The Cross and the Crucifix

In art...we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten... --Madeline L'Engle "Walking on Water."

The Crucifix helps me remember.

I remember the first time I entered a Catholic Church to pray I was filled with a trembling, anxious, heavy kind of dread. I had been inside Catholic churches as a tourist, a spectator. But I had never gone to a Catholic Church with the intention to pray.

I ducked into the church through the side entrance, glanced around furtively and slithered into a back pew. I felt like I was an unclean outsider, trespassing on the sacred religion of a people I didn't understand. I had even dialed the church office, half-hoping I would hear the church was closed, visitors unwelcome.

But someone answered the phone and I stammered out a question, "Um, can a non-Catholic enter the church to pray?"

"Of course, dear," the church secretary replied. "The church is open. Go sit down and pray. Don't be afraid."

How did she know I was afraid?

As I slouched in the pew, I could hardly raise my eyes. I had never allowed myself to fully gaze upon the Crucifix. I took a few deep breaths and then looked up.

It was the first time in my life I had looked upon a Crucifix with a desire to be reminded of what Christ did, to ask whether He had done it for me.

The Crucifix is at once both jarring and profound. You are forced to acknowledge the brutality of crucifixion--it is not a pleasant, polite, docile image. It is shocking. It is almost...garish. It made me ask myself: why? Why the crucifixion? Why such a brutal, seemingly needless end to life?

The only power that overcomes the reality of suffering, injustice and evil in this world is love. Only love conquers death.

The Crucifix is the tangible reminder of what Jesus had to endure for Love. And I need that reminder. Without understanding what He suffered, how can we fully appreciate what He won on our behalf?

Growing up with a faith practice that was completely stripped of any symbol or icon--I had a sort of Platonic, disembodied view of what Christ did for me. And even when I attended churches that had empty crosses in their sanctuaries, it was a very clean, tidy view of what happened to our Lord.

The Catholic Church addresses death, suffering, agony and ugliness head-on. There is no dancing around the topic, no tidying up. The Crucifix only shocks us if we've forgotten what Christ endured. The Crucifix is a shorthand way of reminding us: "Look! Look at Me! Look what I did for you!"

The Crucifix reminded me that what Christ accomplished didn't stop with His death. As a child I was taught that Catholics over-emphasize the crucifixion when what is really important is not that Christ died--but that He rose.

I've come to realize that I need to emphasize both. I need to see His wounds and I need to celebrate His Resurrection. If I only celebrate the Resurrection without walking through Christ's suffering, I lose a fullness of understanding. To focus exclusively on the Resurrection is like skipping to the end of the book and reading the ending. It's like eating dessert first, without enjoying the full meal. I need the whole book. I need the full-course meal.

The Crucifix is love chasing us down, demanding that we look straight at what Love did for us. This has always been the most difficult thing for me: to believe Love. To accept love.

And then one day, a Norbertine monk insisted I take his Crucifix.

I had just gone to Confession and afterwards, he said he had something for me.

"This crucifix belonged to Mother Teresa," he said, his voice barely more than a whisper. "My brother received it from her."

I felt shaken to my core. "I can't take this!" I protested. "This must be your most priceless possession!"

He shrugged, smiling gently. "The Holy Spirit told me to give it to you."

Who argues with the Holy Spirit? Apparently, I do.

"But I'm not worthy of this! Please! I can't! This was Mother Teresa's!"

The monk just smiled, refusing to take it back.

And I was silenced.

This is how it has been all along--Love seeking me. Love finding me. Love initiating. Love never turning its back on me. Love using others to show me the way. Love, always love.

Here was love, again. The one Catholic I had always admired (even during my time as a virulent anti-Catholic) was Mother Teresa. I couldn't believe that a tiny piece of her had found its way to me. I felt almost humiliated. Also, I'm not one given to signs and wonders. But what do you do when a big ol' sign whaps you upside the head? How do you explain it?

Well, you can't explain it. At least, I can't. Either you accept it as coming from God or you dismiss it.

I choose to believe Love is seeking me.