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A Crucifix in Church?

      If you look up in Sunday worship next week and see a large crucifix, you can be pretty sure you are not in an Evangelical or even mainline Protestant church.  Crucifixes are Roman Catholic.  Well, they are found in some other groups, like Anglican or among some Orthodox.  But, it would still be accurate to say a crucifix is not what most non-Catholics in America expect to see this coming Lord's Day.

      A good deal of contemporary preaching emphasizes Christ as the all-powerful conqueror of disease, despair, and death:  Christus Victor.  We love empty tombs.  Good Friday observances are either nonexistent or poorly attended, while Easter remains second only the Mother’s Day as America’s great back-to-church Sunday.
      In the Eucharist we are presented with common sense turned upside-down.  Even though familiar, Paul’s words remain puzzling to many: For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  The tortuous death of the innocent at the hands of the powerful, however foolish it may appear, becomes the magnus opus of the love of God.  The King who possessed the power not to use the power He possessed.  The ugly image of a badly injured and blood-stained body suffering the humiliating shame of public crucifixion is the great magnet, not the great embarrassment, of the Christian faith.

      The crucifixion of the King is also the great victory out of which resurrection explodes upon the world as the great beginning of the great ending.  This is why the gospel writer assures us in that last twilight moment between life and death, the King proclaimed his victory: “It is accomplished.”  The great long struggle of incarnation, in which logos shared our flesh and knew the growing dread of his approaching death and endured the great long temptation to choose another ending to the story, had passed.
      I, like most of you, grew up in worship traditions that often made use of the shape of a cross, but never a crucifix (that is, a cross with Jesus upon it).  In a casual conversation at a pastors’ meeting in New York years ago, I asked a priest friend of mine for his take on the difference.  At least part of his answer is something I cannot put out of my mind.
      “It is not the empty cross, but the suffering and death of Jesus upon the cross, that draws us to worship.”
      This was no denial of resurrection or its importance.  To adjust some current phraseology, the resurrection of Christ confirms the victory of God.  But, it was the suffering and ultimate death of Jesus upon the cross that is the climactic center of the victory of God.  “…even to the death of a cross, and therefore God has given him the name above every name…
      In that crucifixion, the pull of time itself abruptly changes, as though the cosmos, not simply the curtain into the Holy of Holy, was torn open.  The cross is the answer to Eden, the breaking that unbreaks the broken world.  The crucifixion might be seen as unhinged from time (and therefore touching all points of history: past, present, and future).  Still, the ultimate focus of the cross is the distant past, through which a second Adam reverses the tragedy of Eden.  At the risk of being simplistic, the crucifixion of the Messiah is the last event of the Old World – although the actualization of this ending for us, still bound with time’s slow unfolding, seems largely future.  Behold, the Lamb who was slain, then, is both a proclaiming of something accomplished and the announcement marking when what has been will be no more.
      The resurrection is primarily eschatological.  It is the beginning of the ending of the world.  Unlike the atonement-crucifixion of the Messiah, Paul makes it clear the resurrection from the dead is in no way unique to Jesus.  It is, or rather one day will be, the single most common miracle in human history.  Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died: 1 Cor. 15:20.  This idea is central to Paul’s entire argument in 1 Corinthians 15.
      Resisting the urge to unpack this further right now, let’s return to the Eucharist and to my dialogue about crucifixes.  It is not the empty cross, but the suffering and death of Jesus upon the cross, that draws us to worship. 
      I suspect a major reason we don’t employ crucifixes is because the Catholics do.  Right or wrong, Protestants are still impacted by the desire not to look Catholic.  Were it possible, though, I would certainly have no objection to replacing the cross many churches have in their sanctuaries with one in which the figure of Jesus, not the cross itself, is the central thing.  I would want to affirm that it is Christ lifted up, not simply Christ raised up, that ultimately draws all men to him (John 12:32-33).  It is this we hold out before a happiness-craving world in a kind of militant defiance of all that common sense and marketing tells us.  Come and behold the suffering of God.   Come to him who calls us to carry crosses, and so to become both already dead and truly alive.
      But, churches are not required to have crucifixes or crosses or statues or icons or any artwork whatsoever.  The Eucharist itself is a crucifix.  It is certainly not, as some have suggested, a re-crucifixion.  Christ is not slain again and sins are not forgiven anew, as though atonement is given only one week at a time.  It is, however, a retelling and seeing and touching and smelling and tasting of the sufferings of Christ.  It is not simply a body, it is a body broken.  Broken for us.
      If the crucifixion of Christ is the great call of the love of God into the world, the Eucharist is God’s ongoing existential proclamation of that death.  One day the world itself will be pulled through the empty tomb.  And then?  And then we will no longer need to proclaim his suffering in a land where as far as the eye can see it is everywhere and forevermore Easter.

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