A few years ago I corresponded with some Mormons who complained that Catholic-style crucifixes are “gruesome” and “creepy.” (For those who don’t know, a crucifix is a depiction of Christ hanging on the cross.) I suspect that this complaint stems from a lack of understanding of what it means to be a Catholic. Catholics experience the crucifix as powerful and liberating, not gruesome and creepy.
To appreciate the Catholic crucifix, one has to understand Catholic theology. Catholics believe that Christ’s death—the breaking of his body and the spilling of his blood—was the critical moment in our salvation. The Mass is their primary religious ritual, and in their view the bread and wine are literally changed into Christ’s actual, physical body and blood. Christ physically enters the believer in a moment of sublime mystical union. Thus although the crucifix is violent, it represents the central moment in salvation history, and the central moment in Catholic religious experience. It is not a moment we can afford to shrink away from.
In addition to its salvific significance, Catholics also see the crucifixion as the supreme revelation of God’s gracious love for us. To quote the Apostle Paul, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Catholics view the crucifixion as the greatest sacrificial act in history: the moment that an omnipotent creator subjected himself to tremendous suffering and humiliation on behalf of creatures infinitely unworthy and inferior to himself. Visual depictions of the event help us to appreciate the great cost he willingly bore, and the great love it reveals. This is why many crucifixes show Christ’s wounds and emaciated figure in graphic detail: to underscore how much he was willing to suffer on our behalf. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, a grisly cinematic portrayal of the crucifixion, was a slightly more extreme version of the same thing. Gibson was trying to depict the ultimate sacrifice—ultimate pain, ultimate suffering, and ultimate cost, willingly borne for our sake because of God’s ultimate love.
It is also important to recognize that Catholicism was founded long before the advent of mass literacy, and continues to flourish today among the poor and illiterate peoples of the world. Whereas Mormons and Protestants can read about the crucifixion in their Bibles, Catholics have typically had to communicate through visual media such as paintings and statues. Furthermore, images in the Catholic Church are much more than just teaching tools. Catholic theology teaches that Christ is graciously and miraculously present in such images. To look upon a statue of Christ is to look upon Christ himself. The crucifix thus makes Christ’s sacrifice literally present for every believer, so that we may all stand with his mother at the foot of the cross and grieve.