Kudos to Pastor Anthony R. Voltattorni for this blog post:
Sometime after the inception of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Standish MI, in 1903 a crucifix was placed on the altar. [A crucifix is a cross upon which the statue of Jesus’ crucified body is depicted.] This cross stood proudly on the altar of the Church for decades until sometime in between 1948 and 1950 when it was taken down. Although there are theories, no one knows exactly why it was taken down from the altar but we do know that its home for the last 60+ years has been the basement. Except that as long as anyone can remember it hasn’t been a crucifix. The cross has been empty. A nice, plain, black cross, but empty. It has lost the corpus, the statue of the body of Christ, once fixed onto its wood.
Now there’s certainly nothing “wrong” with an empty cross, per se. We have many empty crosses in our church. However, it should be understood that using an empty cross on a Lutheran altar is a practice that comes from non-Lutherans.
At the time of the Reformation there was conflict between Lutherans and Reformed Christians over the use of such art in the church. Lutherans stood with historic Christendom in realizing that art in the church is not “wrong” as many suggested, but is a great aid for helping us focus on the truths of God’s Word. This protest, however, continued, and was especially taken up in the age of Lutheran Pietism, which strongly rejected much of Lutheran teaching and practice, including the use of the crucifix. As a result, many misinformed individuals, including life-long Lutherans, still question the crucifix:
“Isn’t the crucifix a Roman Catholic thing?”
“Didn’t Jesus got down from the cross?”
“Doesn’t an empty cross remind us of the Resurrection?”
Certainly there’s nothing wrong with an empty cross. However, the crucifix is not more Roman Catholic, nor is the empty cross somehow more Lutheran. Rather, the history of the Lutheran Church demonstrates that the crucifix was a regular aspect of Lutheran worship, both in Martin Luther’s day and among the founding fathers of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Christendom has always considered the crucifix to be a powerful and vivid reminder of the great sacrifice our Lord Jesus made for us and our salvation on the cross.
While it is true, in part, that Jesus did get down from the cross, He was still dead. His body was pulled down from the cross and He was placed in the tomb. Had Jesus never risen from death the cross would still have been empty. Therefore, the “empty cross” is no more a symbol of the resurrection than is the empty manger.
No one would argue that we should only have a nativity with Mary and Joseph staring at an empty manger because Jesus got out of the manger and grew up and is risen. The Christ child depicted there in the manger is intended to help us reflect on His humanity. So also, the cross, whether or not it is an empty cross or a crucifix, is intended to preach one essential truth: the death of Christ for the salvation of the world.
Every single cross is a symbol only of the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. It visually preaches Christ crucified. Thus, to quote Rev. David Petersen, “An empty cross is only a stylized crucifix.” For if the cross does not represent the crucifixion event, then it has no place in Christianity. God has suffered for us, as one of us, on our behalf, in weakness, in humility, that we might be reconciled to the Father. The image of the crucifix focuses our eyes on this great comfort, as Martin Luther once said:
“It was a good practice to hold a wooden crucifix before the eyes of the dying or to press it into their hands. This brought the suffering and death of Christ to mind and comforted the dying.” – M. Luther, Sermons on John, Chapters 6-8, 1532; LW 23, 360
It’s not as if the crucifix has some mystical powers mind you. You cannot ward off vampires with it, only Staurophobics (i.e. Those afraid of crosses. It’s a real phobia, I looked it up). Nor is the crucifix an idol. It’s not actually Jesus, but only a symbol of Jesus in the central act of all salvation history. As such, in the crucifix there is nothing contrary to God’s Holy Word, nor our Lutheran Confessions. Rather, in it there is a powerful and vivid reminder of our salvation that cannot be taken from us, for the image of Christ on the cross already dwells in our hearts.
“[W]hen I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it. If it is not a sin but good to have an image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?” – M. Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525; LW 40, 99-100
The black cross that was once in the basement is no longer there. Nor is it empty anymore. A couple in the congregation have searched for a corpus that would fit this historic cross of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. They have graciously bought one, refinished it, and fixed it onto the cross. On Palm Sunday of this year we will rededicate that crucifix for use in our Sanctuary.
It will once again stand proudly upon the altar of the Church, continually preaching to us the immense comfort and benefit that we have in Christ the Crucified. For no greater truth can be found in all of Christianity than the death of Jesus Christ our Lord for the salvation of us sinners. As we come to the Divine Service, as we partake of the body and blood of Christ, we have the benefit of looking upon the crucifix in confident faith, and seeing in His wounds our forgiveness. Christ is Crucified for you.
Thanks for reading