One part of the Church’s genius is its extraordinary ability and eagerness to teach the truths of our Faith.

We see this most strikingly in the magnificent art that adorns our churches and other sacred spots. The iconoclasm of earlier centuries always struck me as a bit elitist―as if those in power wanted to create an esoteric religion in which only the “initiated” understood its secrets. 

This desire to share knowledge is the very definition of the word Magisterium. The word is derived from the Latin word for “Teacher.”

One of the ways in which the Church teaches is through art. 

Physical art, like stained glass windows, paintings, icons and statues, is an excellent vehicle for not only portraying the Truth but also to inspire the viewer to meditate upon what is portrayed by that art. Good art will even allow us to extrapolate and move forward from what is seen to inspire us to see with our mind’s eye what isn’t represented. For example, the Christmas crèche might draw the viewing Christian into considering Jesus’ humanity and the love that binds us all together in one Spirit. (Ephesians 4:3) Perhaps this realization will allow the viewer of the art to be more patient and forgiving even if for no longer than the Christmas season. 

The Church is the undisputed master of such inspirational art. One such example of thematic art which has always inspired me is the Arma Christi Cross.

Arma Christi (Latin: The Weapons of Christ) is a cross or crucifix adorned with the tools by which Christ suffered and died for us. The expression can be interpreted as “those weapons used against Christ during His Passion” or, as I prefer it, “Those weapons with which Christ destroyed evil and even Death itself.”

Some of these instruments are obvious such as the nails by which Jesus was crucified or the spear that pierced His side after He died. Some need some interpretation… and some imagination. Pincers are often portrayed on the Arma Christi. This is the tool by which the nails were removed from His hands and feet. A sponge is there to remind the viewer that one was used to convey gall and vinegar to Christ’s lips when He requested something to drink. A hyssop plant is sometimes portrayed growing near the cross. This is the plant which provided the reed used to bring the vinegar-soaked sponge to Christ’s lips. 

The complete list of Arma Christi would be difficult to render however, these are the more commonly used ones:

  1. 30 pieces of silver ― the sum paid to Judas for betraying Christ.
  2. Chains or ropes ― which bound Jesus overnight in prison
  3. Cross of Christ ― the crux invicta, a symbol of victory
  4. Crown of Thorns ― used by the Roman soldiers to mock Christ as king
  5. Dice ― used by Roman soldiers to determine who would win Christ’s seamless garment
  6. Ear ― which belonged to Malchus, the High Priest’s servant, cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane
  7. Eclipsed sun ― which took place during the Crucifixion
  8. Flagellum ― the whip used on Christ before His Crucifixion
  9. Hammer ― used to crucify Christ upon the cross
  10. Hand ― which slapped Jesus' face
  11. Holy Grail ― the chalice used by Jesus at The Last Supper. Some traditions maintain that St. Joseph of Arimathea used it to catch His blood at the crucifixion
  12. Hyssop plants ― which provided the reeds upon which sponges soaked in vinegar and gall were given to Christ during the Crucifixion
  13. Ladder ― used in the Deposition, or Removal, of Christ’s Body from the cross for burial
  14. Lantern or torches ― used by the Temple guards when searching for Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane
  15. Nails ― used on Christ during the Crucifixion
  16. Pillar ― upon which Christ was whipped
  17. Pincers ― used to remove the nails
  18. Pitchers ― of gall and vinegar
  19. Purple Robe ― used by the Roman soldiers to mock Christ as a king
  20. Reed scepter ― used by the Roman soldiers to mock Christ as a king
  21. Rooster ― which crowed after Peter denied Christ three times
  22. Seamless robe ― Christ’s garment stripped from Him before the Crucifixion
  23. Shroud ― used to wrap Jesus’ body at His burial
  24. Spear ― used by the Roman soldier Longinus to pierce Christ’s side after His death
  25. Sponge ― which absorbed the gall and vinegar offered to Christ during His Crucifixion
  26. Sword ― Peter used it to cut off Malchus’ ear in the Garden of Gethsemane
  27. Titulus Crucis― the sign placed by Pontius Pilate which read: INRI, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum
  28. Torn Curtain ― the one over the door at the Holy of Holies at the Temple in Jerusalem which tore at Christ’s death 
  29. Two smaller crosses ― the cross of the wicked thief Gestas and the good thief Ditmas
  30. Veronica's veil ― used to wipe Christ’s face
  31. Washbowl ― used by Pontius Pilate to expunge his guilt at Christ’s sentencing

Sometimes you can come across miniature versions of the instruments of Christ’s Passion attached to rosaries and crucifixes which serve as aids to contemplate His suffering.

I’ve been in the process of assembling, for several years now, my own much smaller scale Arma Christi. I chose a 1-foot-tall Calvary-style crucifix on a set of steps and draped a small piece of white cloth across both arms of the cross to represent the Shroud. I’ve scoured an inordinate number of craft and toy stores for appropriate sized instruments. The lantern and the silver coins were easy. The flagellum required some leather lanyard and the artful use of a utility knife to make. I finally found a pair of dice small enough to match the cross’ scale so I was pleased with my purchase. The hand was donated by a G.I. Joe action figure I found at a rummage sale. It hasn’t been easy, but devotions only very rarely are. It’s a work of love and it will take years to complete.

I’ve only come across three Arma Christi in public display in my life. The first was in a Dominican church in Warsaw, the second was in a small church in Genoa, Italy, and the third was more recently in a Catholic cemetery in Burma where I had served as a lay missionary.

When I came across the Arma Christi in the Burmese parish cemetery, I stood there, at the foot of the cross, as it were, gazing up in amazed reflection. I was surprised to find an actual Arma Christi anywhere, let alone in the Burmese jungle where elephants and tigers still roam.

The teak cross before me was well over 20 feet high and adorned with the instruments of Christ’s Passion across its broad surfaces. It was carved and erected over 150 years ago and, despite a bit of wear and tear from relentless 120ºF weather and rain storms that can last a week at a time, it’s borne up pretty well.

The cross was installed by the Oblates of Mary Fathers when they were in charge of Assumption parish.

The villagers will often come to the cemetery to visit with family. They set candles ablaze at the base of the cross and contemplate the carvings of the instruments of torture on the cross. There are many religions in the world, most of which are pretty much useless especially when it comes to giving a satisfying explanation of suffering and death in the world. However, the Church is mercifully distinct in this regard. 

Why do children and puppies die? Why do good people suffer? What is this fellow-feeling that possesses me when I contemplate my own suffering and that of others? The answer to these questions lies in Christ’s Cross. 

We have a religion created by God Himself―the only religion in the world to have been created by a deity. The pagans don’t have that to fall upon, but we do. And this God, Who is Light, Love and Logic Itself, Master and Creator of the Universe and our Brother and Father, willingly died, in the most excruciating (NB: the word specifically means “out from the cross”) and humiliating death possible for us miserable and undeserving sinners. He did so, so that we could be spared the soul-crushing misery that is part and parcel of this sterile, anechoic world. 

The Arma Christi is an amazing symbol because one can lose all sense of time in contemplating it. It’s a Lenten devotion that is appropriate for any time of the year.

As I stood at the foot of the cross, as it were, in the Burmese cemetery where tigers and elephants still roam, I considered each of the instruments of Christ’s torture depicted thereon. The weight of His torture was palatable. I felt a heaviness within me that would have otherwise crushed me had I not also experienced an exhilaration which I hadn’t known before and haven’t experienced since. The elation was due to a sense of gratitude that filled and lifted me. I felt relieved and humbled. If pressed, I could only describe it as bittersweet.