Images of the Crucifixion

The first thing I noticed when I walked into St. Thomas Apostle Church in Lenior City, Tennessee (where I am visiting family) yesterday morning was the crucifix.

Two thing struck me. First the absence of nails holding the body of Christ to the cross. I had an immediate positive reaction to that (as I have had when I’ve seen other crosses lacking nails), since it brings together death and resurrection. Jesus died, but he also rose, and each is a central aspect of our story.

I had a less positive reaction to the second feature of the crucifix I noticed: the absence of wound marks on Christ. To me there is significance to the fact that the resurrected Christ still bears the marks of the crucifixion; the resurrection does not erase what came before it. So it was jarring to not see those wounds.

After Mass – a celebration of the feast of St. Ignatius, during which the pastor gave a nice sermon on Ignatius’ conversion which included brief instruction on Ignatian contemplation – I took this picture of the crucifix. I’m not sure my picture conveys it well, but here it is:




Today is Good Friday, a day on which we contemplate the enormity of what Jesus suffered for us.

In a version of stations of cross by Clarence Enzler (in which the prayers are fashioned as a dialogue between Jesus and those praying the stations, he has Jesus describe his crucifixion like this:

Can you imagine what a crucifixion is? My executioners stretch my arms; they hold my hand and wrist against the wood and press the nail until it stabs my flesh. Then, with one heavy hammer smash, they drive it through – and pain bursts like a bomb of fire in my brain. They seize the other arm; and agony again explodes. Then raising up my knews so that my feet are flat against the wood, they hammer them fast too.

It is not a pleasant image to contemplate, but it raises a question that is a good one to spend time with: Do I accept and believe that I am worth so much to God that Jesus is willing to bear that much pain and suffering for my sake.

And what is my response in the face of that love…of that enormous and total self-sacrifice?

As I was sitting with those questions, this song came to mind, so I share it for your reflection today.

Behold the Wood of the Cross

Yesterday I attended the Good Friday liturgy at my parish. I always find the Good Friday liturgy very moving, and yesterday was no exception.

Part of that liturgy is, as it has been for many centuries, the procession and veneration of the cross. “This is the wood of the cross, on which hung the Savior of the world,” intones the Presider several times as liturgical ministers carry the cross through the assembly. “Come, let us worship,” we respond each time.

And then, one by one, we make our way up to the cross, some kissing the cross, others laying a hand…some standing, some kneeling. For me, the power of the ritual lies not only in my own act of veneration, but in witnessing as each person in the assembly files up. Person after person: young and old, nimble and arthritic. I’m especially moved by those whose age would certainly excuse their absence from the liturgy, but who file up with canes or walkers, leaning further than their bodies seem capable of leaning, so that they may venerate the cross.

This is a part of our faith many non-Christians cannot understand. Someone on facebook referred to what he termed Christian “fetishization of the Crucifixion” as “repulsive.”

But for Christians, the cross is not merely about Christ’s suffering, although we certainly have an awareness of that suffering as we listen to the narrative of the Passion of Christ during the liturgy. Instead, as my parish’s worship aid for the liturgy notes, the cross is “a symbol of Christ’s Passover, where, ‘dying he destroyed our death and rising he restored our life.’ It is the glorious, life-giving cross that we venerate with song, prayer, kneeling and a kiss.”

And having done so, today we sit in the space between death and resurrection. Holy Saturday blessings to all.

Last Words of Christ

After an off-week last week due to the law school’s Spring Break, yesterday was the fifth gathering of the Lent Retreat in Daily Living at UST Law School. We began, as always, by giving the participants the opportunity to share in small groups something of their prayer experience over these past two weeks and addressing any questions or issues that arose.

I then gave a reflection on this week’s theme: The Seven Last Words of Christ. Jesus’ final teaching. As I suggested to my friend Mark Osler as I was preparing for this reflection, Jesus’ last words are a bit like a review session before the final exam of a course; taken together, these last words summarize what Jesus was about during his public ministry.

Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.

I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise

Woman, behold your son

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me

I am thirsty

It is finished

Father, into your hands, I comment my spirit

Many people spend time on Good Friday (which, amazingly, is a week from Friday!) reflecting on these words. My hope is that my talk, and the prayer material for this week, might aid you in that reflection.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 19:18.) A copy of the prayer material for this week of prayer is here.

Crucifying Jesus

The chapel here at the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh is lovely. Jutting out in the direction of the lake, it has three walls of windows, making the backdrop to Mass and other prayer services the beauty of the trees and the lake.

One of the first things that struck me the first day I went into the chapel – and that I continue to notice each time I walk in there – is the large crucifix of Jesus hanging on the wall. I’m not actually sure crucifix is the correct term, since there is no cross. The figure of Jesus is bolted directly to the wall, displayed in the way Jesus is typically depicted on the cross – arms outstretched, legs slightly bent, head hanging down in death.

I’m not sure what was intended by the artist or the retreat house in portraying the crucified Christ in this way, but what it said to me so clearly and loudly was: it doesn’t take wood and nails to crucify Jesus. We can (and do) crucify Jesus in so many ways and we don’t need a cross to do it.

When we fail to love. When we ignore the needs of our brothers and sisters. When we decide our agenda is more important than God’s. When we live with an attitude of entitlement and arrogance rather than gratitude and humility. All of these acts crucify Jesus.

The ways we crucify Jesus are easy for us to miss or to explain away. They don’t, after all, vividly display the dramatic cruelty of hammering nails into hands and feet. But they cause the same pain to Jesus as a physical crucifixion.

Something to think about.

Trial of Christ – Sentencing Phase

Yesterday afternoon, the UST School of Law hosted “The Trial of Jesus.” My friend and collegue Mark Osler (a former federal prosecutor) took the Caiaphus role – the role of the prosecutor arguing that Jesus should be put to death – and Jeanne Bishop, an assistant public defender from Chicago, was defense attorney.

Mark had told me before the event that the preparation period for this had been very challenging for him, as he found his prosecutorial instincts in conflict with his faith.

Listening to Mark’s opening statement, his examination of the witnesses (the prosecution called Peter and the rich young man as witnesses; the defense called the centurion whose servant Jesus healed and Malchus), and his closing statement – I could completely understand what he meant. I found myself drawn in by his arguments, persuaded that (to use the legal standard we were asked to apply) “there [was] a probability that, if not executed, the defendant woudl commit criminal acts that would constitute a continuing serious threat to society.” Mark convincingly argued that Jesus presented a serious continuing threat to society in that he threatened the family structure, the economy, intellectual leadership and the society’s ability to defend itself.

In the publicity for the event, Mark was quoted as saying that he “had always thought about that story from the position of Jesus…I realized that I’m not Jesus. I’m one of the people with a rock in my hand.”

It is so easy for us to be critical of the Pharisees and the Roman authorities and of the crowds who screamed out for Jesus’ crucifixion. We are so convinced we are not them – that we would have acted much more nobly and faithfully in our defense of Jesus.

Events like this one are sobering. They force us to look more honestly at some of our assumptions. After sitting through this trial, I have to wonder whether I can claim with any certainty that I would have been defending Jesus, that I would not have been one of those nodding my head yes to those who argued for his execution.

I know the trial was recorded and at some point soon should be available on the UST website. When it is, I will post a link.