Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can a Protestant wear a Crucifix?

The cross is the central symbol of Christianity around the world.  And yet, we Christians are divided on what exactly our crosses look like.  Some, like the Orthodox, have extra lines running through the cross.  Many Reformed Christians favor the Celtic cross, with a circle running around the center of the cross section.  And I can always spot a United Methodist church when driving along the highway by their signature cross and flame.

But the most noticeable difference among Christians when it comes to the cross is whether or not it has the body of Jesus hanging on it.  For most people (at least in this country), the empty cross is Protestant.  The crucifix is Catholic.  Derek Kubilus, a Methodist minister in Ohio and a friend from divinity school, offers his own personal perspective on why Protestants can embrace the "Catholic" crucifix as an important way to "remember the body."

Ephesians 4:4- “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

I can't remember one day in my life when my body did not feel pain. Having been born with an orthopedic problem in my foot, I've awakened every morning of my life with stiffness and pain shooting from my right ankle. Sometimes it gets better throughout the day; sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes my limp is barely noticeable; sometimes I have to walk with a cane just to keep from falling over. So even as a young child, I remember wondering why God would allow me, supposedly one of God's beloved children, to feel so much pain.

Now I've been a Methodist all my life, and I'm well aware that Methodists typically hang only empty crosses from their necks and the walls of their churches. Most people will tell you that it's because the empty cross is a symbol of the empty tomb, that it's a symbol that represents the resurrection of Christ, and not just his crucifixion. All that may very well be true, but I'm not sure it's the whole story.

There's something creepy and morbid about a crucifix isn't there? I mean, who would wear a piece of jewelery shaped like a body dying in agony? Who would hang a beat-up, bleeding man from their wall? What kind of sick person could take inspiration from such a gruesome scene?

Well...I do. Being someone who's body has been wracked with pain, I take comfort in remembering that Christ had a body. I wear a crucifix under my shirt and over my robe because it's important for me to remember that Christ didn't have a body that was above pain, but that his body was just as capable of hurting and bleeding as my own. The crucifix helps me remember that I'm connected to Christ not just through the “one Spirit” but also through my very body. The miracle of Christ, the miracle of God's incarnation in a human body is that the same God who is “above all” is also “in all and through all,” even my own weak, hurting body.

The crucifix also tells me that bodies matter to God, that things like hunger, homelessness, and disease are important to God. Seeing the body of Christ helps to remind me of the suffering bodies of those all around us in the Akron and Cuyahoga Falls communities: those whose bodies are cold because they aren't covered with proper clothes or shelter, those whose bodies are starved with hunger, those whose bodies are addicted to chemicals that are slowly destroying them. Seeing the body of Christ hanging there, suffering, draws me closer to all those who suffer and it encourages me to see Jesus in their struggles, for “that which you have done to the least of these, you have done unto me.”

Finally, the crucifix reminds me that the Church, the Body of Christ still on earth, is called to suffer. Living in our comfortable, wealthy society, it is perfectly acceptable for us to go through our whole lives and only work for the comfort ourselves and our individual families. But the suffering body hanging on the cross so close against my skin reminds me that I'm part of a community that has been called to “bear its cross,” a community which has been called to leave behind comfort, safety, and warm-fuzzy feelings for the sake of God's mission of salvation in the world. It helps me remember that that the world is fallen and that if we are to join Christ in his ministry to transform the world, then we must be willing to sacrifice something of ourselves.

So the next time you see my crucifix hanging from my neck, don't worry, I haven't become Roman Catholic. Just take a second to remember the Body and the suffering God it belongs to.


  1. awesome... thank you for sharing this :)

  2. he makes some good points...the representation of Christ dying on the cross should be a blessing and an inspiration to those who have been bought with His blood. while i wouldn't mind having a picture of Christ on the cross in my home or office, i wouldn't have a crucifix because it is seen as such a Catholic symbol. i don't want to be identified with the Catholic church, as my beliefs are just too different from theirs.
    but again, it's an interesting question to raise, and it always helps to think through why we do things the way we do them.

  3. You're welcome, Laura!

    I agree, Julie, it is always helpful to think through why we do things the way we do them. By rejecting (or neglecting) the image of Christ on the cross because of its connection with Catholicism, non-Catholic Christians may be overlooking and sterilizing a critical part of the faith we all share in common.

  4. I'm not sure why exactly, but this conversation reminded me of J. Gresham Machen (conservative Princetonian, often linked to early American fundamentalism) and his reflections on the relativity of divisions in the "Latin West":

    (p. 43)

    Is his analysis at all useful today? Have the facts changed? Was he wrong then? I'd love to hear your perspective, Pastor Paul!

  5. Sounds interesting, Matt! I'm somewhat familiar with Machen, but haven't read "Christianity and Liberalism." Unfortunately, the Google Book preview only goes through page 30.

    Any chance you want to summarize what his reflections are on the relativity of divisions in the Church?