A Cross or a Crucifix?


What was God Doing on the Cross? [Part 2]

I was raised in a church with crucifixes. Now I am a minister in a church that has only crosses.  I’m well acquainted with the arguments both for and against their use, and the effect of those arguments on me has been an embrace of them both, both crosses and crucifixes.  My faith has room for them both, in fact, my faith requires them both.

I believe that a “full” Gospel has both a Good Friday – signified by the Crucifix – and an Easter Sunday – signified by the Empty Cross – in it — not to mention a Christmas, an  Ascension Thursday, a Pentecost Sunday and the Parousia (the Second Coming) too. The saving work of God in Christ is not just one thing, it’s a number of things, and I find that crucifixes point to one of those saving things that God in Christ has done for us, while crosses point to another.

When I look at a crucifix I am reminded and reassured of the fact that God in Christ has fully entered into our suffering as human beings. The theological center of gravity for this conviction in Scripture is what the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews tells us about Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, how “because He himself was tested by what He suffered, He is able to help those who are being tested” (2:18), and how He “sympathizes with our weaknesses, in every respect having been tested as we are, yet without sin” so that we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness” knowing that we will “receive mercy and find grace there to help in time of our time of need” (4:14-16)

Hanging in my office at the church is a framed print of Matthias Grunewald’s Crucifixion of the Christ, the center panel from his famous Isenheim Altarpiece. It is one of the most graphic portrayals of the sacrifice of Christ in art imaginable.  Commissioned in the early 16th century (1512-1516) for the chapel of the monastery of the Canons Regular of St. Antony in Isenheim, in the Alsace region of France, this painting was the centerpiece in the hospice ministry that those priests and brothers had with people who were dying from a mysterious and devastating affliction.

Barbara A. Hinze has written about this in the June 2007 issue of AMA Journal of Ethics (http://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/2007/06/mhum1-0706.html) –

chapelSixteenth-century Isenheim, in what is now France, witnessed the anguish of those suffering from a mysterious disease called Saint Anthony’s Fire (now commonly believed to be ergotism, caused by a fungus in rye flour). Often reaching epidemic proportions throughout the Middle Ages, this illness brought horrific suffering: nausea, vomiting, seizures, hallucinations, sores, gangrene and inflammation of nerve endings, making those afflicted by it feel as if their bodies were on fire. Sufferers would come to the Antonite monastery hospital seeking relief. …The Isenheim Altarpiece became one of the most important pieces of art of the Renaissance, a testament to the meaning and the mystery of suffering and the hope of redemption and restoration. …The patients at the monastery hospital were welcomed into a community whose narrative not only identified affliction with the sufferings of Christ but also conveyed the possibility of the transformation of suffering into meaning.

Just imagine the impact that this image of the suffering Christ would have had on a person who had been brought into that monastery chapel deep in the throes of their own suffering. The image that they saw there was not that of a remote God in the far distant bliss of heaven, but of “Emmanuel,” the “God who is with us” – a fully present and fully engaged God, a God who has been tested in every way as we are.  This God “gets” it, and that’s the God we need when the days turn difficult.

bookRichard Mouw says that the way that God enters into our suffering is through the saving work of the “Christus Dolor” – the Christ who suffers – and this is what I see when I look at a crucifix.  This has been, to be sure, an underdeveloped theme in the popular Protestant “muscular” American Christianity that celebrates victors and divinizes success. In 2010 Dr. Mouw was part of an international theological symposium at Tokyo Christian University that tried to bring some greater spiritual focus to the significance “the suffering and brokenness of Christ.” The non-Western initiation and context for this conversation was critical because the suffering Christ (“Christus Dolor”) is a much more richly developed theological category in the faith of third world, marginalized and oppressed Christians than it is in ours here in the affluent west.  If we will listen to those other voices we will hear about the Jesus who “understands the hearts of the wretched, because his entire life was wretched,” who “knows the agonies of those who die a miserable death, because he died in misery,” and who “sought out the ugly, the wretched, the miserable, and the sorrowful… [because] He was not in the least powerful… He was not beautiful… [and He did not dwell in] the houses of those who were puffed up or contented” (Shusaku Endo).

All of this is clearly visible to me every time I look at a crucifix, and that makes the crucifix a crucial part of the witness to the Biblical Gospel for me. But this is not all that there is to the Biblical Gospel. As much as I need to hear and heed the message “of Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2), this is not all there is to the Gospel.  There is also “knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3:10).

On my days of trouble, please believe me when I tell you that I will want you to come and sit with me, sympathetically patting my hand. Your companionship will sustain me.  But I will also want someone else to come alongside me, someone who might actually be able to do something to fix what’s gone wrong with me, or for me.  The Christian Philosopher Peter Kreeft says that when your car slides into the snowbank it’s real nice to have Jesus come and sit beside you in the bitter cold, but it’s even better when He gets out of the car and pushes it free. And that’s what the big empty cross on the front wall of the sanctuary of the church I now serve signals.  Christ has not only entered into our suffering, Christ has triumphed over that which makes us suffer, and this really matters to me, especially as a pastor.

By virtue of my call as a minister in a local church I am given unparalleled access to people’s struggles, sadness and suffering.  To be sure, it can be overwhelming at times, especially when you are dealing with your own load of struggles, sadness and suffering.  30 years ago, at a time when I was already heavy laden with the burdens of parish ministry and the phone rang with even more terrible news, and I literally felt myself stagger under the weight of it all, I came across something that the late Morton Kelsey wrote in his book Resurrection (Paulist Press – 1985) that “lifted my drooping hands and strengthened my weak knees” (Hebrews 12:12) –

book1I know the power of evil and destructiveness, attacking us from within in depression and despair and outwardly in war and poverty. …If these are not somewhere defeated in history, is there any ultimate meaning or hope? (12)

I doubt very seriously if I would survive very long without the meaning of the resurrection and the reality of Jesus and his presence. …If I did not have this I might well be paralyzed in the agony I share with other human beings. (22)

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead gives me hope. It is the only event in history in which I have seen evil and ugliness, pain and violence, destructiveness and death, confronted, defeated, transcended and transmuted.  …The resurrection makes it worth the struggle.  I doubt very much that I could muster much realistic hope if Jesus had not risen.  If he had gone up to Golgotha, to the place of the skull, and died nobly and that was the end of it, I would admire him as a heroic human being, but human existence would look like a trivial, meaningless farce. (11)

sunThe altarpiece that Matthias Grunewald painted for that Antonite monastery hospital in Isenheim, France, consisted of a series of panels that that would swing open progressively revealing more and more of the Christ story.  And so, after sitting with the agony of Christ’s suffering in the panel of the crucifixion, the panel of Christ’s resurrection could then be swung open to finish the story and announce the promise of the Gospel.

“If we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering”
(Romans 8:17)

Christus Dolor” – the Christ of the Crucifix, the Christ who suffers – becomes “Christus Victor” – the Christ of the Empty Cross, the Christ who triumphs, and by faith, we participate in this.

As gut-wrenching as is Grunewald’s painting of the crucifixion, just that eye-popping is his painting of the resurrection. It is vivid, vibrant, translucent, and iridescent.  It is the most striking image of the resurrection in art that I have ever seen, and I see it a lot.  You see, I have also framed and hung a print of it on my office wall.  I want to be able to see both Grunewald’s painting of the crucifixion and his painting of the resurrection every single day that I am in ministry and all day long as I work as a minister.  I know the agony, and I anticipate the glory.  The field of my faith’s vision constantly takes in both of these scenes, and that’s why my heart cherishes both “Christus Dolor” – the Christ who suffers with us, and because of us, and “Christus Victor” – the Christ who shares His victory over death and darkness with us.  Biblically, I find that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has both a crucifix and an empty cross in it. DBS+









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