Why do Protestant Christians use the symbol of a cross, instead of a crucifix? It is a question that probably lots of you who wear a cross never even think about. So why a cross?
The Early Christians would never have considered such a thing; they found the thought horrific. Their symbols were the Christian Ichthys, or fish symbol, and the Chi Ro “X” and “P” superimposed on each other.
I see crosses all of the time, in all manner and sizes. I truly wonder about the person who wears a gold or platinum cross studded in diamonds. I marvel if this person can imagine the irony of what they are doing.
Wouldn’t a representation of an empty tomb be a more appropriate symbol? So, where did the cross come from?
As you have already guessed, today we will be discussing symbolism. It will take you in a direction that you probably cannot see yet, but give me time.
As you know from previous postings, the Christian Church did not codify itself until the 4th century, over 300 years after the events claimed of its founding. This was a time of developing orthodox doctrines, inventing “discovered” new gospels, epistles, and miracles, converting local legends into saints, and starting the process of eliminating all of those fellow Christians who did not tow the line. This sounds harsh, but it is historical fact.
Saint Helena and other early leaders saw the advantage of holy relics; items or body parts linked to a religious event. The vast majority of the population were illiterate, and forbidden to read holy texts. The leaders understood that these people needed something physical that they could focus their veneration upon.
A very powerful symbol they started using was a crucifix; a representation of Jesus on the cross. In some versions, he is still alive, wracked in agony, while in others he has just died. The use of a life size or larger version of a crucifix in a place of worship would truly hammer home the message to the faithful.
The classic symbol of the cross is almost certainly incorrect for the incident described. A more accurate depiction would be a simple vertical pole, called a crux simplex, or a “T” shape, where the main pole was permanently planted in the ground, and the victim was tied to the cross piece. There was a groove in the top of the main pole in which the second pole would lay. In almost all cases, the victim would have his feet barely off the ground. The guards would have no desire to waste all that energy lifting someone high into the air. Sorry, Renaissance painters.
A Chi Ro “X” “P” looks very similar to a person hanging on a X shaped cross, and it is easy to see how this symbol was changed. Imagine yourself in a 4th century church, with the smell of incense, surrounded by the statues of saints, shuffling forward in a long line of worshipers to get your blessing from the priests. You look up and see the tortured face of this God Man, his arms outstretched as if to embrace you. Few at that time would have been able to resist the wonder of God.
Crucifixes sometime have a small crossbar at the top, to depict the plaque above Jesus’ head. Eastern Orthodox ones also have a slanted crossbar at the bottom, representing the foot stand sometimes added to prolong the agony of a victim, as he tried desperately to avoid suffocation, which is the main way crucifixion kills.
We need to jump ahead almost 11 centuries to the Protestant Reformation. The printing press and the Renaissance had opened up a whole new world for the growing number of people who could read. Forbidden for so long to read the bible, Christians finally had the chance to open one, and saw that what they had been taught bore little resemblance to what it contained. Large numbers of denominations sprang up everywhere, and the new zealots had a fire in their belly.
Some of the verses that the Protestants took to heart were the Commandments, which begin “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.” Exodus 20:2-5.
The reformers merely had look at the buildings they had been worshiping in to see this in abundance. They were convinced that Satan had corrupted the Church!
To be fair, lots of other people had felt this way before, but they had gotten barbequed for their efforts. The Church of the Prince of Peace had full time employees to murder dissenters.
The Church had ruled through ignorance, fire, and fear, and the newly released Protestant zealots responded in kind. Churches were looted or burned, their most holy relics smashed or melted down for their gold or jewels. Priests and lay members died trying to protect their most precious treasures. Murders and rapes happened in the same building where other worshipers prayed for the Blessed Virgin Mary to save them from these fanatics.
The various reformers argued amongst themselves how far to go. Some kept the crucifix; others wanted all possible symbols removed from churches, even the altar rails and stained glass windows. Most simply banished Jesus from his cross, and the modern cross was created. It is a reduced crucifix.
This argument still goes on today, with less killing in Western countries but sometimes violent attacks on religious objects.
What many Christians do not properly realize is that Jews and Muslims also follow the Ten Commandments. Go into any synagogue or mosque, and you will not find these graven images, or “any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.”
The modern day Islamic fanatics, killing for depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, are following the same dictates as the Protestant reformers of 500 years ago. People only see a difference because (a) they don’t study history; (b) it is happening today in more modern “civilized” times, (c) it is being done by a group people dislike, and (d) being done to a group that the viewer sympathizes with.
Don’t get me wrong. Killing and destroying in the name of ANY religion by ANYBODY against ANYBODY is abhorrent and evil. I don’t care how you justify it, you are evil for society. That goes for wishing others to suffer forever; you really need to reevaluate your ideals.
It is just that, since Muslims are the “out group” right now, other people’s words and deeds get a pass. Even the press barely mention killings by other groups. As a historical example, the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki vaporized the largest Christian community in Far Asia at the time, and killed far more Christians than ISIS has in its entire existence (up to this point), all in a mere 9 seconds. However, those deaths are treated as “justified.” It “was war” and that Catholic girl’s school caught in the blast (along with the church and nuns) “was the enemy”. The ISIS people see what they do as a war as well; a struggle against idolatry and unbelievers.
In the 1970’s Marvel Comic, “Tomb of Dracula”, in one issue a person pulls out a wooden cross to ward off Count Dracula. Dracula crushes the cross, explaining that the sight of the cross merely causes him pain, but that it is the presence of the Savior on the crucifix that drives him away. Perhaps the authors of the comic have a point. Protestants say that the cross is only a symbol of “remembrance” and not “worship.” They say it holds no significance by itself. And yet, they use it in abundance.