Embracing the Crucifix

When I was growing up in various Protestant churches, and in all the Protestant churches of my adulthood, one of the few symbols on display in each church was an empty cross. Usually inside the sanctuary, front and center.

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This type of image is familiar to many, but it hasn’t always made the most sense to me.

Catholic churches, as most probably know, are known for their use of the Crucifix. This practice is odd to some, and unacceptable to others outside of the Catholic faith.

This is why I have embraced the Crucifix.

To start, I would like to share why I’ve come to the conclusion that the empty cross is a less-than-ideal representation of our faith. I’ve been told a few reasons why Protestant churches display only the empty cross. One reason is the idea that Catholics leave Jesus on the cross because we for some reason don’t focus on His resurrection… and that Protestants do focus on his resurrection, hence not leaving Jesus hanging up there. And another reason is that the idea of making “graven images” is clearly forbidden in scripture.

I remember even as a little girl, thinking that the empty cross didn’t make a lot of sense to represent our belief in and focus on the resurrection. Namely, the fact that when Jesus was taken down off the cross, and the cross was indeed empty … he was dead. It feels like to me, wherever there is an empty cross, we are basically displaying an empty instrument of torture. The cross was used to execute many, many people over the ages, including 2 others at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion itself. The cross is how Jesus died, but apart from Jesus being on it, it is an execution device upon which many others died as well.

I always thought that some sort of symbol of the empty tomb, or the stone rolled away from the door would be more appropriate to represent the resurrection. If we want to reflect Jesus risen, let’s make a symbol of the place He rose from, right?! No one else rose from the dead under His own divine power like Jesus did. Lazarus, too, rose, but it was only under the power of Jesus that he did that. So the idea of the empty tomb symbolizing Christ’s resurrection, if that is the ultimate aim of those who leave Jesus off the cross, would probably be a better fit.

And then there is the graven images argument. In my new life as a Catholic, I am so enjoying learning about the Old Testament and how Judaism points to The Gospel in so many different ways. But, as I’ve learned, when one looks specifically about God commanding the Israelites not to make graven images in Exodus, he’s telling them not to make graven images to worship. Not that they can’t make images ever. In fact, shortly after issuing that command, God tells the Israelites to construct two statues of angels for either side of the tabernacle. The Israelites were to make statues, or images of angels. They just couldn’t, and shouldn’t worship them.

Similarly, Catholics don’t worship the crucifix. What a crucifix does is help us focus our minds on Christ, and the love that he poured out for us in his redemptive suffering. Worship is reserved for God alone.

While I still like the idea of the empty tomb, I believe a cross depicting Jesus on it helps remind us of how great the cost of our salvation was. Especially in America, we are generally so comfortable. Many, though not all, of us don’t have a context for extreme suffering. And the cost for our salvation was so, very great. Every time I look at a crucifix I see the love of my Savior and I am so thankful.

And, honestly speaking, sometimes, also, the Crucifix is hard for me to look at. I don’t like picturing Jesus up there on the cross and knowing that he needed to do that because of my sin. I also believe that just because it’s difficult to look at doesn’t mean I shouldn’t. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be Mary, seeing her Son up there, dying, and staying by his side. Not even all the disciples were there with Jesus at the cross. I wonder if I would have had the strength to stay. When I pray through the Sorrowful Mysteries on the Rosary, the crucifixion is by far the most difficult decade for me to meditate on. But I also take comfort that Peter, who denied Jesus 3 times and likely was not at the crucifixion, was still the man God called to be the first Pope of the Church.

Even though it is difficult to look at, the Crucifix reminds me of the abundant grace of God then, and now, and forever. Seeing the Crucifix enables me to raise up my eyes and be willing to carry whatever cross I have before me during any particular moment of any particular day. It helps me think on God more. And it helps me grow in my faith and joy at what was accomplished on Calvary and 3 days later. All good, faith building and life giving things. Embracing the Crucifix has been another of the strengths of my Catholic faith.

 

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The Lens We All Have

We all view Scripture through a lens. This is a more thorough discussion, and my updated thoughts on Sola Scriptura, personal interpretation, and Catholic Tradition.

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One of the tricky subjects for a Catholic to talk to a Protestant about is the word “Tradition,” and the role it plays in the Catholic Church. Say anything about how we have Tradition, and you will turn off many a Protestant ear. The word itself, is a barrier to further discourse. This is true often- because, in many ways Catholics and Protestants are using different words when talking about the same or similar things. Though, there are definite and significant differences in the two understandings of Christianity, many times, even on the areas where we agree there is a language barrier. Tradition isn’t one of those areas where we agree, but it is an area where the language barrier is a hinderance to understanding.

Here is one way that helped me, at least in a limited sense, understand Catholic Tradition, and something that may perhaps be helpful when talking to others and attempting to overcome the language barrier in this area.

The fact is that everyone interprets scripture through a lens. You can’t read the Bible as a Christian and not get meaning out of it through interpretation. In fact… you can’t be a literate person and not read anything and not get meaning out of it through the interpretation of your understanding.

In this sense, everyone kind of has their own Tradition. Though Biblical interpretation isn’t the sum and whole of what Catholic Tradition encompasses, it is an important part of it. Tradition, in part, consists of the lens through which Catholics interpret Holy Scripture.

One of the main struggles Protestants have with Tradition is that Catholics place it on par with Scripture, instead of holding Scripture itself as the highest. The problem with that is, our interpretation of Scripture, Catholic or Protestant, is inseparable from Scripture, period. Because a Bible un-interpreted is a book on a shelf without meaning. One could say that interpretation is the way we construct meaning out of Scripture. The problem Protestants run into, is whose interpretation is correct? On any given Sunday at any Protestant church throughout America , a pastor might cite books by theologians as sources for his sermon. Well… what evidence do we have that those theologians are interpreting Scripture correctly? And it also happens all. the. time. that two, or tens, or thousands of Protestants could read the same exact passage of Scripture and come to completely different conclusions about what it means. Baptism, Communion, Genesis… again, whose interpretation is correct? By its very nature, Truth cannot contradict itself. It’s can’t be that Jesus meant Holy Communion to be both symbolic and his actual Body and Blood. He meant one of the two, but not both. And if the answer to that question is important, what did he actually mean, then the lens through which we interpret Scripture is also important.

Scripture requires interpretation, that meaning be drawn out of it. And due to the thousands of Protestant denominations (over 32,000, to be closer to precise), I reject personal interpretation as adequate.

Catholic Tradition has long stood the test of time, more than any other Christian group claims to have had interpretation at all (all the other denominations have 1500 less years to work with!). So I have no problem putting it on level with the written word of Scripture. It is the lens through which I view Scripture. And we all have a lens we put in the exact same spot by the necessity of interpretation.

And that’s also why, in short, I accept the teachings of Tradition that may exist, in a strict sense, “outside of Scripture.” I don’t believe that Truth is contained only within the words of the Bible. God inspired the Bible but I don’t believe that’s God’s last breathed word to humanity. The Bible itself declares Jesus to be the “Word made flesh.” Catholics believe we still have the Word made flesh Himself present and among us today in the Eucharist. He’s still the Word. And He’s still talking. Through His Church.

Walk into any Protestant church and at some point someone will have a Word from God to share with someone else about their life. Nearly all Christians believe God still speaks today in some form, and often to them personally. And if God is actually speaking things to people (if it is indeed God speaking), then what is being spoken is True. And Truth is Truth, whether it’s on the pages of the Bible or spoken by a believer. There is no way to put some Truth (the Bible) on a different level than other Truth (God’s extra-Biblical Word revealed to humanity.) If it’s from God, it’s Truth. And thus they are the same, as they stem from the same ultimate Truth, God Himself.

Catholic teachings corroborate with the Bible in the most logically sound and deeply comprehensive way of anything I’ve found to exist. I cannot pretend that God is not in it, because only Catholicism mirrors  (best as any earthly thing can) the richness and vastness and deepness and intensity of our Creator to a level that feels like it is approaching appropriate. The Gospel is simple, but also amazingly complex. God is able to be understood by young children, but one could spend lifetimeS growing in that understanding (and Catholicism as a whole has!). God is personable, but also unfathomable.

And, in short, that is why, to this former Protestant, Tradition as a word and a belief has brought an increased richness to my faith and understanding of both the Bible and Christianity as a whole, and not detracted from it in the least.

From nearly agnostic to nearly Catholic

I mentioned a while back that I’d write a post about my near agnosticism, and now seems as good a time as any to share. Especially since so much of my life today is so different. And also because I’ve been reflecting a lot as I prepare for Confirmation. So here goes.

This is now I nearly left my Christian faith and also nearly declared agnosticism.

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I’ve loved Jesus much of my life. My family didn’t even go to church much when I was very small, and I loved the line from Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” that goes: “She loves Jesus, and America too.” Mostly because of the Jesus part. I can understand the idea of Catholicism as a journey of faith, because even though I have a little card I signed as a child where I prayed the “Sinners Prayer,” I don’t feel like it was that one particular moment that defined my Christianity.

I’d say my early faith life generally was one of growth, with hills and valleys throughout. But a couple of years into JP and my marriage, I hit a really big valley. I was a “good” person, who went to church on Sunday, and even led worship. I knew all the right things to say to fit in with all the church people, and I knew how to do all the church things. But at a certain point, I started asking the question: “Is this it?” Is this all there is to it? Is Jesus just some fairy tale story that is too ridiculous to actually believe? If so… why am I hanging out with all these people that think it’s true? Why am I getting people to raise their hands in “worship” on Sunday morning, when I don’t even know that I believe the words I’m saying. After church on Sunday, you wouldn’t know my life was any different from someone who wasn’t religious at all. I looked exactly the same as anyone else.

Jesus, other than my churchy stuff, had become irrelevant in my life.

I started reading some Richard Dawkins, and listening to debates from prominent Athiests vs. prominent Christians.  Athiests are as equally confident that life is meaningless as Christians are that life is meaningful, and I was turned off by their arrogance. I found that I couldn’t align with their superiority complex and confidence that life is meaningless and somehow, also valuable. I couldn’t reconcile the two, and still don’t know how they do.

Which left me at, possibly, agnostic. God was probably there, but didn’t really have much relevance or interaction in the day to day life of mankind. JP and I had conversations about what kinds of prayer God would answer, and how involved he might be, and kind of determined that he probably wasn’t that involved, and that humans were probably overall pretty petty with their self-interested prayer requests. If God existed, why would he care about those trivial things? Just, honestly speaking, I would have people offer to pray for me and I’d nod and say amen and not have paid much attention to what they said. I would pray at Bible study, and say the right words with the right emotion and inflection, and not believe anything outside of the group of us in that living room paid my words any heed. I shudder to think now how nearly far gone I had gone. I think, to most, I probably hid it well.

Thankfully, though, it didn’t stop there. I found that when you believe something for your entire life, you have a hard time letting go of it easily. I decided to give things one more close look. Was Christianity believing a fairy tale and going to a social club of like-minded people on Sundays? Or was there more to it? If there was more to it, I wanted in. If there wasn’t, I had to find a way out and quit wasting my time.

I read books like “If God Were Real” by John Avant and “The Reason For God” by Tim Keller. Then I read some CS Lewis. And then some Jen Hatmaker, for good measure. All these people combined presented to me a view of Christianity that was all these things: rational, exciting, challenging, life-giving, life-changing, and world-changing. I was beyond relieved to know that Christianity was, plain and simply, more. It was about more than me. But also about less than me… about making myself small and allowing God to make Himself big in my life. I was drawn in by the idea of Jesus using us as his literal and physical hands and feet on this earth to help bring peace and healing to a hurting world. I was engulfed with passion about social justice, freeing the captives, feeding the hungry. And I thought- aha! I have found it! What this faith is meant to be- and I am in- all in!

And I no longer had a great interest in being very a nice person, sitting on nice couches, in nice living rooms and talking about Jesus. Some of that can be good and uplifting, but mostly, I wanted to live Jesus in the corner of the world in which He has put me. I wanted to follow Jesus. Wherever and whenever he told me to go.  I wanted to get my hands dirty and start doing what He has called me to do. And, sadly to me, I still remember people holding up their figurative yield signs, warning us against focusing on works too much and reminding us that we can’t do everything (except for that which Christ has called us to do- Lorelei’s own personal thought that she didn’t say out loud at the time.)

And again, I thought. No. I don’t want to be a part of this. Only this time I wasn’t talking about Christianity as a religion. I was talking about the comfortable Americanized version of Christianity. I came to acknowledge that I no longer fit there. But, then… where did I fit?

I started asking questions about what the purpose of church was… and what the early Church was like… and at first I couldn’t really find anyone who could give me any answers. Because for some reason, we don’t study the early Church much, or know how early Christians did things, or understand much about the Judaism that Christ himself claimed to fulfill, or even think that it is relevant at all to how we live our lives today. I wanted depth of theology that backed how my soul was telling me my faith was meant to be lived out… I couldn’t get past the surface in many situations. I was so frustrated with the idea that church was a place where I go to be served and emotionally fed and hang out with a bunch of people that all agree with each other. That wasn’t it. I knew there was more.

And then came the night when I was sitting on my couch, and wrestling through all these questions and more and I knew enough about Catholicism to have the thought: “Oh dear, I am thinking like a Catholic.” Which is shortly before the journey of this blog began.

Fast forward.

I am less than a month away from being confirmed in the Catholic church. Here is what I can say about my faith now.

I am reading the Bible more than I have in years.

I am praying more than I have in years.

My marriage is more unified than it has been the entire time we’ve been together.

I find myself, in a rare quiet moment, driving around in my car and just thanking God for all the gifts there are for us in the Catholic faith. The Sacraments, especially Confession and the Eucharist, mass, the symbols and traditions that help keep our physical bodies and minds lifted heavenward toward Jesus. I’m thinking about Jesus more. I’m desiring holiness more. I still have a long way to go toward sainthood but I am so thankful for God’s abundant grace! Everything in me is growing more whole.

There is such depth and beauty in the Catholic faith. This Jesus of ours is not a stupid fairy tale. He is Reality itself. Everything makes more sense. Thank you Jesus for the grace to allow me to find that the fullness of my Christian faith will be lived out by becoming Catholic. And thank you Jesus that Easter Vigil is only a few weeks away!

Ritual

Why are some Protestants (not all) so against the rituals of the liturgical faiths, especially Catholicism? For some, perhaps, it seems boring, it seems like you could go through it in your sleep without really engaging your mind and spirit. I can understand that because I thought that, and still do have some questions about it.

But… we are indeed creatures of ritual. We celebrate the same holidays every year at the same time of year. We need routine in our lives to feel any sort of peace… humans crave rhythm.

And even as a teacher, one of the foundations of literacy instruction is to make the structure of your literacy block predictable and routine, so the students don’t have to actively think to know what to do during writer’s workshop, for example… the reason for such routine is so their brains can be clear to think about the new things they are being taught.

Perhaps all the switch ups and the fancy set changes and the lights and the “newness” in some Protestant churches distracts our senses so much that we can’t focus on Jesus.

I do have to say that I don’t think all to do with Protestant church services is bad or even that it’s constantly changing. In fact, there is a rhythm and pattern to many of the orders of service in the churches we have been to. They just look different and don’t go as deep back in history as the rituals of the Catholic church. But, regardless, every church has a reason why it does things the way it does. Only in most Protestant cases the authority by which those decisions are made is the local congregation itself. And I’ve long frustrated with the showmanship of many Protestant churches that seem to have the main purpose in mind of being “relevant” vs. being “reverent.”

Is it possible that by learning about the history of the rituals in the Catholic mass, and participating in them, that my mind would be more free to focus on God and what he is teaching his believers?

Perhaps it would.

Note: I am drawing a decent amount from this article and adding my own thoughts as I process through this.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/albertlittle/how-much-ritual-is-too-much/#st_refDomain=www.facebook.com&st_refQuery=/