Definitio de sacris imaginbus). "The Fathers of Nicea see the basis for the use of sacred images in the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ, 'the image of the invisible God' (Col 1, 15): 'the Incarnation of the Son of God initiated a new "economy" of images"' (Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy 238). In directing that "a cross, with an image of Christ crucified upon it" be kept in churches "either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation", the Congregation for Divine Worship proposed that "such a cross...calls to the mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, 308). The function of the crucifix as aiding the individual in calling the mind the Passion of the Lord recalls the very reason which the Second Council of Nicea gave for the faithful's use of sacred images representing Jesus, Mary, the angels and saints: "The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration." (Definitio de sacris imaginbus)
St. Paul hints at the existence of what may have been an image like a crucifix in the early Church when he writes to the Galatians: "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?" (Gal. 3:1). It is important to remember that Christ was crucified in Jerusalem, which lies about 900 miles (or about 1,450 km) from what was then Galatia. Jesus Christ would only have been "publicly portrayed as crucified" to the Galatians by some sort of image like a crucifix.
Traces throughout Scripture further reveal what spiritual benefits may be had by the individual's use of a crucifix to aid in evoking Christ's passion and death. Upon recording the episode of the soldiers' piercing of the crucified Christ's side with a lance, which released the life-giving stream of blood and water (cf. John 19:34), St. John recalled the prophetic words of Zechariah concerning the episode: "They shall look on him whom they have pierced" (Jn. 19:37, cf. Zech. 12:10).
We, too, may participate in looking upon the Pierced One when we look upon a crucifix. That there may be some benefit by looking at an image of Christ crucified can be surmised from our Lord's own comparison of his being "lifted up" to the bronze serpent's being erected by Moses: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (Jn. 3:14-15, cf. ). That being "lifted up" refers to Jesus' being "lifted up" on the cross is indicated by another passage in John's gospel: "'And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.' He said this to show by what death he was to die" (Jn. 12:32-33, see also Jn. 8:28).
In the Old Testament, God sent the seraph serpents upon those whom traveled with Moses as punishment for their complaints against God and Moses: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food" (Num. 21:5). Commentating on such rebellion of the people, the author of the letter to the Hebrews indicates that it was lack of faith that led them to rebellious disobedience: "Who were they that heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses?...And to whom did he swear that they should never enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient?...So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief" (Heb. 3:16, 18-19). With regard to the episode of Moses' erecting of the bronze serpent, the remedy for such lack of faith can be seen as the act of obedience to God's command for Moses to make and erect the serpent and, consequently, the people's "obedience of faith" (cf. Rom. 1:5, 16:26) in then looking at the bronze serpent, by which act God brought about their healing from the serpent's bite (cf. Num. 21:8-9).
In a like manner, looking devoutly upon an image of Christ crucified may correspond to that faith in Jesus to which he refers when saying, "So must the Son of man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (Jn. 3:15). We, too, suffered from sin and its consequences until Jesus freed us from such by the opportunity to reign in his own divine life (cf. Jn 1:13, 1:Rom. 5:12-17, 6:23, 2 Pet. 1:4). Our sharing in the abundant life of God corresponds to the "much fruit" which Jesus said his death would bring about (Jn. 12:24). That we are now freed from the death of sin and have been brought to life in Christ through baptism (Rom. 6:3-4) signifies that triumph over Satan that Jesus brought about by his death on the cross:
"And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him." (Col. 2:13-15)
Devoutly gazing upon a crucifix affords us of the opportunity to actualize our having been "made alive" in Christ into our daily life, such that in recalling Christ's saving passion and death as the source of our new life in him, we renew our resolve to strive to live out this new life with him. This new life comes about by our birth of water and the Spirit in baptism (cf. Jn. 3:5), by believing in Christ's word (cf. Jn. 5:24), and is animated by Christ's own life and infinite grace conferred upon us by reception of the Holy Eucharist, by the reception of which Jesus promised: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him" (Jn. 6:56). The Eucharist further reminds us of Christ's total self-emptying and self-giving that he underwent for our salvation (cf. Phil. 2:6), even to the point that he unites us to himself body and soul in the gift of his very self in the Eucharist.
The total self-giving of Christ lends stark meaning to his commandment of love: "Love one another as I have loved you" (Jn. 15:12). When we take this commandment to heart and imitate this self-giving love of Christ, our lives become those of "faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6). We know that our own love - this theological virtue of charity - is itself a gift from God, "God's love [having] been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us" (Romans 5:5). And, it is this very love of God which serves as our own initiative to love.
God's love for us is especially made manifest in Christ's death on the cross, where the crucifix makes visible his own words: "Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends" (Jn. 15:13). Realization of our dignity as God's children whom he loves with a "love which endures forever" (Ps. 136) further stimulates our resolve to live out our own "obedience of faith". As Jesus said, "If a man loves me, he will keep my word" (Jn. 14:23), and it is this reciprocal love for God which motivates our desire to keep his word and to love one another as he has loved us (cf. Jn. 15:12). "We love because he first loved us" (1 Jn. 4:19). Our obedience to God then, in imitation of him who was "obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:8), does not arise out of compulsion, but is compelled by love.
As the crucifix shows us, such fidelity to God is not always easy. Resisting temptation (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13), bearing others' contempt (cf. Jn. 15:18-21), and other trials which God allows are all necessary conditions to following Christ (cf. Lk. 14:27). Yet we will share in Christ's inheritance of eternal life as God's children "provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him" (Rom. 8:17). The crucifix's representation of Christ's suffering serves as a constant reminder for us to unite our own sufferings to Christ's for our own sanctification and for the sanctification of others. As St. Paul declared, "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Col 1:24).
The Holy Spirit who on the one hand communicates God's life and love to us, on the other draws us back to God through Christ's own offering of himself to the Father "through the eternal Spirit" (Heb. 9:14), and in so doing heals us of our brokenness and separation from God on account of sin (cf. Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 33). Offering our suffering and struggles to Christ crucified serves in a special way to ensure we are offering our whole selves to him, and so get caught up in that same movement of the Spirit to reunify ourselves and all of creation with God by Christ who, when "lifted up, draws all men to" himself (Jn. 12:32) so as "to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (Col 1:20). We thus look forward to becoming part of this new creation toward which the Spirit draws us, already made real in Christ's resurrection, as we ourselves live out our lives in self-giving love.
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Here are some Scripture verses which serve as helpful points of meditation while contemplating the crucifix. Such contemplation may be accomplished by devoutly looking upon a crucifix while prayerfully pondering one of these verses. Don't forget to begin your prayer by asking the Holy Spirit to guide your contemplation and so help you know and experience more fully the benefits of Christ's saving passion, death, and resurrection.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24)
"And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." (John 12:32)
"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:12)
"Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)
"The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20)
Such contemplation of the crucifix may additionally be an act of allowing our hearts to be moved to compassion for Jesus in his suffering, and to simply loving him in return, in keeping with the words of Zechariah: "And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born." (12:10)
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Here is a prayer called the Prayer Before the Crucifix. A partial indulgence is normally granted by the prayerful recitation of this prayer, while a plenary indulgence is possible when praying this prayer before a crucifix on Fridays during Lent (Enchridion Indulgentiarum, Other Grants of Indulgences, 22).
Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus,
while before your face I humbly kneel,
and with burning soul pray and beseech you to fix deep in my heart lively sentiments of faith, hope and charity,
true contrition for my sins, and a firm purpose of amendment,
while I contemplate with great love and tender pity your five wounds,
pondering over them within me,
calling to mind the words which David, your prophet, said of you, my good Jesus:
"They have pierced my hands and my feet; they have numbered all my bones." (Psalm 22:16-17)