On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame.
How I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain (The Old Rugged Cross, George Bennard)
A little while ago, a friend of mine told me that a protestant congregation he knew about was doing some renovations and updates to their building. He was particularly dismayed because in the process, they were removing the large Cross in their sanctuary and replacing it with some modern visual equipment. It seems that the “old rugged cross” was simply too passé in the face of hip, modern technology.
Viewing the cross as irrelevant, it seems to me, is a symptom of that abstracted faith which I warned against in my last article. Our Protestant brothers and sisters often criticise us for wearing crucifixes—that is, crosses with the body of Jesus still hanging on it. They argue that Jesus is risen from the dead, and thus has no place on the cross. Some even go so far as to allege that we Catholics deny the resurrection! Clearly they’ve never been to an Easter Vigil Mass! In a theological framework where the Crucifixion of our Lord is reduced to an abstract symbol—both in the visual representation of a plain cross and in the sacramental understanding (or rather lack thereof) of His sacrifice, it is little wonder that even these symbols themselves lose their appeal. When I went back to finish my studies at a Protestant Bible College a few years back (I’d initially dropped out 4 credits shy of my Bachelor when I converted to Catholicism), one of my more philosophically astute classmates confided to me that he was struggling with his faith precisely in this regard—that the symbolic and abstract nature of the forms of Protestantism he’d grown up with didn’t satisfy. They didn’t bring him into that “personal relationship with Jesus” that our evangelical brethren go on about. Rather, his theological and philosophical framework tended, in his mind, inexorably to Deism—the notion of a distant God who created the world but has very little to do with it beyond that.
I cannot say that many Catholics themselves do not fall into the same trap of meaningless symbolism or nominalistic deism, but I will assert that when we do, it is not a fault inherent to Catholicism, but a failure on our part to fully enter into the reality of our faith, the very Presence of Our Lord with us. Catholicism is a religion rich in symbolism, but it is most definitely not a religion of symbols. Rather, in the Eucharist, the reality of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross becomes immediate and present to us in a way that the evangelical Christian can never experience unless he converts to Catholicism (as I can attest firsthand)! In Adoration of the Eucharist, we in turn make ourselves immediately present to Jesus who loves us and longs to be with us! This is the answer I offered my classmate. I hope and pray that it didn’t fall on deaf ears.
The Cross is still relevant today. It offers us, especially in the Crucifix, a snapshot of the infinite, overwhelming love of Jesus. It is a reminder and an example of the love we ought to have for each other. It is hopeful assurance that in His suffering, our suffering has meaning and purpose.
The Crucifix is Jesus’ promise never to leave us. He remains fixed—nailed in place for us. It is we who have the choice to walk away, or to take up our crosses to be with Him.
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