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Archive for Saturday, April 15, 2006

Icons of faith

Images of cross with and without Christ emphasize suffering vs. resurrection at Lawrence churches

April 15, 2006

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Walk into a Catholic church, and you're almost certain to see a crucifix - the image of Jesus hanging on the cross.

Sometimes, he appears to be divine and hardly harmed. Other times, he is disfigured.

"It's going to be in the eye of the beholder," says the Rev. John Schmeidler, priest at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 1245 Ky. "(The crucifixion) was a really grotesque thing. For what it looked like, it wouldn't have been a pretty sight at all."

The image of Jesus on the cross always has been a focus of Christian iconography, but the way the scene has been depicted has changed through the years.

Today, the Catholic Church tends to use the crucifix, the image of a suffering Christ on the cross. In general, Protestant denominations tend to use the symbol of the cross without Jesus hanging from it.

Those symbols become especially important this time of the year. Friday was Good Friday, the day Christians believe Jesus was crucified. Sunday is Easter, the day they believe he rose from the dead.

Some religious leaders say both symbols - the cross and the crucifix - are important because they emphasize different parts of Christian theology.

"The cross without Jesus - the empty cross - emphasizes the fact of the resurrection, that it wasn't the end of his life on the cross," says the Rev. Gary Teske, lead pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1245 N.H.

"Many Lutheran churches, during the Lenten season, will use the crucifix with Jesus on the cross to point to the reality of his suffering and what that means to us."

Passion in art

The depiction of the cross without Christ is a fairly recent occurrence, says Sally Cornelison, an assistant professor of Italian Renaissance art at Kansas University.

Early art that involved a cross, often commissioned exclusively by churches to be used for personal reflection, focused on the crucifixion scene. Stand-alone crosses were seldom done as art.

Those paintings and other art of crucifixion scenes:

¢ Often included a skull at the base of the cross, based on a belief that Christ was crucified on the grave of Adam.

¢ Until around 1300, used four nails instead of three, which is more common today.

¢ Sometimes included the robbers the Bible says were crucified at the same time as Christ.

"The whole idea is that you're essentially creating an image that depicts what happens in the church," Cornelison says of early art. "If you have the body (of Christ) in front of you, it's mostly a meditative thing."

Many Protestant churches backed away from the crucifix - and many other religious icons - after the Reformation around the 16th century, wanting to distance themselves from the Catholic Church. That may account for some of the difference in crosses used.

Dual focus

Today, it's customary for most church altars to have a cross of crucifix as their focal point.

Which one depends, to some extent, on the focus of the church. Some Protestants think showing Jesus on the cross ignores the idea he rose from the dead.

It took years for the Rev. Marcus McFaul to understand the use of the crucifix. McFaul is senior pastor at First Baptist Church, 1330 Kasold Drive, which uses a cross as the main altarpiece but also uses the crucifix.

"It took me a long time to realize the powerful symbol" of the crucifix, he says. "It's not an either/or thing - Jesus is still on the cross, or Jesus was on the cross and is resurrected. He was both crucified and risen."

He says Protestant churches might benefit from focusing more on the image of Jesus on the cross.

"If Protestants have one major blind spot," McFaul says, "it's that we race from Christmas to Easter without stopping to give greater examination to not only the temptation of Jesus but also the sacrificial aspects of Jesus' suffering."

'Constant sign'

Schmeidler, the St. John priest, says the meaning of both the cross and the crucifix become very personal and individualized for Christians.

"I think when you have the crucifix form on the cross, it helps you reflect upon the Christ who hangs there," Schmeidler says. "The corpse can help you enter into what you want to see the image to be, with different crucifixes. Some show the suffering and the humanity of the experience. For some, it's a more divine experience."

Teske, the Trinity Lutheran pastor, agrees. He says no matter whether a cross bears a depiction of Jesus, there are important lessons to be learned.

"It's a symbol that is often used as a constant sign of the great sacrificial love of what God has done on our behalf," Teske says. "But as people meditate on that, both on their own and with other people, there are limitless implications from what they can draw from that cross."

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