contender.”

Love gets crucified. That’s the nature of it. Your heart will always get broken. If you have a heart, you’re doomed to pain.

But as Grandma said, “We believe he rose from the dead.”

What kind of impact does that have on a ten-year-old boy?

It’s fine with me if you prefer a plain cross. But I respond better to a profound illustration of how I’m to live my life.

There was only one Jesus; I’m not here to duplicate him. But I’m here, we’re all here, to “take up our cross and follow him.”

I need the illustration.

But even more, there is a triumph and an ecstasy in the crucified Jesus as he takes away the sins of the world. This is not, as we imagine it, some SM fantasy. He does not glorify masochism; those nails fucking hurt.

But he made a commitment to love and he kept it, no matter what.

I don’t see all that in a plain cross; maybe Grandma did, but I don’t.

I have a body — I am my body — so show me the body that was given for me.++

2 Responses

  1. I myself have pictures of plain crosses but if I see one with Jesus on it I would probably get it if I want. I know Jesus died for me on the cross, It just so happened that when I saw something with the cross on it if I liked it I’d get it. As long as you are a follower of Christ it’s your decision.

  2. I respect that, Goldngyrl. I wasn’t really talking about pictures or jewelry, but architecture – namely, why churches have steeples. Nearly every Episcopal church has a steeple, and if so it always has a cross on top; indoors the visual focus is generally on a plain cross, while other Episcopal churches have a crucifix. We are gradually moving from Protestant to Catholic – though we always have been, and always will be, both.

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