What do the cross images say to you?

The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.

Years ago, I attended a workshop by Norbertine artist and art historian, Fr. Jim Neilson. He presented various representations of the cross from exquisite Renaissance paintings to rough-hewn images of stone or wood.

“What does the crucifix show us?” Fr. Neilson asked. “And is it helpful?”
Since then, I’ve looked at each cross a little differently, asking, “What is this cross showing me?”

In the second reading you will hear Paul speak of “Christ crucified.” Paul also calls the crucifixion “a stumbling block” for non-believers, but “the wisdom and power of God to those who believe.”

Crosses show Christ in several ways: suffering, dying, dead, looking up or looking down. There’s the processional cross — perhaps a plain cross, a crucifix or, sometimes, a risen Christ.

In the church’s earliest days, images of the cross were uncommon, because it was still used for capital punishment. So images of Christ’s cross were often hidden — disguised as an anchor or in a shepherd’s crook.

After the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the 4th century, the Chi-Rho — Christ’s monogram in a cross shape — appeared on imperial banners. Jeweled crosses soon followed. Other images showed Christ standing with his cross, risen and triumphant. These early crosses reminded Christians of Christ’s triumph over death.

With the Crusades, beginning in 1095, the Holy Land became largely inaccessible to most European Christians. These Middle Ages were also a time of war, sickness, plague and famine across western Europe. Images of the cross reflected this suffering.

After the Protestant Reformation, crosses in Catholic churches again became gloriously gilded, jeweled and triumphant — often held in the hands of glorified saints or with adoring angels. The crucified Christ remained the central image, but it was a Christ more serene than agonized.

The plain cross, when used by Catholics, was sometimes called the “Holy Saturday cross.” Both crucifixes and Stations of the Cross reminded us of Good Friday and Christ’s sacrifice.

Following Vatican II, another image appeared — showing a bit of a return to the church’s early days: the risen Christ, robed in glory, in front of his cross. An Easter cross.

Each image of Christ and his cross strikes us in different ways, often depending on what is happening in our lives.

Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of many books.