Friday, April 3, 2015

Whisperings from the Cross: 9 Insights I've Gleaned from Contemplating the Crucifix

It is said that when St. Thomas Aquinas "submitted" his writings on the Eucharist before the crucifix one day, our Lord actually came down from the cross and expressed his approval of his writings; "Thomas, you have written well on the Mystery of my Body and Blood." I am not quite sure how that event might have looked from the perspective of those who witnessed it (apparently some of his Dominican brothers were the ones testified to these events), but what I can most certainly say is that it wasn't the first or last time that a crucifix spoke to a devotee. Now I am not suggesting that these kind of miraculous exchanges happen all the time- rather what I am saying is that the crucifix is a most eloquent instructor (St. Augustine called it a pulpit) that speaks even when it says nothing at all. Below I present, in brief, eight things I myself have learned from this unusual, though occasionally chatty, pedagogue.

1. The cross as a "garden stake" in a graveyard

In a certain sense the cross can be seen in just about everything, however, there are some things that are more poetically apropos than others. For example, I see the cross in every power line, but that doesn't mean that I draw some deeper connection there. However, when I look at the cross plunged into the earth like a garden stake, I do see a poetic, ironic, and undeniably powerful image of life and love amidst ruins.

2. The crucifix as a gestalt switch

Some crucifixes present Jesus as if he is some kind of "holy diver" about ready to plunge into the abyss of death in order to fish man out of his hellish prison. On other crucifixes the cross seems to me to be a vehicle for flight. In this particular vision, instead of a piece of dead wood, I see the wood of the cross as a pair wings, and Jesus frozen for a moment in time before he soars through the roof of the night. Which of these visions are accurate? Yes.

3. The crucifix as the ultimate "shape" of paradox

Obviously there is no greater paradox than the belief that we should receive eternal life in exchange for killing God. The cross boasts numerous paradoxes in connection with the subsequent death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but even more than that, the shape of the cross itself actually provides a visual definition of what we mean when we say that the cross is a paradox. What is a paradox? It is an apparent contradiction, which when considered more closely actually reveals the answer to a riddle. In other words, the deepest truths seem contradictory and absurd at first glance (i.e. they "cross" or contradict one another). However, when you look more closely at them you realize that while ordinarily there is nothing in common between these ideas (i.e. life and death), in one unusual instance they really do "intersect" and have something in common, only to go their separate ways again.

4. The cross and Jesus barring the way to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

In the garden of Eden, Adam was blatantly derelict of his duties to Eve. In fact, apparently he just stood there and watched as Eve destroyed herself, and then politely and quietly endorsed the project… only to blame both Eve and God when confronted with his cowardice. However, the Second Adam shows the first one (me), how to "man up." However, on the crucifix, we see this diabolical passivity reversed. Indeed, he is so horrified by the prospect of the New Eve "tasting" death he himself bars the way to the tree, preferring instead his own crucifixion, to her demise. In this "still life" of the New Adam's passion, we see his love for his bride immortalized.

5. The crucifix and the priestly orans

Just as each priest holds his hands differently when he is praying the prayers of the mass, so each crucifix is unique in the same way. If the priest wants a simple definition of who he is to be, let him understand that the reason he is to hold his hands so often in this manner is because he is to lead a cruciform existence. There is no more priestly moment in Christ's life than when his arms are stretched wide open and nailed for all of eternity in the orans position on the cross; not held, but nailed.

6. Jesus and the piece of dead wood that is me

The cross is not incidental to the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Imagine if Jesus had simply died on the road to Calvary- how inspiring would a statue of a man dead on the ground be? No, in order for him to draw all men to himself, he had to be exalted on this most unusual of thrones. However, another way to see this burden is not only in the spirit of obligation, but strangely enough as an embrace. To my eyes this piece of dead wood represents the Bride of Christ, and Jesus carrying her to Calvary, not only to exalt her, but in order to implicate himself so closely to her that the two become one. What a bizarre fairy tale- the wedding of the Prince of Peace and the Princess, who because of an ancient curse, had been reduced to little more than a piece of splintering driftwood. This must be the explanation for why this great prince seems to it embrace with such passion and affection.

7. The cross as the hilt of a sword

In days of yore when one conquered a particular territory, it was customary to lodge one's sword into the soil so that only the hilt of the sword was seen. In the case of the cross we have a strange declaration of victory indeed. For the sword hilt in this particular instance appears to be the sign of absolute failure. Yet in a twist of fate that no one could have envisioned (especially the devil), this sign of failure turns out to be the ultimate symbol of triumph. Yes, by defeating God, the devil himself sealed redemption for man. And by marking his territory with the hilt of the cross, he re-dedicated all of humanity, along with the earth, to God.    

8. The crucifix as the abiding connection between theology and morality              

Just as on the cross Christ is suspended between heaven and earth, so also the cross (in a sense) serves as a bridge between heaven and earth. Yet this bridge is not only symbolized in the shape of the cross and the one who lays upon it, but in the theology that attends the perfect sacrifice of Christ. More often than not Christians fail to see the connection between the Creed and morality. What does believing in God have to do with what I do with my body. And yet there it is at the cross explained in full, the marriage of who God is and who we are supposed to be, the link between theology and biology. Who is God? Look at the cross. How are we supposed to live? Look at the Cross. "This is my body given up for you. Do this in memory of me." This is not only a liturgical command, but a moral command.

9. The cross and the basic architecture of everything

I thought it was more than a little ironic that some folks didn't want the "ground zero cross" to be included in the 9/11 memorial. In a sense they were not only protesting the Christian religion, but even the very element of the Christian Faith that is most necessary for this world to survive (viz. sacrificial love). Hence, these protesters really were anarchists of the worst order, for even a simple architectural shape that is the most necessary building block for building anything seemed a threat to them. Why? Because it reminded some people of Christian hope. Apparently these individuals dislike religion so much that they would prefer absolute rubble and destruction to having to lay eyes on that oh so terrible shape that reminds them of Christ. What's next, a ban on power lines?

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