Why Do You Have a Crucifix in Your House?
Suppose you were invited to a party and found that your hosts had a prominently displayed figure of a man hanging from a gallows in their home? If your immediate response weren’t to excuse yourself quickly and change your address, and your phone number, you’d probably at least be curious about why that image was there.
If you have a crucifix in your home, that’s just the kind of question you should be ready to answer. Why do you have, on the wall of your master bedroom, an image of a man being subjected to an ancient and gruesome form of capital punishment?
Of course, your first response might be, “What were you doing in our master bedroom?” Let’s assume, for the sake of talking, that you were giving a tour of the house.
It may seem obvious to you as a Catholic why you’ve got a crucifix on your wall, but a lot of people—fellow Christians included— find it downright strange. So with thanks to catholic-convert.com and the Catholic Encyclopedia (courtesy of newadvent.org), here are some things you should know about your crucifix.
Which came first, the cross or the crucifix?
The cross. Absolutely. It was, for ancient Rome, what the gallows were for the American Frontier—a means for carrying out a sentence of death. As a symbol, however, the cross represented much more than just the dispensing of justice. For Rome, it symbolized victory over its enemies as the tangible representation of the horrors befalling subjects who defied Roman rule. Given the pedigree of the cross, it was only natural that Christians would adopt it as a symbol of Christ’s sacrificial victory over death.
The earliest form of using the cross, most likely, is one we still use today—making the sign of the cross. We don’t know if physical crosses were in use way back when, but early Christians were known as “cross worshippers” which suggests that actual crosses were around. Later on, the cross was worked subtly into decorative artwork, much of it associated with tombs (because you can’t execute a dead man for expressing his Christianity.) And have you ever seen an anchor in Christian art? That’s an example of taking something with the general look of a cross and using it with a bit of a knowing nod.
Why did we go from cross to crucifix?
Even when it became unnecessary to hide one’s use of the cross, the empty cross remained the symbol of choice in religious art until about the 5th century, when the corpus, the body of Jesus was added. The essential reason for putting the figure of Christ on the cross was to emphasize the connection of His sacrifice to our salvation, to point out that He is the Lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins.
Couldn’t we just tell people He was crucified? Certainly, but let’s remember that one of the essential functions of religious art is to teach. Since only about 90% of the Roman Empire could read and/or write in the early centuries of Christianity, the crucifix quietly spoke the story of Jesus’s redemptive suffering in a uniquely powerful way—drawing people into the story of Christ’s passion unlike any other image, reminding us that without the cross, there is no Resurrection.
Aren’t people used to crucifixes by now?
People are used to them, but not everybody likes them. Many Protestants protest the crucifix because it focuses on the suffering Christ rather than the risen Christ. Some don’t like it, simply because they see it as a Catholic tradition to be discarded along with the papacy. Other people probably just find the idea of a crucifix, well, icky.
For those of us who revere and venerate the crucifix, it remains the ultimate metaphor for charity, “…the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” Jesus told us, “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) With His next breath, he said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
So, one way of responding to the crucifix question might be, “What could possibly be wrong about keeping around a reminder of what ultimate love looks like, from the perspective or Our Lord Jesus Christ?” As for it being in the master bedroom? That reminds us just how much we’ve pledged to sacrifice for each other in this life. As Frank Sinatra sang, “All the way.”
Types and Uses of Crucifixes and Crosses
This crucifix is associated with St. Benedict. It is a standard Latin style crucifix, but behind the head of Jesus, where the two bars that make up the cross intersect, a St. Benedict medal is embedded. (To read about the St. Benedict medal, click here). It can be hung anywhere in the home but is considered to be particularly suited to be hung above doors; it can even be sealed into the foundation of a house. This is because the medal is intended to be a constant, silent prayer asking for Christ’s guidance and aversion from the devil.
While similar to the Latin Cross, the Orthodox Crucifix has three cross bars instead of one. The smaller upper bar represents the wooden sign hung above Christ's head.The lower bar represents the footrest that Christ's feet were nailed to. the bar is crooked because it is an Orthodox tradition that Christ's leg spasmed as he died. As with everything in icon art, the direction the bar points isn't random. The bar points up on Christ's right side towards Heaven and down to Hell on His left.
The Tau Cross
The Tau Cross, also called the Cross of Tau, the Franciscan Tau Cross, the Cross of St. Francis, and the Cross of St. Anthony, is a simple cross, based on the Greek Τ, which is pronounce taw. In Hebrew the letter is pronounced the same but written as x. It predates the cross of the crucifixion, and for this reason it is also called the Old Testament cross.
It is a type of the cross of the Crucifixion. In Ezekiel, an angel, traditionally believed to be St. Gabriel, is instructed by God to go and mark the foreheads of the faithful with the Tau symbol. Other angels are then instructed to “go ye after him through the city, and strike: let not your eyes spare, nor be ye moved with pity. Utterly destroy old and young, maidens, children and women: but upon whomsoever you shall see Thau, kill him not, and begin ye at my sanctuary.” (Ezekiel 9:5-6). So in Ezekiel, those marked with the Tau were saved from this destruction – their lives were spared. In the Passion, the crucifix became the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, which brought eternal salvation. And so yet another name for the Tau Cross is the Anticipatory Cross.
Tradition holds that in the 3rd century, St. Anthony, the Egyptian hermit who is considered the father of monasticism carried a Tau cross, but it was St. Francis and the Franciscan order that really popularized the use of the Tau cross. Francis was also familiar with the religious community that followed in the footsteps of St. Anthony the hermit, a community which was active in Assisi during St. Francis’s time. This is likely where he first encountered the Tau Cross.
In 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, Pope Innocent referenced the Tau cross and the passage from Ezekiel. It is widely believed that St. Francis was present at the Council and that this is when he wholeheartedly embraced the Tau cross as his symbol. Francis used it in his writings, painted it on walls and doors where he stayed, and even used it as his signature. St. Francis would also stretch out his arms, to show his friars that their habit was also the Tau Cross. He instructed them to not only let that serve as a reminder, but also as an active symbol for them to be a walking crucifix in their lives.
Due to St. Francis’s love for the Tau Cross, it became associated with the Franciscan Order. It is adopted and used or worn by many followers of St. Francis, whether part of the religious order or secular. Even for those unfamiliar with the details of St. Francis’s life, the Franciscan Order is what comes to mind when most people see the Tau Cross.
Since St. Francis preached simplicity and humility, the Tau cross in jewelry is typically very simple. Quite often, a simple wooden cross is worn on a cord, but other material has been used while maintaining the simplicity of the cross. Aquinas and More also has many other Franciscan gifts and other resources.
Icon Crucifixes and Plaque Crosses
The most popular icon cross today is the San Damiano Crucifix. Icon Crosses, like other icons, are more than intricate art, they are intended to teach the viewer about the subject matter presented, and indeed they are meant to transport viewers into a transfigured world. The San Damiano crucifix depicts certain people and imagery behind and around Jesus on the cross, to represent their roles in Christ’s passion. (To read more about the San Damiano Cross, click here.)
There are also crosses that are not true icon crosses but do have some sort of imagery. They are sometimes called picture crosses or cross plaques and are typically flat with some sort of image painted or varnished on. Aside from the San Damiano style, they are usually crosses, not crucifixes, and do not have the crucified Christ on them. Some typical imagery on these crosses are: military emblems, saints, trinity images, and children praying. They are largely used to hang in the home as a reminder of one’s relationship with God, and, with certain cross designs, how it is integrated with worldly occupations (such as being in the military).
Patron Saint Cross
Many people like to have a patron saint cross somewhere in their home. This is a cross that bears an image of a saint, as well as some other symbols, such as symbols of the Holy Trinity, and symbols associated with the saint. A person may choose a cross with the saint who is their namesake or another saint they have a particular and special devotion to. It can be used as a devotional and also serves as a reminder of the saint’s devotion to Christ.
Veneration of the cross (no, we don’t know why we don’t say “crucifix” but if you do please write in and tell us) is one of our favorite Lenten traditions here at Aquinas and More. To help you celebrate and venerate the crucifix during the Easter season, we’re having a special sale on crucifixes for your home, your parish, your desk—anywhere you’d like to have a reminder of how much Our Lord loves you. Sale ends February 29.
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He lives with his lovely wife and eleven kids in northern Colorado.