Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Column: May my life bear the mark of Christ crucified

The photo is of a side chapel at Mission San Antonio in California.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 14 April 2011.

Jews demand “signs” and Greeks look for “wisdom,” but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, and an absurdity to Gentiles. — 1 Cor. 1:22

For more than 20 years I’ve sat on the same side of the chapel for Morning Prayer, facing the statue of St. Joseph holding the child Jesus in his arms. Each time I settle to pray, I notice the tender look on the saint’s face as he gazes at the young Christ and am reminded of the loving fathers in my life — my own, my brothers, my husband — and our heavenly Father. That is, until a few weeks ago.

As I bent to gather my keys and breviary at the end of Morning Prayer, the gentleman behind me asked me if I’d ever noticed anything odd about the statue of St. Joseph. I turned once again to look, wondering what after all these years I had missed. “Not really, no.”

“The infant Jesus is holding a cross.”

I murmured an affirmative, wondering where this was going.

“Well, what kind of father would give his child an instrument of torture for a toy?”

I haven’t seen the statue the same way since.

It is difficult for us who make the sign of the cross when we pray, who let the crucifix lead us into and out of the church, who finger the rosary in our pockets when we are worried to see the cross as anything other than a familiar icon of protection and comfort.

“Human kind,” says poet T.S. Eliot, “cannot bear very much reality.” And so I rarely choose to confront the harsh reality of the crucifixion, a ruthlessly cruel and public death meted out to those who mattered least. I’m more likely to stumble into its depths upon hearing it proclaimed in the Gospel on Palm Sunday or Good Friday, or in turning a corner in a museum to see a particularly evocative painting of the Passion, than to deliberately walk into those torrents.

Now when I face St. Joseph each morning I cannot get out of my head the absurd notion of a Father who would allow His beloved Son to embrace a horrific death — for us. I am challenged again and again to see Christ crucified, head on.

Death on a cross is not a rational act. I cannot reconcile the Father who so tenderly loves the Son with the Son left to die, crying out that He has been abandoned by God. St. Augustine reflected, “there is no way this gospel truth could have been made acceptable.” In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul says the crucifixion can be a stumbling block, a skandalon in Greek, for those whose eyes are fixed on other things, whether they be prophetic signs or the world’s wisdom — or beloved statues.

Paul calls me to turn the usual order of things in my life upside down, to shake out the bits and pieces of the world that obscure my vision of the cross, that it make something I occasionally trip over rather than what grounds and shapes my life. In the crucifixion, I confront the fullness of what it means to give your life for others. In the crucifixion, I see modeled the ultimate obedience to God’s will. Christ’s death not only brings us life, it teaches me how to live.

I began this Lent marked with the sign of the cross. The ashes on my forehead have long been washed away; instead I strive to bear what reality I can and so let my life bear the mark of Christ crucified for all to see.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable,
a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
— John Updike from Seven Stanzas at Easter


  1. I can't say that I have ever thought of the cross as an icon of comfort and protection.

    The Updike poem is one of my very favorites.

  2. Well, I haven't seen it as purely a comfort for almost 25 years, but like Augustine, am trying to live into these irreconciliable realities of joy and pain.

    And the Updike is one of my favorites, too....

  3. times don't change much. lots of boys run about with toy guns given by loving fathers.

  4. I can see what you mean about the cross as an icon of comfort and protection - especially in the way we pretty it up, distance ourselves from the crucifixion it embodies, and instead attach it to "church promises" and "being right" and "being saved." Very comforting.

    For about an inch into life's reality.

    I have spent many hours wanting to run from the crucifixion, and it's reality. Or at least turn away. I'm not a fan of overly violent renditions, or trying to scare people into believing.

    But it is in the inner agony that I sometimes experience that allows me to glance head on at the cross. It is not a sentimental glance. And I'm not comforted by our shared agony.

    But I am given a ray of hope. And, so far, for me, the resurrection has always followed. Perhaps that is why I'm even slightly willing to glance again.

    Beautiful post.

    (I've never seen the Updike poem - can't wait to go read the whole thing!)

  5. Cindy, we do pretty up our crosses, don't we? Wearing that cross takes on a different meaning when I think of it from the different perspectives discussed here. Michelle, thank you for this post.

  6. I think we're not supposed to be able to reconcile that. It's just part of what makes the whole thing...mysterious and miraculous.

  7. As to the toy gun comment: the statue is religious art. Many statues of St. Joseph depict him holding a lily (to symbolize purity.) I doubt the man carried lilies around wherever he went. Baby Jesus holding the cross was just the artist's way of foreshadowing.

    (first I've seen this: the captcha word was BLESS! How cool is that!)

  8. Barb--- I was more responding to the man being shocked by what a father would give a child to play with as if parents today don't do exactly what troubled him about the statue. I fully understand that the statue is religious art