Is there a Difference? Does it Matter?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Cross and crucifix mean the same thing, right? No. Even if NO, it makes no difference, right? No. There is a difference, artistically and religiously. Artistically, or structurally, cross is a convergence of two bare pieces of wood, plastic, metal, or other material intersecting one another at right angles, vertically and horizontally . Crucifix is constructed that way also, with an addition: a corpus/body hanging upon the vertical section, and the arms of the corpus stretched out along the horizontal part.

Is it the body, then, that accounts for the difference between the cross and the crucifix? Yes. Does any body suffice to constitute this difference? In some ways, yes. The bare cross, historically, probably had little significance other than some architectural use for it, or serving as a marker of some type or other, e.g., along a pathway, or as part the script in some language. On the other hand, the crucifix, across the ages, did serve a purpose: it was an instrument of torture and death for a criminal or an alien who was an enemy. In other words, it was a punishment.

This latter usage provides its religious significance. Certainly, in the Christian context, the crucifix was a Christian sign or symbol that goes back to its origins two thousand years ago, but the cross also acquired Christian meaning early on. During Holy Week, references to “the cross” and “crucify” abound, though they are present also throughout the Christian year. And, frequently enough they appear throughout the bible, especially in the New Testament: “…whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Mt. 10.38), “…save yourself by coming down from the cross.” (Mk. 15.30) “…but they continued their shouting, ‘crucify him! Crucify him!”, “Shall I crucify your king?” (Jn. 19.15)

While in such settings “cross” and “crucifix” may seem to mean the same thing, with the passage of time differences began to emerge, so that “cross” came to bear more closely on the meaning found above in Mt. 10.38, where “cross” bears reference to us. We carry a cross. We have come to regard our sufferings as our cross.   Indeed, the bare cross can be displayed without the corpus of Christ on it because we are to be the ones hanging on the cross through bearing our sorrows, disappointments and losses.   The cross is bare to remind us that it is we who are to suffer in the footsteps of Christ, and thereby we hang on the cross. We become the corpus on the cross.

This is a beautiful thought not to be brushed aside. We find it in the bible. But it differs from an even more Catholic view that it is the crucifix that captures the heart of the message: “…while we were still sinners Christ died for us”. (Rom 5.8), “…Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures;” (1 Cor. 15.3) Here it is the corpus of Christ that hangs on the cross.

For while regarding ourselves on the cross helps us imitate Jesus, placing Christ on the cross does more: for He reconciles us with God. While imitation is good, reconciliation is better. Imitation is OUR action, but reconciliation is HIS action. And His actions are more significant than ours, good and praiseworthy though ours may be. Good Friday focuses more on CHRIST hanging on the cross than on us. We look to Christ’s action to save us, not to our actions. Our actions may be helpful, but His are indispensable. We do best to imitate Simon the Cyrenian on whom they laid the cross of Jesus and who was called upon to carry it behind Jesus. (Lk. 23.26)

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Author: CPP

We are a community of laymen and laywomen who, with vowed Passionists, seek to share in the charism of St. Paul of the Cross through prayer, ongoing spiritual formation, and proclamation of the message of Christ Crucified.

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