Against Sanitizing the Cross

Thomas Griffin (10/5/20)

Have you ever really looked at a crucifix? Have you truly seen, pondered, and reflected on the nature of our savior’s death or are we guilty of sanitizing the cross? Discipleship is, first and foremost, a manner in which our view of the world becomes Christified. Following Jesus Christ closely pushes one to see the world through his own eyes. This does not form Christians into doormats who accept any morality or truth posited to them out of fear that others will be rejected by their disapproval. This results in meeting the demands placed upon friendship with the divine.

Faith in our Church and virtue in our country is in crisis. The only recipe for renewal is the revival of dynamic and radical discipleship. We, myself included, need to learn how to follow after the master and allow his way to have a more profound impact on how we look at the world. We are called to match those first followers who would have drawn so near to the Lord that the dust from his path would be on their clothing. That dust will only be on Christians who pronounce the victory of the cross, not hide from its bloodied and seemingly embarrassing nature.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have sections labeled in our translations as “The Conditions of Discipleship” (Matthew 16:24-28; Mark 8:34-38; Luke 9:23-27). In all locations Jesus’ discourse here follows Peter’s announcement of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, Christ’s praise of Peter as the rock which the Church will be founded on, and Peter’s subsequent rejection of Jesus’ path to Calvary. Jesus tells his closest followers that he will be betrayed, rejected, arrested, and mercilessly killed. However, Peter will have none of it. He desires to sanitize the cross and extinguish any suffering from the life of his God and friend.

Christ responds through outlining the conditions, the prerequisites, the resume of his followers: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). God does not need us to clean up the mess of the cross; he needs us to cling to our own while seeing his penetrating gaze towards us from above, from the wood of his cross. 

We are lacking in the fabric of what Christ calls us to be: suffering disciples and a cross-bearing people who keep at the forefront of their pain the promise of the resurrection. Peter and the Twelve ignored the end of Christ’s prediction, that he will rise. Contemporary Christians look past these words as well when they sanitize the cross because we fail to recall the reality of the empty tomb. We convince ourselves that bearing hardships can only prove the power of evil rather than the triumph which reigns from Golgotha. 

Picture a Church where what we believed was also what we consistently encountered. Picture the faith of our parishes and families defined by disciples lifting up and carrying their crosses with the resurrection in mind. Not as a moment in history, but as a reality which is alive and powerfully makes contact with us. All roads lead to the empty grave in the garden, but they all pass through the bustling streets of Jerusalem and the bloodied road of Calvary. If we get this wrong it will impact our sight and distort our view of the entire Christian message.

Sanitized crosses lead to empty churches and crises in character because we become members of the world first and pilgrims on the journey to heaven second. We become easily swayed to the fear and terror of news and election cycles; we become controlled by the anxiety of worldly affairs and achievements rather than wrapped up in the never-fading truth that these may be the crosses we are invited to lift. Lifting them and falling with them occasionally is going to happen. However, walking over them and ignoring them only leads to the false understanding of the gospel as a path to prosperity rather than a freeing pursuit of love. 

Among the countless followers of Christ, not many have experienced more pain, ridicule and suffering than St. Paul. And yet, the refrain from his letters abounds with messages to “be crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:19) and to “take on the same attitude” (Philippians 2:5) as Jesus who threw his life away in unconditional love even though he was God. Paul identifies and proclaims the timeless truth: “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10). 

Jesus reveals the reality, truth and love of the Trinity by suffering and dying on the cross. His death is the reason for his glorification and the roadmap for his disciples. If we keep this in mind we will never whitewash our crucifix and how we make the sign of the cross before and after each prayer will knock us off our feet because the pain he endured for you and for me was so great. Furthermore, and as if that wasn’t enough, his death became the weapon for defeating the power of dying for all of us. 

So, rejoice in your suffering (Romans 5:3), endure in affliction (Romans 12:12), and keep your crosses messy not sanitized. Because they are the conditions for following Christ, the conduit to arriving at his tomb, and the key to reversing the crisis of our time. 

Thomas Griffin teaches Apologetics in the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island and lives with his wife. He received a master’s degree in theology and is currently a master’s candidate in philosophy. He writes for several Catholic media outlets.

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