The Crosses of Christ

Article excerpt

For anyone to whom God's Spirit reveals the Word incarnate among us, there is but one full and final way to life. Jesus of Nazareth's sayings and parables seem immediately illuminating. His healing, inclusive way with people draws you directly to him. You long to imitate his balance of private prayer and vivid presence to others. In the witness of the Gospels, he is both modest and commanding--majestic in fact. His understanding of power and his loving union with the poor transcend all our usual models of authority and prestige.

But it is the cross of Jesus, the outcast's ignominious execution outside the city walls, that sets him especially apart--and always will. He lived his life with utter fidelity and generosity, with intimate appreciation of his people's tradition and a still more probing sense for their inner need, with full awareness of power's oppression and the sometime complicity of the oppressed. Shouldn't such a life have been rewarded by his being recognized as a heroic prophet? Or perhaps a paradigmatically saintly sage?

Yet Jesus is remembered first and above all for being crucified. Our Lenten celebration is a journey with him to Jerusalem, preparing to ponder there before his cross what can be expected from and for our poor human condition. Lent is also of course a journey with the catechumens who come to the church to be baptized into the death of Jesus, hoping they may one day share the glory of the life his cross reveals. It is likewise a time to relearn some of the deepest lessons he had to teach us through hearing again, for example, the Sunday Gospel stories of the temptation in the desert, the Transfiguration, the conversation with the Samaritan woman, the healing of the blind man, the raising of Lazarus, the entry into Jerusalem and the first reading of the Passion. But the days of Lent all take us toward the Sacred Triduum, and the Triduum to the cross, and the cross to the darkest and most desperate image of death one can imagine. Even the deepest resurrection faith rises only through the cross.

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As theologian Shawn Copeland has pointed out, "There is little in contemporary life to help us grasp the horror and revulsion that people in the ancient world felt about crucifixion." This revulsion, reinforced by the Old Testament's prohibition of graven images and the fact that disciples of Jesus were still being crucified by the Romans, explains in part why images of the crucifixion were not common in the early church. (Only in 337 did Constantine ban such executions.) Instead, Jesus was represented by images of a fish, or of a lamb, or through the bread and wine over which the story of his redeeming passion was recited. And then, after many generations had passed, the crucified was imagined in ways more concerned with his honor than with the horror of his death. Centuries passed before icons of triumph yielded to those of tribulation.

In the Cloisters, for example, which house most of the Metropolitan Museum of New York's medieval collection, there hangs a magnificent Romanesque cross from the town of Palencia in Castile-Leon, Spain, that is dated to the second half of the 12th century (Palencia, incidentally, is the birthplace of the newly elected superior general of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas). On a large blue cross with gilded borders, embellished partly still by semi-precious stones, the regal figure of Christ hangs in beneficent calm. Above his long, oval face, wide-open eyes, prominent nose and decoratively curled beard is a gilded crown. His outstretched arms seem more to pray than to bear the weight of his body. An elegantly carved tunic, knotted at the waist, hangs to his knees. His feet are separately nailed to a footrest on which he stands with slightly flexed knees, again diminishing the sense of physical suffering.

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This is Christ in solemn majesty, reigning over a redeemed earth from a time beyond time, his resurrection implicit in his grandeur. …