(The following appeared in the Mt. Zion newsletter and formed the basis of some of our discussion leading up to the decision to purchase a crucifix to go over our altar. The crucifix is a memorial gift given in honor of Lorraine Hintze.)
The cross has been a symbol of the Christian faith ever since the days of the apostles. Sometimes, the cross is portrayed by itself; other times it is portrayed with the body of Christ on it. Of course, both of these types of crosses–the plain cross and the crucifix–are good and perfectly acceptable ways of symbolizing the Christian faith.
However, there are several reasons why Lutherans might prefer the crucifix, the cross with the body of Christ on it. First of all, the Scriptures clearly state, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). While Jesus, of course, is now risen from the dead, the fact remains that the center and focus of our preaching is the sacrifice that Christ made for our sins on the cross. And what better portrays for our eyes the Gospel we hear with our ears but the crucifix? There we see visibly a representation of what our Lord did to redeem us from the burden of our sin. There we see Him on His throne, with His crown of thorns, exercising His royal self-giving love for us. The crucifix portrays very clearly the Scriptural Gospel of Christ the crucified.
Some prefer the empty cross because, they say, it portrays the resurrection. However, that is not really true. The fact of the matter is that all the crosses of all the thousands of criminals who were crucified by the Romans were eventually empty. The bodies were taken down and buried or left for dogs and ravens to eat. All an empty cross means is that the dead body was removed from it. Again, there is certainly nothing wrong with using a plain cross–I have several myself. But we shouldn’t think that it proclaims the resurrection any more than an empty electric chair or hangman’s noose proclaims the resurrection.
Some prefer the plain cross because they think of it as Lutheran and the crucifix as Roman Catholic. But that is simply not the case. Many if not most of the crosses in the churches of the Reformation in the days of Martin Luther would have been crucifixes. Luther never spoke against having the body of Christ portrayed on a cross. It was only things that obscured the Gospel that Luther sought to reform. It is true that many of the non-Lutheran Protestant churches had only plain crosses, since their misguided theology caused them to forbid the use of any statues or sculptures in connection with their worship. But that has never been the theology of Lutheran Churches.
Our theology has always been to emphasize the physical, concrete realities of our salvation in Christ–that He took on our flesh and blood in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, that He died in the flesh for our sins, and that He now gives us His true body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar for our forgiveness. Portraying the body of Christ on the cross fits perfectly with our Scriptural belief that we now receive that same body in Holy Communion. And in fact St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:26, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.”
Using a crucifix can sometimes seem offensive to our sensibilities; we prefer something more pleasant to look at. But the truth is that the Gospel itself is offensive. St. Paul writes that it is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to us who are being saved, the message of the cross is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18,23). Though Christ the crucified was despised and rejected by men and “we hid our faces from Him” (Isaiah 53:3), we now look to the cross in faith and find our life there. In a very real sense it is beautiful for us to behold. We are not ashamed of the Gospel of the crucified One, for it is the power of God to save us (Romans 1:16).