Early Christians never saw a crucifix depicting a suffering Jesus. During the first centuries, Jesus's followers used only a "crux gemmatta:" a jeweled cross. Though shaped like a regular crucifix, its wood was adorned with jewels and gems instead of a mangled, writhing body. The wood symbolized Jesus's suffering and death; the jewels, His resurrection.

Our modern crucifix, portraying a suffering Jesus, probably is an accurate depiction of what happened on Golgotha, just outside the walls of Jerusalem on Good Friday, almost 2,000 years ago. Any Passover pilgrim coming on the scene that afternoon could have painted or carved such a crucifix. But no matter how historically accurate, a crucifix displaying a suffering Jesus isn't a fully "Christian" symbol.


To be a Christian symbol, an image must be more than historically accurate. It must convey the Christian significance of the event or action it depicts. Jesus' suffering and death on the cross has meaning for us only because He later rose from the death which the cross brought about.

A crux gemmata perfectly proclaims the contradiction which lies at the heart of our Christian faith: only those who die with Jesus will come to life with Jesus. If a crucifix doesn't convey death and resurrection -- at the same time, in the same symbol -- it isn't fully Christian. That's why the Church calls Sunday's feast the Triumph of the cross, and not just "the Cross." The very act which defeats us brings us victory.

In the Gospel (Jn 3:13-17), Jesus, explaining how the world will be saved through Him, gives Nicodemus a verbal picture of a crux gemmata. "The Son of Man," He proclaims, "must be lifted up (crucified), that all who believe may have eternal life in Him." In other words, Jesus can give life only to those who are willing to die.

Because such a death/life contradiction is hard to understand, John tries to clarify the concept by referring to the Numbers passage which makes up the first reading (Nm 21:4-9). The reading describes a parallel contradiction: life coming from the same object which brings death. The wilderness-wandering Israelites can only be saved from annihilation by looking up at an image of the very seraph serpent which was killing them. They have to stare death in the eye before they can overcome death.

Paul zeroes in on the same contradiction in the famous Philippians hymn (Phil 2:6-11). Jesus "emptied Himself and took the form of a slave, being born in human likeness....He humbled Himself, obediently accepting death, death on a cross! Because of this, God exalted Him and gave Him a name (Yahweh) above every other name." Paul reminds his community that Jesus was raised to greatness only after He permitted Himself to be buried in the weakness of human life.

Missing line

Though the passage needs little explanation, there is one problem: Those who selected the segment for our liturgical reading left out Paul's most important line. The Apostle begins the passage with, "Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus." Paul doesn't quote this early Christian hymn so that his readers will "ooh and aah" about Jesus, but so that they'll reflect on their own obligation to die and rise. By acts for love, we become a "crux gemmatta" for those around us. Our generous love of others always springs from and leads to death and resurrection.

Since we rarely see crux gemmatas today, we must admit we've lost some of the early Christian community's charism. Often in my teaching, I find that concepts once regarded as essential to early Christian faith are completely new insights to my students. As Jesus constantly had to lead His people back to the roots of Judaism so they could understand and appreciate their relationship with God, so we modern Christians must return to the insights of our ancestors in the faith.

Without that return, it may be hard to recognize us as Christians, especially if we can't explain the symbolism of a crux gemmata.