Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com.
When we were in Arkansas, I bought a beautiful handcrafted “Comfort Cross”, made of red cedar. It has no sharp edges because it’s meant to be held; the vertical and horizontal parts of the cross are smooth and rounded and it even has indentations like a grip for my fingers. Comfort or Healing Crosses were developed for the elderly or the sick or dying to hold. They are definitely a Protestant devotional, because there is no Corpus on the cross. The one I purchased has a faint earthy, cedar fragrance with an angled vertical grain, all smooth and perfect—except for one small knot on one of the arms.
It is comfortable and comforting to hold it, however, but it seems strange to me to take up this cross. We do take comfort in the cross on which Jesus died for our sins, because He set us free from eternal death and nothingness. And Jesus did tell us in St. Matthew’s Gospel, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (11: 28-30) This Comfort Cross is not delicate, but it is light. It is no burden at all and it is easy to hold.
Crucifixes and the Risen Christ
Let’s say I feel conflicted about this Comfort Cross; my Catholic sensibilities kicked in as I held it while relaxing on the deck at a cabin along the banks of the White River. I thought of other statements of Jesus, like “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16: 24)
I thought about the Crucifix and the wounds of Jesus by which we are healed. There are no wounds on the Comfort Cross; there is no Corpus; as I said, it’s definitely a Protestant devotional. A Crucifix, a common Catholic sacramental, makes those wounds visible and hangs or stands as a reminder of what Jesus suffered for us. Some depictions of the crucifixion can be quite graphic, but even the stylized crucifix on my Rosary is a reminder of Our Savior’s agony when He was crucified.
Although Christians around the world are celebrating Easter together—we are even synced up with the Orthodox this year—the divisions between Catholics and Protestants, recalled by the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation this year—are symbolized by the distinctions of the Cross and the Crucifix. Some Protestants think it’s wrong that we Catholics venerate the Crucifix while they glory in the Cross: perhaps they think that either Jesus is suffering on the Cross or He is triumphantly raised. But we have the “Catholic both/and” in view, primarily because of the Sacrifice of the Mass.
The Crucifix and the Altar
In chapter five, paragraph 308 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), we are reminded:
. . . either on the altar or near it, there is to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, a cross clearly visible to the assembled people. It is desirable that such a cross should remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations, so as to call to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord.
This instruction accords with one of the terms used for the Holy Mass, identified in paragraph 1330 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is called:
The memorial of the Lord's Passion and Resurrection.
The Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church's offering. The terms holy sacrifice of the Mass, "sacrifice of praise," spiritual sacrifice, pure and holy sacrifice are also used,150 since it completes and surpasses all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.
The Catechism further defines how the Mass is a sacrifice in paragraphs 1362 to 1372, with this highlight from paragraph 1367, quoting the Council of Trent:
The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: "The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different." "And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. . . this sacrifice is truly propitiatory."190
Therefore, we have a Crucifix, a Cross with a Corpus, in the sanctuary of our churches. We’ve probably had it veiled at the end of Lent; it was uncovered for Good Friday services, and we see it throughout our celebration of Easter Sunday, the Octave of Easter, the Easter Season—and all year around. We don’t substitute an image of a Risen Christ on a cross during Easter.
The Five Wounds of Christ
Lastly, as I sat on that deck, feeling each change of wind and hearing all the birds singing and the river flowing, I thought of the Five Wounds of Christ, so smoothly absent from the Comfort Cross. Devotion to the Five Wounds of Christ, the wounds of His hands and feet and His pierced side, was important to Catholics in the late Middle Ages. In England, it came to symbolize disagreement with the religious changes being made during Henry VIII’s reign. In Yorkshire and Lincoln, when the people protested the suppression of the monasteries with the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, they carried banners bearing images of those five wounds.
Although it’s a medieval devotion, we do still honor the Five Wounds of Jesus. At the Easter Vigil, the priest inserts five grains of incense into the Paschal Candle, for example. The wound in Christ’s side has a special significance, since from it blood and water flowed, symbolizing the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.
I don’t mean to deprecate the Comfort Cross; it has tremendous devotional appeal, especially for its intended purpose. But, meditating on the distinctions between the Comfort Cross and the Crucifix on a vacation at the end of Lent reminded me yet again of the depths and riches of Catholic doctrine, sacraments, and devotion. “We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by Thy Holy Cross, Thou hast redeemed the world!”