The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Crucifix

I once heard a evangelical preacher named Brother Earl give some strong opinions about the crucifix. He went on and on about how it appalls him that "some Christians" depict Jesus hanging on the cross. I can still see the contortions in his body as he talked about his sheer disgust. To him, the crucifix was practically an abomination. His point was that Jesus is risen and is no longer on the cross. Showing Jesus on the cross seemed to deny some essential part of this man's faith.

I had a hard time grasping what was driving his rage. We celebrate and learn from all the events of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, so why there was some kind of prohibition to the cross seemed silly, if not downright counterproductive. If you really want to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, then the empty tomb is a much better symbol than an empty cross! We know the cross is empty--the empty tomb is a bit of a surprise! It just seemed like a way to pick on a symbol that some people find meaningful. Before the sermon, those in attendance were asked what our religious background was and many of us raised our hands and said "Catholic." I suspected anti-Catholicism was a driving force of this sermon, since the crucifix is such a central symbol of our faith.

Still, another minister reassured us afterwards that this preacher had good intentions and was just expressing his faith. Was there something more to this belief than just a jab at another denomination? In light of the themes in my last post (Why I'm Catholic), I may have stumbled on another way of looking at this.

To Catholics, Jesus shown on the cross is a defining message. It is the truest and more intimate statement of Incarnation. Not only did Jesus come to the earth, but he is with us as totally and as intimately as in our suffering and our death. He shares that with us. There is no place that he won't go. He is present in all the nooks and crannies, all the dungeons and torture chambers of this earth. The crucifix also shows the grim reality of what we're talking about--no one is whitewashing what really happened. There are scars, gashes and a crown of thorns. They tell us something about God, in Andrew Greeley's words.

Protestants are pilgrims on their way out of this world (see Eldebo's remarks). The world, our humanity, our earthly vices and comforts are all obstacles on our path. God is the source of all goodness, and the more we can focus on that instead of any person or artifact from this world the better. The death of Jesus on the cross isn't a moment that would be helpful to someone coming from this orientation. Jesus on the cross just proves the rottenness of the world.

One of the most central parts of the Christian tradition is that God and the world are not the same. God is "other." God and the world are two different entities/things/manifestations. The world is not God, and we are not divine. At first glance, it can be easy to get excited about certain eastern or pagan religions that see people and nature as divine, but there are limitations to that view. The fact that God is not us means that we can be in relationship with God. Divinity also seems to be mean more if there is such a thing as non-divinity. All Christians affirm this and it is absolutely at the core of all the Christian denominations that I'm aware of. Yet, God is still a part of this world, somehow. The question is how this distinction is perceived, which parts are emphasized, and how this presence of God is understood. Here is where we arrive at the Protestant and Catholic imaginations.

It goes back to that Greeley quote in my last post: To Catholics, the world can tell us something about God. There is nothing more radically human than Jesus dying on the cross. Jesus is part of this world in a most intimate, gruesome, personal way. Not just the cross but the whole Lenten journey teaches us about God. To Protestants, who tend to think the world is radically different from God, the death of Jesus on the cross is only the means to another end--a stepping stone before the final Revelation. To dwell at the foot of the cross is shortsighted, to them. The moment of Jesus' death is the darkest moment, when the forces of evil seem to have won, when Jesus seemed to be mortal and thus as depraved as the rest of us. The resurrection is what matters.

It is not that Protestants deny the presence of God in this world--I don't want to make them out to be entirely Gnostic. But how they imagine God to be present is where the difference lies. Jesus is almost like a messenger whose role is to give us a Word for how to get off of this godforsaken world. Catholics emphasize that Jesus is Emmanuel--God is with us. That isn't just a statement about a one-time showing of Jesus 2,000 years ago, but rather God is really with us right here and right now. You can be as isolated as someone dying alone suspended on a cross amidst public shame and outrage, and God is still with you.

No Catholic would deny the centrality of the Resurrection, nor deny that we are a pilgrim people. No Protestant would deny the reality of the Incarnation. I don't think I wrote anything from a theological perspective that would conflict with any of the dogma on the books of most Catholic or Protestant denominations. It is more of a matter of perspective and emphasis than anything else. Greeley says that Catholics and Protestants actually tend to think differently. Supposedly, Catholics thinks analogously while Protestants think dialectically. Our understandings of God's relationship to the world--although based on the same foundations--have over time evolved into different worldviews, perspectives and approaches for how to understand it all. At some point, these different perspectives turn into different theologies, but for the moment we can say that we agree on much, but by emphasizing certain parts we can lean in different ways.

Catholics are an Easter people. The resurrection is key to the faith. But we try to hold the goodness of God's creation as well. There is something that matters about the here and now. We are not just focused on life after death. We can learn about God by looking around in the world, and we can see God present there. Protestants are more relational, Catholics have more of a cosmology. All the events and incidents that led up to the crucifixion and resurrection are noteworthy.

So no, Brother Earl isn't off the hook. He was being petty and partisan. There is no reason someone coming from a Protestant background couldn't find tremendous significance in a crucifix. However, I can see how it is possible that he was genuinely reflecting a perspective that is consistent with a traditional Protestant worldview.


  1. I remember Brother Earl, haven't thought about him lately, but I think you nailed his motivations on the head.

  2. I think the crucifix reminds us of the grusome gift Jesus gave to us. He was/is real and died for real in one of the most violent ways. It is easy to forget the ugliness he endured; seeing the cross as a symbol. It is hard to forget the gift when you see him on the cross before you.

    I often want to shield myself from negative things and surround myself with the positive. In this case, it is precisely the negative, horrible thing that makes it known how much he loves us.

    My daughter asked me, "Mom, why do they call it Good Friday? It should be called Sad Friday." My son piped in, "It was kinda good because Jesus died so we could be free from sin- and that is good."

  3. I agree. I think the symbol of the crucifix is affirming that God (or some such power) understands the ins and outs of human suffering... because he/she/it has "been there." This is just another area where sometimes Protestants make me scratch my head... my Catholic upbringing still molds my understanding of the Christian faith.

  4. Keep in mind that not "all Protestants" nor "all Catholics" think this way. It is always like walking on eggshells to make these generalizations, and I always worry whether I am being sensitive enough or communicating well enough.

    I think there is value in making generalizations, but most people exist somewhere on the continuum in between with a range of features of each.

    I think there are enough commonalities and shared tradition to make a claim that there is such a thing as "Catholic culture" or the "Protestant imagination", but there is a load of nuance and it is always a highwire act to provide a balanced analysis.

  5. Okay, I meant the Protestants in my experience. ;) I've been exposed to the most general kind--some of the evangelical ilk. Which often seems to fit with some of the things you describe as Protestant generally.

  6. Yeah, I know. I was trying to clarify my own thoughts as well. Making generalizations is a tough things and many people don't respond well to it, so I'm trying to explain where I'm coming from.