As we conclude our “Crosses of Jesus” sermon series in which we have looked at the Latin Cross, the Jerusalem Cross, the Tau Cross, the Celtic Cross, and the St. Andrew’s Cross, we focus this morning on another cross of Jesus which is known as the Crucifix.
First, a bit of history.
Archaeologists have found no evidence of the image of a crucified Jesus used in Christian worship until the 5th century. In fact, the early Christians avoided the use of even a plain cross. For one thing, the shape of the cross was still the form of capital punishment used for non-Roman citizens throughout the Roman Empire. And to highlight such a gruesome symbol in that time period could have easily been too overpowering for people to absorb.
Also, to use a cross as a Christian image would have drawn attention to oneself as a follower of Jesus, a dangerous thing to do during times of persecution for Christians.
For this reason, early Christians identified themselves with the sign of the fish. Some of Jesus’ disciples had been fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James and John. Jesus invited them to become his disciples, and told them that they would no longer catch fish. Instead, they would fish for people and encourage them to become followers and disciples of Jesus Christ.
Early Christians could mark their homes or businesses with a fish and other Christians would know that they could safely talk about Jesus together. But pagans throughout the Roman Empire might just assume that they were fishermen by trade, or that it was just a decoration.
The earliest representations of a cross used in Christian imagery were made using an anchor. You can see that there is the shape of a cross hidden in the design of an anchor. Also, by introducing an anchor as a Christian symbol of the cross, Christians were able to keep within the fishing and sea imagery that they had already been using.
In addition, our faith reminds us that Jesus is the Lord of all and who keeps us secure in the midst of life’s storms. Hence, the anchor is a very good Christian symbol, and it too, could be used safely by early Christians without facing persecution.
When early Christians did try and represent Jesus crucified, they did not use an image of the body of Jesus nailed to a cross. Rather, they used the image of a lamb, the Passover Lamb. They understood the symbolism of the Passover Lamb from the Old Testament, and that Jesus was the perfect Lamb of God crucified to take away the sins of the world. Often, the lamb is shown carrying a banner.
In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and the persecution of Christians came to an end in the Roman Empire.
In the fifth century, the Western Roman Empire fell after years of invasions by many northern Germanic tribes. Finally, the empire fell completely when the Visigoths invaded.
The earliest depictions of the crucified Jesus in the Middle Ages show him with his eyes open and with no trace of suffering. Although the humanity and the divinity of Christ was an accepted doctrine of the Church during this time, emphasis was generally placed on Christ’s divinity and that’s why Jesus tended to be painted without any emphasis on his suffering and death.
By the thirteenth century, there was increasing theological importance placed on the incarnation of Jesus, or his taking on of full humanity. Depictions of the crucifixion began to portray Jesus’ twisted body, and his bleeding on the cross. The crucifix became the centerpiece in most churches and cathedrals, and became the favored object of devotion and contemplation for the mystics.
Some historians believe that depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus became more realistic during the Middle Ages because the Great Plague had ravaged across Europe and killed more than one-third of the population with an agonizing, unstoppable death. European artists became fascinated with depicting death.
Then, during the Renaissance, Jesus’ depiction on the cross was transformed once again according to the prevailing optimistic spirit of that era.
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century put a divide in the use of portrayals of the crucifixion between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches on one hand, and Protestant Churches on the other. Protestant reformers got rid of crucifixes in their churches, and in the case of John Calvin’s followers, even plain crosses were banned.
Crosses have again become prominent in most Protestant Churches, although a few still adhere to strict “no ornamentation” beliefs. However, the crucifix has remained almost exclusively associated with Roman Catholicism.
Both Protestants and Catholics understand that both the crucifixion of Jesus, and his resurrection are pivotal points of our Christian faith. And one is meaningless without the other. If Jesus had not been crucified, he could not have been resurrected from the dead. And if Jesus had not been resurrected from the dead, he would have been just another Jewish man crucified by Roman authorities.
So, what can we learn from the Crucifix?
A crucifix is a Latin cross with the body of Jesus, called the Corpus hanging on it. It signifies the sacrifice that the Son of God willingly made on our behalf. It reminds us of the incredible agony and suffering that Jesus endured to take away our sins.
Listen to this description of death by crucifixion written by a medical doctor:
Hours of this limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain as tissue is torn from the victim’s lacerated back as he moves up and down against the rough timber. Then another agony begins: a deep, crushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart. It is now almost over—the loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level—the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissues—the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. The victim can feel the chill of death creeping through his tissues…Finally, he can allow his body to die.
This type of capital punishment was known to be brutal and painful over a long period of time. And Jesus, being fully human, felt every bit of its pain and torture.
This was capital punishment reserved for the lowest people in the empire—slaves, servants, and criminal non-Roman citizens.
God’s servant to humankind came and died a servant’s death.
The crucifix also reminds us that we as Jesus’ disciples are also called to live our lives serving others.
The crucifix calls us to remember the crucifixion of Jesus.
A teacher named Patty Bonds shares her own story of the reason she wears a crucifix:
I was assisting in a history class one day shortly after my conversion. I was wearing a crucifix and the history teacher, who was not Catholic, commented that crucifixes always bother her. She asked me why we Catholics kept Jesus on the cross when he was risen from the dead. She expressed her offense at the sight of Jesus hanging there 2,000 years after the fact.
Prompted, I believe, by the Holy Spirit, I broke into a chorus of an old hymn traditionally familiar to many Protestants:
Lest I forget Gethsemane,
Lest I forget thine agony
Lest I forget thy love for me,
Lead me to Calvary.
She walked away with raised eye brows and a pensive nod.
Patty Bonds continued: Could it be that the sight of the price paid for us makes some very uncomfortable? Could it be that as we look upon Christ giving his last drop of life for us we realize that we are called to the very same sacrificial life? Could it be that fixation on the resurrection, made “sanitary” by the omission of the crucifixion, allows us to believe we are called to live in painless power rather than in humility and sacrifice?
Could it be that the sight of the crucifix brings to the surface our regard for sin? Should it not be impossible to set our eyes on a crucifix and allow any sinful thought to linger in the same mind that is filled with that sight? Does the sight of our sacrificial Lamb make us feel the pangs of every imperfect fiber of our beings?
So it is with gratitude I wear this crucifix. It keeps my heart focused on the lover of my soul; it keeps me submitted to the cross I must take up daily to follow Him; it reminds me how much he loves the rest of the world and how much he wants me to give to reach them.
Lest I forget . . . Lead me to Calvary.”
This is why we remember both the Palms that were waved during Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the Passion of our Lord on this one Sunday. Lest we forget.
This is why we will gather for Holy Communion this Thursday and recall the new commandment Christ gave us to love one another, and serve one another. Lest we forget.
This is why people will gather this week for Good Friday services to pray for the needs of the world for which Christ died. Lest we forget.
In January of 2000, a friend of mine traveled to Haiti on a seminary trans-cultural trip. It was a trip that changed his life. My friend shared with me an entry from his journal that he wrote on his last day in Haiti and I’d like to share it with you. Here is what he wrote:
“In the afternoon, we went to Cité Soleil, which is the worst, most impoverished part of Port-au-Prince. I understand that Mother Teresa once described it as being ‘hell on earth’, and she had obviously seen a lot of impoverished, hellish places.
A woman who sells souvenirs outside of St. Josephs’ Orphanage where we are staying in Petionville, went with us because she lives there. We sat in the van for about fifteen minutes on the edge of Cité Soleil before we drove in. The woman and Yvon our translator went into a school for her son or something.
While we sat there I just watched people. I watched two men sitting next to a pile of garbage of rotten fruit. There were more flies than I have ever seen in one place swarming over the garbage, and landing on the men too. They seemed oblivious.
I watched an old man pulling a huge wooden cart laden with something. It was so large and heavy that is seemed to control him.
I watched dozens of children, ages 7-10, fetching water in 5 gallon containers on their heads. Most seemed very curious about us, and would smile and wave brightly when I waved or smiled. I kept trying to imagine Abby or Allie fetching that water and working that hard, and I just couldn’t imagine it.
We drove down to the dock where some small-sized boats were docked. Some people were bathing in the water, and some pigs were in the shallow water. The water looked filthy.
Within sight of the dock is an oil refinery. Some time ago, the refinery released some waste oil and it flowed down the central open sewer canal of Cité Soleil. Then, rains came and flooded Cité Soleil causing an oil slick to cover everything. When the water receded, everything was covered with oil. The government’s solution was to set fire to Cité Soleil to burn off the oil, but they didn’t warn people. Several hundred people died. Everything is wood and so close together. It would have been horrendous!
We started for the woman’s home who came with us. We walked over open sewers, down narrow alleys that seemed to form a maze between these little shacks. People were sitting in the narrow passages; some were bathing or cooking. Children were amazed to see us, and shouted, ‘Hey, you!’ and ran after us. Some wanted to hold our hands. Others shouted, ‘Blanc, blanc’ which means ‘White, white.’ A woman tried to give her baby to one member of our group because she believed he would have a better life.
For some reason, the thought that went through my mind was that this must have been what the Via Dolorosa was like for Jesus. The surroundings were utterly depressing and hopeless. People were calling out; some seemed friendly, others seemed to call out only because we were ‘blanc’.
I saw a side of humanity—all of humanity—that Christ died for. It seemed to be all of the human brokenness in the world, gathered into one place.
The woman’s house was small. Two dark rooms with no windows. They were oppressively hot. They had dirt floors. Thirteen people live there. A baby sat on the ground, and I remembered the statistic that most children in Haiti die before their fifth birthday.
The woman showed us the shed where she keeps the things that she makes to sell. I bought a wooden crucifix which seemed appropriate given that I’d been thinking about Christ’s sacrificial love for the world as I’d walked through those narrow alleys.
As we left Cité Soleil, I could not find words to express what I had just seen. The van was very quiet on the drive home.
That night, I sat up on the roof of the orphanage for a while looking at the lights of Port-au-Prince down below, and the mountains up above. It dawned on me that God is with us, each of us no matter where we go. It doesn’t matter if it’s Dayton or Haiti, or anywhere else. God is there. More significantly, God is in Cité Soleil, and with God’s people there just as much as he is anywhere else.
What would it mean for me to identify with the suffering of the people in Haiti’s poorest slum? What would it mean to take on that suffering, and try to make a difference?
What does it mean for Jesus to identify with the suffering of the whole world? I am thankful that the crucifix helps me to remember.”
So ends my friend’s journal entry.
And as we encounter suffering here in our community, throughout the world, and even in our own lives, maybe this is a cross that we need as well. A cross which reminds us that God knows what it’s like to suffer for the sake of the world.
That’s why we need the crucifix. Lest we forget.
Crosses of Jesus: The Crucifix
Small Group Questions
April 9, 2017
This week concludes our crosses of Jesus Lent sermon series. We have looked at the Latin Cross (most like the shape upon which Jesus died), the Jerusalem Cross (sharing our faith with the whole world), the Tau Cross (God heals us physically, emotionally, & spiritually), the St. Andrew’s Cross (humility),the Celtic Cross (God’s eternal love), & the Crucifix (God’s love for a suffering world.)
Which of these types of crosses has been most meaningful for you? Why?
The crucifix was not widely used by Christians until the 5th century because the graphic nature of this type of cross was too closely associated with the barbaric nature of crucifixions used by the Roman Empire.
Even though it is difficult to think about the details of Jesus’ death on the cross because it was so gruesome, how can the cross and specifically the crucifix deepen your understanding of who God is?
Pastor Robert shared a friend’s journal entry of his experience when he was on a mission trip to Haiti and experienced the immense poverty and suffering there. These are the words his friends wrote in his journal: “What would it mean for me to identify with the suffering of the people in Haiti’s poorest slum? What would it mean to take on that suffering, and try to make a difference?”
Where have you experienced God’s presence in the midst of suffering? Share with the group.
Since this is Holy Week which includes Good Friday, the day that Jesus was crucified on a cross, have your small group share in this Good Friday prayer together:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.