Growing up in North Minneapolis, fellow Lutherans thought Roman Catholics wear a crucifix and Protestants wear an empty cross. In reality, Lutheran and Roman Catholic Church buildings display both types of crosses. Neither cross is right or wrong.
Lutherans do not avoid looking like Roman Catholics. We consider ourselves to be the original Catholics. Because the Church of Rome strayed from God’s truth, Luther and the church of the Reformation took a stand. The foundation of our stand is the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
The early Christians used a cross as a Christian symbol. Though there is no biblical command, early Christians quickly assumed the practice of making the sign of the cross on their bodies. A cross was found in a Christian gathering place in Herulaneum, a city near Pompeii destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79.
Crosses symbolize the suffering and death of our Savior, the Lord Jesus. God sent His Son into this world to be born of the Virgin Mary and to suffer and die for the sins of the world. In his Gospel, St. Matthew recorded Jesus’ predictions of His suffering, death and resurrection in three places (Matthew 16:21, 17:22, 20:17-20). He comforted the Emmaus disciples after His resurrection: Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24: 25-27).
God in His justice needed to punish all sin, including our sin. God made Jesus to be our sin so that He would not need to punish us (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the message of the Church, as St. Paul explained: For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness (I Corinthians 1:22-23). For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (I Corinthians 2:2). A cross or crucifix over the altar, around our neck, or on our walls reminds us that Jesus loved each one of us so much that He willingly suffered hell in our place so the Holy Trinity could declare us innocent of all our sins.
A crucifix more graphically symbolizes Jesus’ suffering, but the empty cross also proclaims His death. Both are symbols. Lutherans are neither commanded nor forbidden to use either one over the other. They are mere reminders.
Jesus also commanded believers: Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26).
Jesus suffered on a cross for us. We live under a cross also. We expect the world to hate us. We will suffer, as did our Lord. Our cross will be taken from us on the great day of the resurrection of the body. Until then, it hangs around our necks.
Sadly, one cross Luther endured during the Reformation came from the Swiss theologians. They thought he didn’t go far enough. As a part of their reformation, all images, including the crucifix, were removed from their churches. They believed such images constituted idolatry. The empty cross was preferred. Some Reformed pastors teach that the empty cross symbolizes Jesus’ resurrection. This is not correct. The empty tomb proves the resurrection. The cross is a symbol of suffering.
Until Jesus returns, we live under the cross. We will suffer. We will die in Jesus in the sure and certain hope of life forever. Until then, the crucifix or the empty cross remind us that Jesus loved us to death. Even in our suffering, we belong to Him.
Reverend Charles Keeler
Resurrection Lutheran Church
Winter Haven, FL