Why Do Catholics Display/Wear Crucifixes Instead of Just a Cross?

Many non-Catholics have an aversion to crucifixes. While they have no problem with an “empty cross,” some Protestants, for example, object to the crucifix because it depicts Christ dying on the cross. “Christ isn’t on the cross anymore,” they say. “He’s reigning gloriously in heaven. So why emphasize his death?” This is a reasonable question that deserves a reasonable answer.

Let’s start by recognizing that Catholics emphasize both the crucifixion and the resurrection, not minimizing or downplaying the importance of either. In our manger scenes, stained glass windows, and statues, we also depict the Lord as a baby in the manger, as a toddler in his mother’s arms, and as a young man teaching the rabbis in the Temple. Each of these stages of the Lord’s life are worthy of depiction. But the focal point and purpose of Christ’s Incarnation and ministry is his death on the cross. As he himself said, “For this was I born, and for this came I into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth” (Jn 18:37).

Archbishop Fulton Sheen summarized the reason for using a crucifix instead of an empty cross when he said, “Keep your eyes on the crucifix, for Jesus without the cross is a man without a mission, and the cross without Jesus is a burden without a reliever.”

Isn’t it true that when you see an empty cross, your mind automatically “sees” Christ there? After all, we recognize that the cross only has meaning because Christ died on it for our salvation. Catholics use crucifixes to avoid what St. Paul warned about, that the cross might be “made void” (1 Cor 1:17).

Christ’s supreme act was to die on the cross as atonement for our sins. His resurrection was proof that what he did on the cross worked — he conquered death — and it demonstrated beyond any doubt that he was who he claimed to be: God. The crucifixion was the act that changed history. The resurrection demonstrated of the efficacy of that act.

By his death on the cross, Christ conquered sin and death, redeemed the world, opened the way of salvation for all who would receive it, and reconciled his people with the Father (cf. Eph 2:13-18; Col 1:19-20). That is why the crucifix is such a potent reminder for us of what he did on our behalf that dark afternoon on Calvary

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me’” (Mt 16:24; cf. Mt 10:38). True, resurrection and glory await all those who follow Christ faithfully, but we will only arrive there by traveling the way of the cross.

St. Paul emphasized the crucifixion saying, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not in loftiness of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of Christ. For I judged not myself to know anything among you, but Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2).

And in 1 Corinthians 1:18-24 he said, “For the word of the cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness; but to them that are saved, that is, to us, it is the power of God. For it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the prudence of the prudent I will reject. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world, by wisdom, knew not God, it pleased God, by the foolishness of our preaching, to save them that believe. For both the Jews require signs, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”

In Galatians 6:14 he proclaimed: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.”

And lest anyone imagine that the early Christians did not focus their minds on Christ’s death on the cross, consider what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:26, where he again emphasizes the crucifixion: “For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come.”

Recall the scene of the crucifixion Some in the crowd that was present at Calvary shouted at Christ as he was dying: “Come down from the cross!” (cf. Mt 27:40; Mk 15:30). What a strange and sad echo those words sometimes find today in the arguments of those who object to the crucifix as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice.

We Catholics should strive to emulate St. Paul’s words to “know nothing among you but Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2; cf. 1 Cor 1:17-18).

One way to deepen your appreciation of the crucifix as a reminder of what Christ did for you is to pray before one while prayerfully reading the Gospel accounts of the Passion. And here’s another thing you can do. Stand before a crucifix and ponder these poignant words:

The Child-Christ on the Cross
(“Dolor meus in conspectu meo semper.”)

Victim of love, in manhood’s prime
  Thou wilt ascend the Cross to die:
Why hangs the Child before His time
  Stretched on that bed of agony?

‘No thorn-wreath crowns My boyish brow,
  No scourge has dealt its cruel smart,
In hands and feet no nail-prints show,
  No spear is planted in My heart.

‘They have not set Me for a sign,
  Hung bare beneath the sunless sky,
Nor mixed the draught of gall and wine
  To mock My dying agony.

‘The livelong night, the livelong day,
  My child, I travail for thy good,
And for thy sake I hang alway
  Self-crucified upon the Rood.

‘To witness to the living Truth,
  To keep thee pure from sin’s alloy,
I cloud the sunshine of My youth;
  The Man must suffer in the Boy.

‘Visions of unrepented sin,
  The forfeit crown, the eternal loss,
Lie deep my sorrowing soul within,
  And nail My Body to the Cross.

‘The livelong night, the livelong day,
  A Child upon that Cross I rest;
All night I for My children pray,
  All day I woo them to My breast.

‘Long years of toil and pain are Mine,
  Ere I be lifted up to die,
Where cold the Paschal moonbeams shine
  At noon on darkened Calvary.

‘Then will the thorn-wreath pierce My brow,
  The nails will fix Me to the tree;
But I shall hang as I do now,
  Self-crucified for love of thee!’

Henry Nutcombe Oxenham, 1819-1888

Additional passages to study: Matthew 10:37-39 and 27:37, Luke 23:38, and John 3:1-4. Compare with Numbers 21:8-9 and 19:19, Romans 6:1-10, 1 Cor. 1:10-13, Galatians 2:20 and 3:1, as well as 5:24 and 6:14. Related sections of the Catechism: CCC 421, 469, 550, 555, 618, 766, 921, 1182, 1375, 2427, and 2543.