“And you say, ‘If any one swears by the altar, it is nothing; but if any one swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” – Matthew 23:18-19 RSVCE
I was recently reading an article on ChurchPOP pertaining to the profound significance of the Baptism of Jesus, which, in short, explains that while baptism washes away our sins, the sanctifying power of the baptismal waters is a result of that mysterious moment in which He who was without sin sanctified them by his otherwise uncalled-for baptism.
Christ Jesus sanctifies that with which He comes in contact, a miracle which we find to be true in the process of our own sanctification by repentance and baptism, through which the Holy Spirit of God enters into us and makes what was impure now holy and consecrated.
This brought to my mind an issue that I have contemplated ever since I gave up my iconoclasm:
the cross versus the crucifix.
Since I began my move to join the Catholic Church and came to grips with and attained a proper understanding of the question of “graven images” I have begun to find myself gradually swinging towards the directly opposing viewpoint: why remove Christ’s body from the cross? Most protestants, as I was, will answer in one of two ways: either “he isn’t up there anymore,” or go for the classic “thou shalt not make a graven image.” Once upon a time, I would have used both.
However, the idea that Christ sanctifies that with which he comes in contact revolutionizes everything: we know that without the Spirit of God within us, we would be hopelessly lost; that without His baptism, ours would avail to nothing, and that without the Sacred Words of the Consecration, as Dr. Peter Kreeft shrewdly put it, we Catholics would “not only be idolaters, but the stupidest idolaters in history…bowing down to bread, and worshiping wine, thinking that it’s Almighty God.”
In Matthew 23:18-19, during Jesus’ rebuke of the Scribes and Pharisees on the temple steps, He calls them out for their disordered understanding of the sanctifying powers of the temple altar, saying “which is greater? The gift or the altar which makes the gift sacred?”
But once again, in His death Jesus flips the Old Covenant on its head, Himself becoming the Priest, the Victim, and the Altar, that which makes the cross sacred! Likewise, he flips the cross itself from a symbol of violent condemnation to a symbol of violent salvation: He has sanctified those things he has chosen to use!
So in conclusion, while as a Christian I may be reminded of what the symbol of the cross can mean to me, I find myself in a position where, on its own, the cross becomes bland and meaningless in contrast to the image of a crucifix, a true depiction of the sanctifying act of redemption suffered by Christ upon that cross for the sake of those who “believe and are baptized” (Mark 16:16), and will “take up their cross” and follow Him. (Matthew 16:24)
This is not to say that our veneration and attachment to the symbol of the cross is to be seen in any way as meaningless – after all, we each have our own crosses to carry!
However, it remains that without that precious body, the cross would have remained to this day nothing more than an instrument of slow torture and death.
Further reading (from Bishop Robert Barron’s Word On Fire blog):