I worry that American Christianity with our suspicion of the crucifix as too ornate, if not even idolatrous, are forgetting the sufferings of Christ and what it means for our daily living. I am not advocating a 10 feet crucifix be hung on all the churches to safeguard the practice of meditation on the sufferings of Christ. Because anything hung on a wall can become mere decoration, and like decorations in any homes, disappear into the wall and go unnoticed. But there is a similar sentiment, even spirit, behind the dismissal of the crucifix and the current trend in many churches to skimp Good Friday. We Americans don’t like to meditate on suffering.
There are solid historical reasons for Protestant’s weariness of the crucifix. Though the crucifix was meant to help people pray in midst of their suffering remembering the sufferings of Christ, it was often used like good luck charm, a rabbit’s foot. It was rubbed and oiled, carried to business meetings and battle fronts, even carried into fields of killing. People knelt to pray to Christ at first, but out of habit and thoughtlessness, many attributed answered prayer to the crucifix itself and began kneeling only before crucifixes and nowhere else. Like many thing in religion, the symbol became the substance.
Reformation was not just the rethinking of theology but also of practice since you cannot affect people’s mind unless you can also change their behavior. Calvin prohibited not only the crucifix but even the cross itself. For even the cross gets in the way of thinking directly of Christ. So though Luther kept the crucifix, Calvin rid the sanctuary of the cross because Calvin was convinced, rightfully so, that the human heart was an “idol making factory."
We American Christians are perfectly fine with the simple cross as long as there is no body nailed to it, dying or dead. And some of the reason traces to our Reformation zeal against idolatry. But getting rid of the cross does not vaccinate our hearts from idols. For Calvin did not fully appreciate that the human heart is also a “symbol making factory.” We need visuals because everything stands for something. And in a vacuum of the cross, other things occupy the stage.
So we don’t have crucifix but we have the American flag. On Christmas we have our creche and Christmas trees. On Easter we have our egg hunts and Easter bunnies. When you consider all these symbolic characters running around in our sanctuaries, you begin to suspect that there are other reasons why we cringe at the crucifix than simply the fear of idolatry and the natural blinders to our own idols. Isn’t it because the Christmas tree and Easter bunny are symbols of success? They are blessing you with gifts, a new TV under the tree, chocolate in eggs. And who would be so cold-hearted as to oppose the creche, the baby Jesus, a God become helpless baby, chubby hands grabbing your thumb and large eyes that look to you with perfect trust as if you were a god.
Isn’t this why the two main Christian holidays in America is Christmas and Easter, when it should be Good Friday and Easter? Seasonal Christians will only go Christmas and Easter, the birth and rebirth, and just skip the whole death thing. Even weekly attenders will skip Good Friday. Isn’t there enough preaching on the cross on Sundays? Though lot of the preaching of the cross you get on Sunday doesn’t focus much on the suffering. The cross becomes a shorthand for the American story of success out of failure. Cross was failure. Easter was success despite failure. All four gospels, of which only two speak of Christ’s birth, tell the life story of Jesus to show that the cross was not a failure but was the whole point of Christ’s life. And in that story, the suffering of Christ was not optional scene. It was the main scene, the climax in which sin and death was defeated. Through suffering, Christ accomplished his mission. Cross was success -- which turns the idea of success on its head -- for the last words of the suffering and dying Christ was, “It is finished.”
The two earliest holy days for the Church was Easter and Good Friday. So crucial were these two days that every Friday was Good Friday and every Sunday was Resurrection Sunday. Knowing the sufferings of Good Friday, they had more hope for resurrection regardless of the suffering they were facing. They were able to face martyrdom because they had vivid images of the sufferings of Christ. Today, the slightest suffering sends us reeling and questioning the existence of God. We have become squamish Christians.
But Peter was a squamish once. He became a Rock. When you know both the sufferings of Christ and the resurrection of Christ, you are fortified against anything and for anything.
1So then, since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too. For if you have suffered physically for Christ, you have finished with sin. 2You won’t spend the rest of your lives chasing your own desires, but you will be anxious to do the will of God. - 1st Peter 4:1-2