“Why do Catholics have a corpus of Jesus on the crucifix and other Christians have an empty cross?” — Appleton
Catholics and Orthodox Christians typically use a crucifix with the body of Jesus in our liturgical celebrations and in our churches. That’s because we believe that, at each Mass, we re-present the once, yet eternal, sacrifice of the Son to the Father. Not crucifying Jesus over and over, but rather honoring the memory of the most precious gift of his body and blood each time we gather — as he asked us to do.
Displaying the corpus of Jesus on the cross is a stark visual aid that helps us to more easily focus on the very real sacrifice Jesus offered for us for our salvation. Our hearts almost inherently recognize its holiness as this symbol, like none other, is intertwined with Jesus. When we contemplate the Christ, we are impelled to contemplate the cross; and when we contemplate the cross, it is impossible not to contemplate the Christ.
Our brothers and sisters of mainline Protestant and non-denominational traditions typically display an empty cross in recognition that Jesus died once and for all for us, and is now risen from the dead. The cross, like the tomb, is empty. We should see these not as opposing viewpoints, but as complimentary emphasis.
The one day of the year when Catholics also venerate an empty cross is on Good Friday. On that day, it is the simple and yet deep-in-meaning wood of the cross that we contemplate.
The cross that was the intended end of Jesus of Nazareth has instead led to his ongoing recognition and salvific ministry.
The cross that was intended to be the ultimate human humiliation has instead led to the ultimate glory of God.
The cross that was intended to be the instrument of painful and final death has instead led to the promise of eternal life for all.
The empty cross also reminds us that the cross is an invitation: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me’” (Mt 16:24).
St. Catherine of Sienna described the cross as the bridge that Jesus laid across the divide between God and humanity. It is a bridge that each one of us must decide to walk or not. The corpus on the cross should reassure us that Jesus will be with us.