Tag Archives: Crucifix

The Crucifix as a Passive Symbol

While doing some research recently, I came across reference to the crucifix as a “passive symbol” by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in its 2011 decision in the Lautsi v. Italy case.

The context was the Grand Chamber’s pronouncement that the Italian law requiring the display of crucifixes in classrooms did not infringe on the rights of parents to ensure that the education of their children is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. According to the Grand Chamber, the display of the crucifix, unlike compulsory religious instruction or religious oath- taking, did not require action, prayer, or reverence from those who view it. Hence, according to the Grand Chamber, “it cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to didactic speech or participation in religious activities.”

(The Grand Chamber gave other reasons for its decision. For a more thorough discussion of the Lautsi case, please see “The Case of Lautsi v. Italy: a Synthesis” by Gregor Puppinck in Issue 3 of the 2012 volume of The BYU Law Review, available online.)

Whether the Grand Chamber realized it or not, the phrase “passive symbol” in relation to the crucifix is rich and deep in meaning. In more ways than one, the crucifix is indeed a passive symbol – although it is passive, like all other symbols it communicates meaning.

The crucifix tells the story of a God Who, out of love for humanity, freely became Man and allowed Himself to suffer the worst cruelty that humanity can think of. On the Cross, Christ rendered Himself powerless. He Who is God deliberately refused to display His omnipotence to a hostile crowd who was daring Him to show that He is Christ by coming down from the cross and saving Himself. Christ passively, albeit freely, suffered and died.

The crucifix shows Christ madly in love with us, yet too helpless to coerce us to respond to His love. He could only hope that the sight of Him nailed to the cross would move us to love Him in return.

This is His way of winning us over, because He wants us to love Him freely and without coercion.  Indeed, we can and do reject His love. With or without realizing it, perhaps the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights was on to something more when it ruled that the mere display of the crucifix “cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to didactic speech or participation in religious activities.”

Ironically, perhaps it is precisely the self-effacing love that the crucifix symbolizes that makes some people uncomfortable at the sight of it. For we can be incapable of responding to such love which begs to be repaid with love.

The crucifix depicts the apparent defeat of God and at the same time is powerful proof of His love for us. The sight of a crucifix and the meaning it conveys can be disturbing, consoling, or inspiring.  Christ may be passive on the crucifix, but the sight of Him there does not leave people indifferent.

Because of these, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights correctly referred to the crucifix as a “passive symbol”. The image of a God Who allowed Himself to be treated the way He was treated communicates a lot of meaning.

The Beauty of the Cross

Last month, we celebrated the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross; the day in which the Church venerates the cross of Christ as a necessary instrument for our salvation. Some might see the cross as a morbid reminder of the depravity of man or a violent and unnecessary display of Christ’s passion and death. But in truth, the cross of Christ is an invitation to the heart of every Christian, the very path to his sanctification, and the truest form of love he can ever possess.

In the early days of my reversion, I read many books by famous Protestant televangelists who promoted “prosperity theology”, the false notion that God always rewards pious Christians with material and earthly gain. Their teachings seemed to promise so much – wealth, possession, position – assuring all followers of Christ an eventual life of pleasure and comfort. As a cradle-Catholic seeking the Truth of God, it seemed appealing at first – a refreshing view after a lifetime of being taught that suffering was an essential piece of the Christian life, and Sunday after Sunday of staring at a bleeding corpus nailed to a rugged cross.

I soon found, however, that this ideology of constant amenity and worldly gain for the believing Christian was not satisfying logically or spiritually. It seemed to be as phony as the toothy-grin on the televangelist’s face during his Sunday morning sermons.

What many Protestants so blatantly deny is the fundamental reality and necessity of suffering in our post-Eden human condition. They teach these prosperity theories and have empty crosses hanging over their pulpits. It appears that they completely miss the beauty and value of the cross entirely.

I tried hard for many years to build a life that would be free from suffering. It seemed attainable, especially living in our goal-oriented, do-it-yourself society where you can buy self-help books on almost any topic. I worried incessantly about every aspect of my life – my relationships, finances, and career. I tried to please everyone, including God, making sure I checked every box, crossed every “T”, and dotted every “I”. It was completely exhausting and things still seemed to fall apart despite my frantic efforts to make sure they didn’t.

At my core, I was afraid to suffer, afraid of the cross that Christ would place on my shoulders, and unsure of whether or not I had the strength to carry it. After years of this exhausting work and many talks with my spiritual director, I came to understand that I could, in no way, escape the crosses of this life, and that the more I tried, the more I ultimately suffered. It was a sobering realization met with a mixture of bitterness and relief.

After I accepted this fundamental Truth though, my life slowly became very different. I stopped worrying, stopped busily searching and trying to patch over every little crack in my life. I learned to trust in God’s plan for me, that He had my best intentions in mind, and that although I suffered, I could unite my pain to His and offer it up for the salvation of souls or for the blessings of those I loved. Accepting my cross significantly changed my interior life and led me to a greater inner peace and love for Jesus. During times where I was in so much pain that I could barely lift my head, I was able to look at the crucifix hanging over my bedroom door and see Love itself. I finally understood. And even though my cross was a terribly painful burden, I was able to tell myself, “There is beauty here in this.”

It is prideful and arrogant to think that our Suffering Savior had to endure a bloody passion and death and we, as members of His Body, can live a comfortable, convenient life free from affliction and pain and still make it to heaven. In no way can that ever be possible. I must admit, I still sometimes live my life with this idea.  I still struggle to always accept the crosses that God asks me to carry. Many times I fall or want to cast them off and run back to the empty life I lived before. We are concupiscent beings and will never be free from that temptation. But in our hearts, we must understand that we too must suffer like Christ did. However, we have hope that we will share in the glory of His resurrection, as well. In times of immense struggle, we can still cling to that promise. We can trust that God, the Creator of our hearts and our Divine Surgeon, is purifying us with His loving crosses.

He is with us, suffering beside us, and strengthening us for every step of the journey.

Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:2-5