Great Stuff Found on the Web — Resurrecting A Crucifix

Found on Rev. Anthony R. Voltattorni‘s blog, We are All Beggers.


Sometime after the inception of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Standish MI, in 1903 a crucifix was placed on the altar.  [A crucifix is a cross upon which the statue of Jesus’ crucified body is depicted.]  This cross stood proudly on the altar of the Church for decades until sometime in between 1948 and 1950 when it was taken down.  Although there are theories, no one knows exactly why it was taken down from the altar but we do know that its home for the last 60+ years has been the basement.  Except that as long as anyone can remember it hasn’t been a crucifix.  The cross has been empty.  A nice, plain, black cross, but empty.  It has lost the corpus, the statue of the body of Christ, once fixed onto its wood.

Now there’s certainly nothing “wrong” with an empty cross, per se.  We have many empty crosses in our church.  However, it should be understood that using an empty cross on a Lutheran altar is a practice that comes from non-Lutherans.

At the time of the Reformation there was conflict between Lutherans and Reformed Christians over the use of such art in the church.  Lutherans stood with historic Christendom in realizing that art in the church is not “wrong” as many suggested, but is a great aid for helping us focus on the truths of God’s Word.  This protest, however, continued, and was especially taken up in the age of Lutheran Pietism, which strongly rejected much of Lutheran teaching and practice, including the use of the crucifix.  As a result, many misinformed individuals, including life-long Lutherans, still question the crucifix:

“Isn’t the crucifix a Roman Catholic thing?”
“Didn’t Jesus got down from the cross?”
“Doesn’t an empty cross remind us of the Resurrection?”

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with an empty cross.  However, the crucifix is not more Roman Catholic, nor is the empty cross somehow more Lutheran.  Rather, the history of the Lutheran Church demonstrates that the crucifix was a regular aspect of Lutheran worship, both in Martin Luther’s day and among the founding fathers of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.  Christendom has always considered the crucifix to be a powerful and vivid reminder of the great sacrifice our Lord Jesus made for us and our salvation on the cross. 

While it is true, in part, that Jesus did get down from the cross, He was still dead.  His body was pulled down from the cross and He was placed in the tomb.  Had Jesus never risen from death the cross would still have been empty.  Therefore, the “empty cross” is no more a symbol of the resurrection than is the empty manger. 

No one would argue that we should only have a nativity with Mary and Joseph staring at an empty manger because Jesus got out of the manger and grew up and is risen.  The Christ child depicted there in the manger is intended to help us reflect on His humanity.  So also, the cross, whether or not it is an empty cross or a crucifix, is intended to preach one essential truth: the death of Christ for the salvation of the world.

Every single cross is a symbol only of the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf.  It visually preaches Christ crucified.  Thus, to quote Rev. David Petersen, “An empty cross is only a stylized crucifix.”  For if the cross does not represent the crucifixion event, then it has no place in Christianity.  God has suffered for us, as one of us, on our behalf, in weakness, in humility, that we might be reconciled to the Father.  The image of the crucifix focuses our eyes on this great comfort, as Martin Luther once said:

“It was a good practice to hold a wooden crucifix before the eyes of the dying or to press it into their hands. This brought the suffering and death of Christ to mind and comforted the dying.” – M. Luther, Sermons on John, Chapters 6-8, 1532; LW 23, 360

It’s not as if the crucifix has some mystical powers mind you.  You cannot ward off vampires with it, only Staurophobics (i.e. Those afraid of crosses. It’s a real phobia, I looked it up).  Nor is the crucifix an idol.  It’s not actually Jesus, but only a symbol of Jesus in the central act of all salvation history.  As such, in the crucifix there is nothing contrary to God’s Holy Word, nor our Lutheran Confessions. Rather, in it there is a powerful and vivid reminder of our salvation that cannot be taken from us, for the image of Christ on the cross already dwells in our hearts.

“[W]hen I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it.  If it is not a sin but good to have an image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?” – M. Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525; LW 40, 99-100

The black cross that was once in the basement is no longer there.  Nor is it empty anymore.  A couple in the congregation have searched for a corpus that would fit this historic cross of Bethlehem Lutheran Church.  They have graciously bought one, refinished it, and fixed it onto the cross.  On Palm Sunday of this year we will rededicate that crucifix for use in our Sanctuary.

It will once again stand proudly upon the altar of the Church, continually preaching to us the immense comfort and benefit that we have in Christ the Crucified.  For no greater truth can be found in all of Christianity than the death of Jesus Christ our Lord for the salvation of us sinners.  As we come to the Divine Service, as we partake of the body and blood of Christ, we have the benefit of looking upon the crucifix in confident faith, and seeing in His wounds our forgiveness.  Christ is Crucified for you.


Thanks for reading

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Great Stuff Found on the Web — Resurrecting A Crucifix — 23 Comments

  1. It’s interesting that for so many years I’ve heard that the crucifix is used in RCC to remind them everyday of the passion. This is the same that is understood in the rite of communion and the mass that they continually crucify him in the observance of the mass. I guess that’s the reason some of our pastors have shied away from the crucifix. Just my guess.

  2. Exactly! We preach the empty tomb, not the empty cross:

    “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

    Great post. Glad to see the crucifix returning to Lutheran churches. We use both the traditional corpus and the Christus Rex corpus on our processional cross depending on the season of the church year or festival. It is placed by the ambo for precisely 1 Cor. 1:23.

  3. At one church I served I found in a box in the back of a closet a gorgeous common cup and two flagons, unused for decades. The people were overjoyed when we reintroduced using them, while keeping individual cups for those who had grown accustomed to them. No one quite knew when and why they had switched to individual cups only and these historic vessels–the chalice and one of the flagons were inscribed with a dedication date and were over 100 years old–packed away.

    At another church I discovered a crucifix laying on a top shelf in the kitchen. The altar was free-standing and not conducive to its use, so I found a prominent place for it in my study.

    All across the LCMS you will find “historic display” cases in lobbies, basements, etc. filled with such “relics of the past.” I have thought this phenomenon would be a good topic for a thesis. Apparently the switch came in many places during the 1950’s and stemmed from a desire for the LCMS to be considered “mainline Protestant.” Often times the discarded crucifixes, chalices, etc. are of the highest quality, while the “plain” crosses, individual cup trays, etc. that replaced them are cheap.

    In many cases the switch was done quite arbitrarily–sorry to say often by a pastor–with no consideration for the historic nature of the items replaced, sentiments of those who donated them, etc. One Sunday the fine gold crucifix or sterling silver common cup was just gone–replaced by a “gold tone” empty cross or “slivertone” aluminum individual cup tray. To give you an idea, one person who wanted such items back in use but thought that impossible actually told me, “But Pastor ________ [40 years before] said the Synod didn’t allow its congregations to use a crucifix anymore”!

    I have found that if reintroduced in a careful, considerate way the people are often thrilled to have such items rescued from the “historic display” case and actually put back into use. The first time we used a beautiful common cup again at one church–Maundy Thursday is a great occasion to introduce this–an 80-year-old lady afterwards had tears streaming down her face. “Oh, Pastor,” she said, “that was wonderful. That was the chalice I took Communion from the first time when I was confirmed and my parents and grandparents and all my old family took Communion from that chalice for years. I could really feel ‘all the company of heaven’ with me today!”

  4. @Rev. Kevin Vogts #3

    Why is it so easy to stop using these items, but so difficult to (re)introduce them? The pejorative “That’s Catholic” is often the invective thrown out against them. What was going on in 50s culture that this anti-Catholic bias infiltrated our ranks? We’re all familiar with what Walther said early on. Why the shift in attitude?:

    “We refuse to be guided by those who are offended by our church customs. We adhere to them all the more firmly when someone wants to cause us to have a guilty conscience on account of them…. It is truly distressing that many of our fellow Christians find the difference between Lutheranism and Papism in outward things. It is a pity and dreadful cowardice when one sacrifices the good ancient church customs to please the deluded American sects, lest they accuse us of being papistic! Indeed! Am I to be afraid of a Methodist, who perverts the saving word, or be ashamed in the matter of my good cause, and not rather rejoice that the sects can tell by our ceremonies that I do not belong to them? …We are not insisting that there be uniformity of perception or feelings or of taste among all believing Christians neither dare anyone demand that all be minded as he. Nevertheless it remains true that the Lutheran liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches to such an extent that the latter look like lecture halls in which the hearers are merely addressed or instructed, while our churches are in truth houses of prayer in which the Christians serve the great God publicly before the world.” – Essays for the Church, Volume 1:194.

  5. >>Why is it so easy to stop using these items, but so difficult to (re)introduce them?
    >>What was going on in 50s culture
    >>Why the shift in attitude?

    That’s why I say it would be a great topic for a thesis!

  6. “Christendom has always considered the crucifix to be a powerful and vivid reminder of the great sacrifice our Lord Jesus made for us and our salvation on the cross.”

    Actually, it took a thousand years for the crucifix to become standard fare in the Western Church. Most early Christian art was two-dimensional, featuring motifs of Christ the Good Shepherd, the Lamb, and so on. The crucifix, as well as the familiar liturgical colors we use today, became mandatory in the Roman Church only after the Reformation. 

  7. There were after all three “empty crosses” on Golgotha Good Friday Pastor, but only one resurrection. Good Post.

    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  8. I was told it was for economic reasons when church architecture changed from the ornate to the simpler. That doesn’t explain though why an existing church would switch them. (unless they were trying to “modernize” the church? We do stupid things frequently; we are people.

    We used to build beautiful, uplifting churches with high ceilings that to me at least, reminded people that you were in the presence of the Almighty. Sometimes I think now the architecture wants you to think you’re with your “best buddy”. (Which is true, but…)

  9. >>I was told it was for economic reasons when church architecture changed from the ornate to the simpler

    The best response to that is an oldie but a goodie, “The Small Church: How to Build and Furnish It” published in the 1930’s by LCMS Pastor F. R. Webber. Well worth getting on Alibris.

    A very entertaining book, though one must discount some aspects of Roman Catholic theology it reflects, is “Ugly as Sin.” Loaned mine to the Roman Catholic architect of our new sanctuary and it was an eye-opener for him. Gotta remind him to return it!

    For an example of significant symbolism incorporated in a new sanctuary I would refer you to a booklet I wrote about symbolism in our sanctuary and there are some photos on our home page

  10. Rev. Vogts,
    I often wonder myself what causes a parish to change. The parish of my childhood only served communion out of the common cup. I went away to college and job and did not make it back to my parish for over a decade. Some time after 1972 my parish switched from the common cup to also include the shot glasses. I never recall hearing any complaints about using the common cup but for some reason there was a change. There was not a change in pastors so that was not the cause. I am sure many other parishes have had similiar and even worse changes foisted upon them.

  11. Just a historical correction of an earlier comment. The crucifix and representations of the crucifixion appeared in the early 500s and by the end of the 500s were becoming quite common. So, one can say throughout the majority of the Church’s history, the crucifix has been used as a meaningful symbol.

  12. Alright all, I have a question for you (originally given to me from my orthopedic doctor)… Why is it that most crucifixes (a vast majority) have Jesus looking down to his right?

  13. I think a pastor on worldview everlasting or someone here talked about that – I think it was based on artistic tradition?

  14. Just a historical clarification of an earlier misinterpretation of my initial comment. It took over one thousand years for the three-dimensional crucifix, as is depicted above, “to become standard fare in the Western Church.” Representations of the cross became common after the legitimization of Christianity in the West. A figure on the cross did not become common until the sixth century. Even then, such representations were two-dimensional, consisting of representations in manuscripts, mosaics, paintings and, at most, an occasional bas-relief.

    “As a matter of fact, it is noteworthy that, in the year 692, i.e. at the end of the seventh century the Quinisext Council of Constantinople, called the Trullan, ordered the symbolical and allegorical treatment to be laid aside… The last objections and obstacles to the realistic reproduction of the Crucifixion disappeared in the beginning of the eighth century.” Between the sixth and twelfth centuries, the Christ figure is shown in front of the cross, alive, and clothed. Christ depicted depicted in a long tunic remained until the ninth century, even longer in the East.

    “From the eleventh century in the East, and from the Gothic period in the West, the head droops onto the breast (cf. Borgia, De Cruce Veliternâ, 191), the crown of thorns is introduced, the arms are bent back, the body is twisted, the face is wrung with agony, and blood flows from the wounds. In the thirteenth century complete realism is reached by the substitution of one nail in the feet, instead of two, as in the old tradition, and the resulting crossing of the legs. All this was done from artistic motives, to bring about a more moving and devotional pose. The living and triumphant Christ gives place to a Christ dead, in all the humiliation of His Passion, the agony of His death being even accentuated. This manner of treatment was afterwards generalized by the schools of Cimabue and Giotto. In conclusion it may be noted that the custom of placing the crucifix over the altar does not date from earlier than the eleventh century.”

    Source: Accessed March 8, 2012.

  15. Excellent. Lord willing, I’ll have an opportunity to receive our Lord’s Gifts at Bethlehem this summer. I look forward to seeing this crucifix.

  16. From upbringing I had a scruple against crucifixes on the basis that, as I was taught, they are graven images, and thus violate the First Commandment. It can be difficult to find the line between aversion to graven images and iconoclasm.

    But, the death of Christ is what we show forth until He returns in the Sacrament of the Altar, and the crucifix is another and good way of doing that, so I have gradually gotten over the scruple. To speak tenderly while definitely will help the scrupulously mistaken ones, such as I was, to come further into light, freedom, and witness.

    More to be feared as a graven image is what can be done with the whole sanctuary, as illustrated in a video by Pr Matt Richard, Pastor of Sidney Lutheran Brethren Church, when he visited an LCMS church in St Louis, which you may see here:

    When I see Pr Richard later to day, I plan to ask him what that was toward the end of the video. Was that a Sunday morning worship service, or was that some other coffee house event? If the former, it is ill.

  17. We attended a small rural LCMS church in OR for a couple of years before we moved and I noticed right away the altar had one of those standard CPH supply crosses on it and someone had affixed a corpus to it. Proportionally it looked okay. I inquired about how this had come to pass from one of the long time members. (Rural OR churches tend to be more Baptist in their theology than Lutheran) It seems the cross had been there, empty, for a long time, then a vacancy pastor served there for about six months and he added the corpus. It seems this pastor was a convert from the Roman Church and he just told the elders it was not right or proper to not have a crucifix in the Chancel. Some folks grumbled for the above noted reasons I am sure, but to this day the crucifix is still there.

  18. The disappearance of the crucifix in so many of our Synod’s churches is another sad example of how we Lutherans in America have tried to blend in with American Reformed Protestantism. The disappearance of the crucifix from our altars can also be traced to Episcopalian influence. It is often forgotten that, because of the strong Calvinist influence in the English Reformation, even a plain cross was long considered unacceptable in the Church of England and its daughters churches throughout the world. This did not really change until the so-called “Catholic Revival” in 19th century Anglicanism, and even then most Anglican churches could only manage to “get away with” a plain cross. A crucifix was unthinkable, and so there was a proliferation of plain brass crosses among the Episcopalians which many of us Lutherans then (knowingly or unknowingly) began to imitate. In my own home parish of Martini Church in Baltimore a magnificent ebony and ivory crucifix was in about 1940 replaced with a plain brass cross, the crucifix only reappearing (as it does to this day) during Lent. In my mother’s home parish, Emmanuel Church in Baltimore, there was a crucifix as part of the beautiful marble altar but when the Church moved to Catonsville in 1957 the crucifix was relegated to the Sunday School room and a plain brass cross placed on the marble altar. I think this sort of thing can be documented in parish after parish of our Synod. The Fathers of our Synod feared that in adopting the English language our Synod would be far more vulnerable to the influence of Reformed Protestantism (of which Anglicanism is in some sense a part) and – alas – that is precisely what has happened! The crucifix and the chanting of the liturgy, so common in our German services, disappeared and – even worse -the “individual cups” of Reformed Protestantism replaced the chalice. I find it astonishing that it did not occur to Synod’s clergy who first permitted the introduction of the “individual cups” that the word “individual and “communion” are mutually exclusive. And while one must in charity tolerate the use of the cups where they are firmly ensconced, their use is nevertheless a dramatic departure from Lutheran practice and from the practice of the whole Church from the beginning. Their use has made possible all kinds of abuses, e.g. the provision of grape juice or “non-alcoholic wine” as an alternative to the wine of Christ’s institution. There was a time when such a thing would have been unthinkable in the churches of our Synod. We were then as a Synod concerned that the Sacrament of the Altar be administered in strict conformity with Christ’s institution but nowadays other considerations, cultural and otherwise, have led to the present chaos in our sacramental practice. Both Dr. Walther and Dr. Pieper stressed that it is the solemn responsibility of the pastor to see to it that nothing but genuine wine is used in the Sacrament of the Altar.

  19. Your comment: “While it is true, in part, that Jesus did get down from the cross, He was still dead. His body was pulled down from the cross and He was placed in the tomb. Had Jesus never risen from death the cross would still have been empty. Therefore, the “empty cross” is no more a symbol of the resurrection than is the empty manger.

    No one would argue that we should only have a nativity with Mary and Joseph staring at an empty manger because Jesus got out of the manger and grew up and is risen. The Christ child depicted there in the manger is intended to help us reflect on His humanity. So also, the cross, whether or not it is an empty cross or a crucifix, is intended to preach one essential truth: the death of Christ for the salvation of the world.” –
    is certainly one for consideration. Thank you for this fine post.

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