Rome, 10 May 2016 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Are there Church documents that say the cross can have the risen Christ? Many sites speak of this possibility, but none seem to present documents. — H.Y., São Paulo, Brazil
A: There is little in the way of official documents on this specific point, although there are many customs and traditions.
The basic rules are found in the General Introduction of the Roman Missal. Regarding the altar cross the document says:
“117. The altar is to be covered with at least one white cloth. In addition, on or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation. If the Diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candles should be used. Also on or close to the altar, there is to be a cross with a figure of Christ crucified. The candles and the cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified may also be carried in the Entrance Procession. On the altar itself may be placed the Book of the Gospels, distinct from the book of other readings, unless it is carried in the Entrance Procession.
“122. On reaching the altar, the priest and ministers make a profound bow. The cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified and perhaps carried in procession may be placed next to the altar to serve as the altar cross, in which case it ought to be the only cross used; otherwise it is put away in a dignified place. In addition, the candlesticks are placed on the altar or near it. It is a praiseworthy practice that the Book of the Gospels be placed upon the altar.
“188. In the procession to the altar, the acolyte may carry the cross, walking between two ministers with lighted candles. Upon reaching the altar, the acolyte places the cross upright near the altar so that it may serve as the altar cross; otherwise, he puts it in a worthy place. Then he takes his place in the sanctuary.
“308. There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations.
“350. Furthermore, great attention is to be paid whatever is directly associated with the altar and the eucharistic celebration, e.g., the altar cross and the cross carried in procession.”
The U.S. bishops have also published a document on Church building and furnishings, “Built of Living Stones.” This document presents guidelines that, while not being law in itself, are based on law and on pastoral experience. Regarding the altar cross this document says:
“91. The cross with the image of Christ crucified is a reminder of Christ’s paschal mystery. It draws us into the mystery of suffering and makes tangible our belief that our suffering when united with the passion and death of Christ leads to redemption. There should be a crucifix ‘positioned either on the altar or near it, and … clearly visible to the people gathered there.’ Since a crucifix placed on the altar and large enough to be seen by the congregation might well obstruct the view of the action taking place on the altar, other alternatives may be more appropriate. The crucifix may be suspended over the altar or affixed to the sanctuary wall. A processional cross of sufficient size, placed in a stand visible to the people following the entrance procession is another option. If the processional cross is to be used for this purpose, the size and weight of the cross should not preclude its being carried in procession. If there is already a cross in the sanctuary, the processional cross is placed out of view of the congregation following the procession.”
Regarding earlier rules from before the Second Vatican Council, we can quote the book “Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described” by Fortescue-O’Connell-Reid:
“On the altar stand a Cross — with the figure of the crucified — sufficiently large to be seen by the celebrant and people. It should stand in the middle of the large candlesticks, its base as high as these, and the entire cross itself higher than the candlesticks. It there is a tabernacle the cross may not stand before it. The cross should not stand on the tabernacle, nor may it stand in the throne used for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, though these uses are tolerated.”
A note adds that if immediately behind the altar there is a large representation of the crucifixion, this may count as the altar cross.
To these norms Trimeloni’s more-detailed Italian liturgical manual adds that a small cross over the tabernacle or at the foot of a statue is not sufficient.
All of these documents speak of the use of the crucifix with the figure of the crucified and not a glorified or majestic Christ. It is true that most early examples of the crucifix have a robed Christ, bodily erect, with eyes opened and without visible signs of suffering. Historians attest that this form of representing a majestic Christ “reigning from the cross” was due to an initial reluctance in portraying a disrobed and suffering Christ. It was not, however, an image of the risen Christ, although it took into account the resurrection. The use of representing Christ suffering upon the cross and stripped of his garments became common after the 10th century.
While there are some indications of an early use of the cross in the liturgy, the evidence points to a habitual use of the crucifix, usually a processional cross, from after the 11th century and its use as a stable fixture upon the altar from the 13th — long after the representation of the suffering Christ became standard.
Nevertheless, the above documents would preclude the substitution of the crucifix for a representation of the risen Christ as they clearly call for the presence of an image of Christ crucified in every Mass.
There would be no difficulty in placing an image of the risen Christ in the sanctuary during Eastertide as a visible reminder of the season. At the same time, we must remember that the primary liturgical symbol of the Resurrection is the paschal candle.
As “Built of Living Stones” reminds us:
“94. The paschal candle is the symbol of ‘the light of Christ, rising in glory,’ scattering ‘the darkness of our hearts and minds.’ Above all, the paschal candle should be a genuine candle, the pre-eminent symbol of the light of Christ. Choices of size, design and color should be made in relationship to the sanctuary in which it will be placed. During the Easter Vigil and throughout the Easter season, the paschal candle belongs near the ambo or in the middle of the sanctuary. After the Easter season it is moved to a place of honor in the baptistry for use in the celebration of baptisms. During funerals the paschal candle is placed near the coffin as a sign of the Christian’s passover from death to life.”
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Follow-up: A Risen Christ on the Cross [5-31-2016]
After our May 10 column on images of the Risen Christ and the crucifix, a reader wrote, “I have to ask about why Protestants say it’s a cross without Jesus because he already rose.”
There are many possible answers to this question. By the way, not all Protestants reject the use of the crucifix. It is also used by many Eastern Churches albeit less than among Latin Catholics.
As we saw in the previous article both the crucifix and the plain cross have been used from the fifth century on, and there was no great difficulty in using both.
The cross with the figure of the crucified Christ serves as a reminder of his sacrifice and his suffering; the cross without the figure, especially when richly decorated, served as a reminder of his victory through the cross. As St. Paul wrote: “But we preach Christ crucified: unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness” (Corinthians 1:23).
Neither crucifix nor cross denies the resurrection — at least no more than the use of the Christmas crèche denies that Christ ever grew up. Indeed, the use of the any form of cross would make no sense without the Resurrection because it is precisely the Resurrection that transforms the symbol of the cross into a sign of triumph. Once more as St. Paul declares: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).