The Survival of the CrossBy Paul Zilonka, C.P.
Hundreds of mourners gathered for a funeral in the church of San Clemente in Pisco, a Pacific-coast town in southern Peru on the evening of Thursday August 16, 2007. They came to support the family of the deceased amid the consoling atmosphere of prayer. Familiar statues of their patron Saint Clement and the image of the crucified Jesus looked down upon them. Mute statues have a way of speaking to the hearts of faith-filled worshippers.
Suddenly, the roar of an earthquake overwhelmed the tranquil tone of prayer. The floors and walls shook violently until the church roof shattered and crushed scores of people below. In the days following, seismologists would dispassionately rehearse their frightening statistic of 8.0 on the Richter scale. But the grim human story was told in much higher numbers — more than 150 victims at the funeral, and hundreds more throughout the stricken region.
Several days later, the survivors at Pisco found some consolation when the crucifix bearing the bloodstained body of Jesus was pulled from the rubble totally unscathed by the destructive shock. “The Lord is present here with us, along with the saints, it’s a miracle they weren’t destroyed,” said Amelia Ugaz de Aria, 69, whose home had been flattened by the earthquake. “The fact that he’s here shows that Jesus continues to live to fight so much tragedy,” commented Lourdes Gurau, 42.
Both secular and certain religious critics often dismiss Catholic reverence for statues as superstitious, or worse, idolatry. But take note, all who think that such aids to prayer distract from the priority of worship of the Father “in spirit and truth.” The interior dialogue of prayer which a treasured statue or crucifix of Jesus sustains is a genuine source of relationship with God, not a momentary distraction.
Images of Jesus crucified abound in the homes and religious institutions of Catholics everywhere. Bishops, members of religious communities, and many laity wear some form of the cross as a reminder of the crucified Lord whom they follow. Not to be outdone, celebrity culture has popularized the cross as faddish jewelry, as if it were simply one more decorative symbol from the ancient world, like an Egyptian ankh. For some people, the Roman letters INRI (an acronym for Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews) above the head of Jesus on a crucifix are no more than a past historical reference which answers a New York Times Crossword clue for “Cross letters.” above, right: crucifix of Saint Charles of Mount Argus
In many ways, we twenty-first century people have so domesticated the cross of Jesus that the impact of its stark reality no longer moves us, until tragedy strikes. Then we realize that the cross of Jesus of Nazareth is at home in the midst of calamity, because the human catastrophe of Calvary was its birthplace. Jesus’ experience of the cruelty of his death on the cross remains today a reminder of innocence crushed without cause.
The artistic displays of his suffering in Christian art have become a vast mirror image of the human pain which so often sweeps upon an individual, a family, and a nation without warning. In the debris of the World Trade Center ruins on 9/11/01, firefighters searching in vain for their fallen comrades hoisted a cross-like shape toward the sky. For them, it was as if the cross of Jesus were embedded within this most shocking event in lower Manhattan. But the clouds of poisonous smoke that swirled upward around those twisted steel girders had little in common with the sweet smell of incense at Mass in a peaceful chapel further uptown.
Sadly, Christian use of the image of the cross, and especially the crucifix, can evoke strong reactions of discontent from our Jewish brethren. Because of the long history of anti-Semitism fostered by perennial charges of deicide, the image of the crucified Jesus has become problematic for many contemporary Jews. Fruitful Catholic-Jewish dialogue has addressed the intellectual and historical aspects of the relation of Jesus’ cross to the history of Jewish persecution. However, it is difficult to leave behind the emotional baggage accumulated through the centuries of religious conflict.
The image of Jesus crucified remains today both as pillar of comfort and lightning rod of discord. So it has been from the beginning. Perhaps the world can never really be as peaceful as we wish. Where there is shared history, there will frequently be scars. However, where there is still the breath of life and good will, there remains also the possibility of change and growth.
This dual quality of consolation and unease with the cross of Jesus echoes clearly in the original manuscripts of Paul of Tarsus. He could write with conviction to the community at Corinth about the cross being a stumbling block to faith in Jesus for his fellow Jews because he had initially shared their hesitation. Paul’s own journey to faith in Jesus as messiah and Lord could not come to fulfillment until he could interpret that foundational historic event of Jesus’ death on the cross of Calvary in the light of revelation.
Paul’s letters and the accounts of his conversion in the Acts of the Apostles never hide the fact that he was a persecutor of the fledgling community of Jesus after their master had been crucified at the hands of the Romans in Jerusalem. Paul never thinks of himself as a ‘convert’, nor attributes the transformation of his understanding of the cross to human reason alone. Nor did he simply begin to read the scriptures of the Torah in a new light because of rabbinical discussions. That came later as he evangelized his Jewish brethren and others.
Paul aligned himself with the prophet Jeremiah by claiming that “God who from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace was pleased to reveal his Son to me so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles” (Gal 1:15-16). Only in the light of the resurrection does the cross of Jesus become different from the cross of the thieves on Jesus’ left and right. Those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus can now call that Calvary Friday Good, though it was far from good then for his disciples and acquaintances.
The cross of Jesus has survived across the ages partially because it mirrors much of our own human experience of loss and discouragement. But so do many other dramatic images of past heroic self-sacrifice. The difference is that Jesus once crucified now lives. Therefore, his cross speaks to us of victory even in the most desperate circumstances, like the aftermath of the Peruvian quake. “The fact that he’s here shows that Jesus continues to live to fight so much tragedy.” Far from condoning passivity before suffering, the cross of Jesus urges each of his followers to bring victory into those life situations which befall the innocent, the “poor of the Lord.”
Long after the media headlines have moved onto other places and people, the cross of Jesus which survived in Peru will continue to speak of new life for those who have faith.