I grew up in an Evangelical tradition that espoused an environment of active hate towards the historical, third-dimensional symbols of the Christian religion. How a “Christian” can take a conceptualized depiction of Lord Jesus and desecrate it is now inconceivable to me…but there was a time when I too used to be an “iconoclast.”
Others can do a much better job in attempting to convey the intricate development and history of the crucifix’s use in Western culture since the medieval ages- so I won’t even begin. But one thing I can say is that no other symbol on earth visually embodies the Gospel message (ie. Good News) like the crucifix.
Many Evangelical Christians use the following commandment as justification for accusing other Christians of idolatry, for venerating the crucifix:
Exodus 20:3-5 (NASB)- “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…”
The Bible is a complex compilation of inspired books, written in the midst of the human experiences of particular cultures, especially the experiences of the people of Israel. Whenever we attempt to interpret a passage of Scripture, it is important that we properly contextualize it in order to properly understand and apply it to our lives.
Its interesting that just a few chapters after this, the LORD commanded Moses to make two statues of Cherubs (type of angels in heaven) to be placed right on top of the ark in which the 10 Commandments were stored.
Exodus 25:19-22 (NIV) “Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony (10 Commandments), which I will give you.
All devout Christians take comfort in the fact that God does not fail in his word nor contradict himself. (Isaiah 40:8) In spite of this, to this day, many Evangelical Christians insist on espousing an antithetical projection upon the crucifix that defies the original intention of the LORD when he commanded to not make idols. The main reason for the commandment was to protect the Israelites from falling into acquiring a devotion to the false gods of the Canaanite region and/or pagan religions of the day.
Most Evangelicals feel comfortable with the use of plain crosses instead of crucifixes, because to them, it reminds them of the resurrection of Christ. But the fact is that Jesus did not resurrect from the cross…he resurrected from a grave. (John 20) In essence, both the empty cross and the crucifix symbolize the same thing: that Lord Jesus Christ died on a cross in order to save the whole world from the consequences of sin.
But there is something that the crucifix reminds us of more effectively than an empty cross. Yes, it is true that the crucifix portrays a third-dimensional depiction of Lord Christ nailed to the cross… but the central point of the crucifix is not the wounds themselves, but the NAVEL on the corpus.
Galatians 4:4-5 (NIV) “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
One of the main messages of the Gospel is that God redeemed us (bought us), not by remaining in a divine state in which he was exempt of human suffering, but rather, that God himself descended from his lofty throne, and fully associated himself with humankind by becoming like us in every way.
Hebrews 4:15 (NIV)- “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in EVERY WAY, just as we are-yet was without sin.”
The main message of the crucifix is that God truly understands our plight- our shortcomings, our fears, our failures, our pains, our illnesses, our mistakes and our addictions to sin. The crucifix reminds us that God did not have compassion for us in a condescending way from his lofty throne, but rather, that he descended from the throne and dwelt among us- not as an Olympian demigod, but as a carpenter who worked with his hands, and felt hunger, and tired, and sometimes… discouraged. God knows what it means to be a man in every conceivable way…
And it was as a human being, that he overcame our condition of ultimate darkness, by taking upon himself any and every thing that separated us from God’s eternal and indescribable love.
The crucifix reminds us that human beings, regardless of condition or religious ignorance, can turn towards a loving God who in Christ Jesus embraced our humanity, so that in Christ, we might embrace his eternal divinity, through oneness with Him.
The crucifix should also remind us that true love requires selfless sacrifice for our fellow human beings. In fact, Lord Jesus taught that our acts of kindness towards those in need, are actually as if we were doing them to him. (Matthew 25:40) The crucifix reminds us that in order to serve our fellow human being, that we must come off our lofty concepts of ourselves and become humble and accepting of all people in every condition they find themselves.
In fact, the crucifix is a reminder of the Greatest Commandment. On the night Lord Jesus was betrayed by a selfish person, he commanded:
John 15:12-13 (NIV)- “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
If Christians focused on the real meaning of the crucifix, we would accept our denominational differences as simply different expressions of the manifold wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10) so that angels might learn about the mysteries of the Gospel, through us.
Christ Jesus is the love of God, incarnate. True Love always requires selfless sacrifice. The crucifix is a reminder of how far we should go in order to love like Christ loved us from eternity.