The next time you’re at Mass, try counting how many crosses and crucifixes you see around church: Stations of the Cross, on the altar, in stained-glass windows. Add in how often you make the sign of the cross, from using the holy-water font before and after Mass to the times in between.
Then gauge how often you cross yourself daily, such as at prayer and meal time. Also, scan the walls of your home for crosses and crucifixes.
If the number is pretty high by that point, you can appreciate how deeply Catholics value these symbols as reminders of Jesus’ unparalleled act of love and self-sacrifice for humanity. The importance is evident to Sharon Woloszyn, manager of the Immaculate Conception Inspirational Gift Shop in Ithaca, who said crosses as well as crucifixes — crosses with Jesus’ body attached — are among her best-selling items.
"They’re kind of like rosaries. You can never have too many," she remarked.
In addition to the artistic importance of the cross and crucifix, Father Thomas Mull noted that crosses are accessible anytime, anywhere — simply by touching our fingertips to our forehead, then chest, then shoulders.
"The sign of the cross itself is a very dramatic symbol," said Father Mull, pastor of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Geneva. "It’s not just an inanimate object; it’s a sacred gesture."
The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that making the sign of the cross has been common from the beginnings of Christianity, but that crosses didn’t began appearing in art until after the fourth-century rule of the Roman emperor Constantine when Christianity was first publicly accepted. By the late sixth century, the encyclopedia noted, the figure of Christ began appearing on crosses — devoid of physical suffering but rather as a risen, living, triumphant Lord, often clothed in a long tunic and surrounded by jewels. Beginning around the 10th century and over the next 300 years, the crucifix evolved into showing Jesus with a short loincloth and crown of thorns attached to his drooping head, his face agonized and bloodied.
This graphic depiction of Christ’s crucifixion remains the leading image on crucifixes to this day, and the one most closely identified with Catholics. Although the Ithaca gift shop sells both crosses and crucifixes, Woloszyn noted that if gift recipients are "very Catholic," as she put it, "you get them a crucifix."
Father Mull said such images can be hard to stomach, yet they serve to make the joy of Easter that much greater.
"The Resurrection and the power of the Resurrection — there wouldn’t be the significance to that if there wasn’t the Passion and the cross before that. To talk about the violence, cruelty, pain and blood and all of that helps to enhance what Jesus went through," Father Mull explained. "There’s a different sense than if Jesus had just laid down in bed and quietly went away, and woke up two days later. Jesus’ life was very real, and violence in the world is very real, and in his day crucifixion was very real. And God didn’t spare him from that very tragic and painful reality of life just because it was his son."
The importance of the crucifix in Catholic worship is made clear in General Instruction of the Roman Missal No. 308, which states that "either on the altar or near it, there is to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, a cross clearly visible to the assembled people. It is desirable that such a cross should remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations." GIRM No. 117 adds that a cross denoting Christ crucified "may also be carried in the procession at the entrance."
Most Protestant denominations, on the other hand, favor a plain cross with no image of Jesus’ body — an outgrowth of the 16th-century Reformation, according to Father George Heyman, associate professor of biblical studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford.
"(Martin) Luther had no problem with crucifixes but (John) Calvin did, and that’s why crosses and not crucifixes adorn most Protestant churches. Calvin rejected the sacrificial notion of Jesus’ death — hence the body on the cross appeared idolatrous to him," Father Heyman noted.
Despite this difference in ideology, Father Mull said Catholics and Protestants do share the fundamental belief that the cross is a vital representation of Christ’s sacrifice.
"I find that to be a real link for all of us," he said. "The cross is always the starting point, the basic premise."
Woloszyn said numerous Protestants come into her gift shop seeking plain crosses but that Catholics buy many as well, such as "comfort crosses" they can hold in their hands. The shop also offers crucifixes for children that show Christ serene and uninjured, as well as images of praying children set against crosses.
"It’s introducing them to a loving Jesus," Woloszyn said.
Meanwhile, Father Mull added, "I’ve seen Christmas cards with Jesus in the crib and the cross right behind him. I guess the whole idea there is (to symbolize) the beginning and the end of his life on earth." Father Mull also acknowledged that crosses are popular fashion items — "more a piece of jewelry than a symbol" — but aren’t necessarily improper when used in such ways.
"To my knowledge, I can’t find anything that restricts artistic use of the cross," he said.
"As long as it’s not sacrilegious, I don’t really have any issues," Woloszyn added. She observed that many of today’s teens and young adults — even those who may not be active in their faith — enjoy wearing crosses as necklaces.
"It has meaning to them," she said. "These kids are searching for something, and they know God is there."