Nativity crèches (mangers) are popular and acceptable at Christmas time among Christians yet resistance or misunderstanding accompanies the use of crucifixes. Both are graven images and yet we find the graven image of Jesus in a crèche acceptable while the graven image of Jesus on a cross is not. Christ on a cross leaves us unsettled and supposedly is a violation of the Second Commandment. What is going on?
For starters let us go back to the Ten Commandments and realize three versions of the Commandments exist: 1) the most ancient versions still used by the Jews, 2) a system developed by St. Augustine embraced by Rome, Lutherans, Anglicans and a few others, and 3) one used by Evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox Christians. So what accounts for three versions of the Ten Commandments? Does not ten equal ten? Three versions have developed because though God said the Commandments are to be ten (Ex 34:28; Dt 4:13, 10:4) he spoke fourteen sayings. Imagine that! How to condense fourteen sayings into ten accounts for the three versions. For the time being leave aside the Jewish reckoning of the Commandments. Augustine’s numbering and that used by Evangelicals have points of agreement and disagreement. The Commandment at the center of discussion is the Second according to the numbering system used by Evangelicals. It is:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex 20:4-6, KJV)
The prohibition against graven images seems simple enough until we realize in Scripture God commands Israel to make graven images for the Ark of the Covenant and serpent on a pole and is pleased with those which adorn Solomon’s Temple. I know eight examples where God commands or is pleased with the making of graven images. A quick look would be:
- Cherubim (Ex 25:18)
- Gourds (1 Kgs 6:18)
- Open flowers (1 Kgs 6:18, 29)
- Palm trees (1 Kgs 6:29)
- Lions (1 Kgs 7:29)
- Oxen (1 Kgs 7:29)
- Wreaths (1 Kgs 7:29)
- Bronze Serpent (Num 21:8-9)
Paganism believes their gods dwell within graven images and the objects are made to worship the supposed gods who dwell within the images. This is still seen in witchcraft, the occult, the making of amulets and other demonic practices. This is absolutely forbidden in Scripture! However the making of graven images as an aid to help us see Christ’s love for us is perfectly good, right and salutary. Of course, neither Jesus nor depicted saints dwell within their statuary.
Martin Luther kept statues of Mary and saints at his church in Wittenberg, St. Mary’s, as an aid and devotion to thank Jesus for his mercy toward us. Luther has written:
It is my opinion that many people in the monasteries and elsewhere believed and took hold of Christ, advancing to the point where they said: “Ah, my dear Lord Jesus Christ, thou art my Savior!” and despaired of their own holy life and good works. In that way many were saved. 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. But the others, who haughtily relied on their good works, entered a heaven that contained a sizzling fire. For they were drawn away from Christ and failed to impress His life-giving passion and death upon their hearts.
From the eight graven images listed above you can thank Martin Luther and his heirs that they embraced St. Augustine’s numbering and understanding on this topic!
So then, why do Christians embrace the graven image of baby Jesus and all accompanying images around the nativity crèche in our churches and homes but resist a crucifix thinking it violates the Second Commandment or is Roman Catholic? Why? Do you see the inconsistency and confusion?
Executive editor of Synod’s The Lutheran Witness, Adrian Dorr Heins says if she had to pick she would choose a crucifix over a crèche. Why? It is because looking at a crucifix you can speak about the atonement of Christ on Good Friday and work backwards to the incarnation. But the reverse conversation is not so easy. Looking at the crèche you can talk about the incarnation but it is much more difficult to go from there to talk about the atonement of Christ for the sins of the world on Good Friday. Not much in the crèche points to Good Friday but the God/Man on the cross definitely points back and requires the incarnation.
Could it be that baby Jesus being cute is not threatening to the world or to Christians? After all, who is afraid of a baby? Anyone? Perhaps our discomfort with crucifixes is in part because it shows what we did to Jesus (cf. Is 53:1-6).
Mistakenly many think an empty cross is a symbol of the resurrection. Remember Jesus was raised from the tomb and not from a cross. He was taken down from the cross. In reality though, it is the empty tomb that symbolizes the resurrection. Some may contend the fair linens adorning the altar underneath Christ’s body in the bread and blood in the wine symbolize the discarded grave clothes and these may point to the resurrection. Our Synodical Catechism rightly teaches the miracle of the resurrection points to Jesus’ greatest miracle where he redeemed the world on Good Friday. The Catechism does so with question 145: “Why is Christ’s resurrection so important and comforting? Christ’s resurrection proves that … C. God the Father accepted Christ’s sacrifice for the reconciliation of the world.” The crucifix reminds me that judgment and death are the consequence of my sins (Rom 6:23) and that may be why Christians are discomforted seeing one.
It is easier to see tranquil Jesus in the crèche than bloody Jesus on the cross as my substitute suffering for my transgressions (Gal 3:1). Of course Jesus is no longer on the cross just as he is no longer in the crèche. But in Christian freedom we may employ the artwork of a crucifix to lovingly teach and remind us of the great love and mercy Jesus has for us when he took our sins upon himself and shed his blood to release us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. And we may employ the artwork of baby Jesus in a crèche to lovingly teach and remind us of the incarnation that it was our flesh and nature and that of no other that Jesus took upon himself to so identify with us and be our savior.
Jesus tells us he is glorified when he is upon the cross (Jn 12:23, 28, 31) and that is why even after the resurrection liturgical Christians have the freedom to place Jesus on a cross and from the words of St. Paul are admonished to preach Christ on a cross, i.e., crucified a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23, 1 Cor 2:2). As we read in the above quote from Martin Luther there is comfort in using a crucifix as a visual reminder that we are saved and Jesus does not hold our sins against us. And the crèche is a visual reminder that he became man and in so doing became one of us!
Be careful that empty crosses do not lead to empty crèches. If we say the cross should be empty for Jesus is no longer there than pure logic we would say the crèche should be empty for Jesus is no longer there either! Of course in Christian freedom one is free to have an empty crèche without baby Jesus in it—but how much sense does that make?—just like one is free to have an empty cross without Jesus nailed to it.
As Christians we can joyfully embrace both a full crèche (manger) and Jesus on the cross. The crèche speaks of the beginning work of salvation while the crucifix points to the work of salvation. One reminds us that Jesus became fully man for us and the crucifix reminds and teaches that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins thereby emptying the grave, Satan, and sin of their power. You are free and fully forgiven my friends! Rejoice!
– Pastor Weber
 Martin Luther, “The Gospel of St. John,” Luther’s Works, 55 vol., ed., by Jeroslav Pelican and Helmut Lehmann (St. Louis, MO.: Concordia and Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959-1986), 23:360.
 What follows are thoughts gleaned from Adrian Dorr Heins’ recent interview titled: “Crèches and Crucifixes,” Issues,Etc., Podcast, December 15, 2014.
 Small Catechism (St. Louis: CPH, 2005): Question 145.