When I was I was growing up I attended St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Bogota, N.J. I am thankful for my training that helped to establish my foundational beliefs as a Christian. Although I eventually left the Catholic Church I have tried to be careful about throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water when it came to doctrine, theology and observance of my faith (I am hopefully better, and gentler, at it now than I was when I was a young believer.) It was through the Church that I developed a deep appreciation and wonder of the cross of Christ and His atoning death for me. And not only for me, but for the whole world. I could not really understand it and had trouble making sense of the fact that One who was not guilty somehow had to suffer for those who were guilty. I distinctly remember being in fourth grade when my CCD (Catechism) teacher gave this illustration:
The scene was the Old West. A man had been convicted of robbing a bank and killing the bank teller and was scheduled to be hung. When the morning of his scheduled hanging came, a stranger rode into town. Nobody knew who he was but he said he knew the man who did this misdeed and that he had a family at home. The stranger said that he would voluntarily take the guilty man’s place and go to the gallows. The stranger was innocent and there was no implication that he had ever done anything wrong. However, the Sheriff accepted this deal and when the time of the hanging came the stranger died in place of the guilty man.
As a fourth grader this made no sense to me whatsoever. I actually argued with the teacher that this was unfair and that the Sheriff should have known better. The Sheriff, in my opinion, was guilty of murder and the man who was guilty of the crime got away, quite literally, with murder. To her credit she did her best to explain that this was the same thing that Jesus did for us. He came to take our place when He was innocent. Still, I would not accept it . It was, in the eyes of this 4th grader, not fair.
And in the eyes of this almost 54 year old pastor, it still is not fair. How can anyone think it is? And why in the world would God allow it to be this way?
So when I went to Mass, there was not a whole lot that interested me (although I must say that I can still recite most of the Mass and I have been out of the church for over 40 years!); But one thing always caught my attention… One thing left an enormous, powerful impression on me. And it still does today. It is…
Jesus on the cross.
The innocent for the guilty.
Every Mass my attention wandered but my eyes, and heart, would eventually be drawn to the crucifix. Six feet tall… prominently displayed in the front, left side of the church. I could not fathom that anyone could be treated so badly… and would suffer so much. Especially, one who was innocent. Especially, one who took the place of the guilty. And I knew I was one of the guilty ones. I would gaze at Jesus on the cross and it seemed so unnatural, so, inhuman… so barbaric. It seemed… so unfair. And what struck me even more was not just that an innocent person suffered and died…but he did so voluntarily, knowing that it was unfair. He did it because of love.
So I am drawn to Jesus on the cross. I never understood the Protestant/Evangelical argument and position of not displaying the crucifix in the church. The typical explanation goes something like this; “Jesus is no longer on the cross so we don’t want to display Him as still being on the cross. He rose from the dead and we should focus on that. Besides, it can become an idol…and the Catholics have too many statues anyway.”
Let me get this straight…We don’t want to display Jesus on the cross because He resurrected? That does not make a whole lot of sense to me. Why can’t we have both, Jesus on the cross and a symbol of resurrection as well? To me, an empty cross actually signifies the time before Jesus was on the cross or immediately after He was on the cross. A cross absent of Jesus has nothing to do with resurrection. In fact, if Jesus never resurrected what would an empty cross mean? The cross is an instrument of death. Jesus is no longer on the cross because they took Him down from there, not because he rose from the dead! Remember, the cross was empty after they took Him down and before He resurrected. What did the empty cross mean then? That Jesus had once been there? I think what people actually are looking for is not an empty cross but an empty tomb. People need a symbol of an empty tomb that will help proclaim resurrection. Our friend Tony Palma made a great observation the other night. He said when we see a Star of David, we think of the Jewish faith. When we see a crescent and star ,we think of the Muslim faith. And when we see a cross, we think of the Christian faith.
But the whole faith…not just the crucifixion.
Not just the atonement.
But everything about Jesus… His life, teaching, service, divinity, death, resurrection and second coming. And Paul’s writings. And the Old and New Testament.
And for those reasons I appreciate the empty cross. And I believe it is good to display it. And we have good reason to display a crucifix in our churches as well. Because when we see a crucifix…we don’t generally think of the healing miracles or Sermon on the Mount or of the great missionary journeys of Paul or the prophecies of Revelation. We don’t think of the 10 Commandments.
When we see a crucifix we are more likely to think, in the words of Charles Wesley… “Amazing love, how can this be, that Thou my God should die for me.”
The Apostle Paul wrote: “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. ( 1 Corinthians 1:23-24). In the next chapter he writes: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Jesus dying for our sins and rising again are foundational to our faith. Jesus on the cross and an empty tomb are meant to go together. We need both. We cling to both. Our Christian faith would not exist without either one. I don’t think we need an empty cross. We need Jesus on the cross and an empty tomb. To me that seems to be exactly how it happened.
What do you think?
How does it make you feel?
Have a blessed Good Friday and a wonderful Easter celebration.