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Issue Date:  March 21, 2008

The Crosses of Christ


For anyone to whom God’s Spirit reveals the Word incarnate among us, there is but one full and final way to life. Jesus of Nazareth’s sayings and parables seem immediately illuminating. His healing, inclusive way with people draws you directly to him. You long to imitate his balance of private prayer and vivid presence to others. In the witness of the Gospels, he is both modest and commanding -- majestic in fact. His understanding of power and his loving union with the poor transcend all our usual models of authority and prestige.

-- Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Romanesque cross from the town of Palencia, Spain, now hangs in the Cloisters museum in New York City.

But it is the cross of Jesus, the outcast’s ignominious execution outside the city walls, that sets him especially apart -- and always will. He lived his life with utter fidelity and generosity, with intimate appreciation of his people’s tradition and a still more probing sense for their inner need, with full awareness of power’s oppression and the sometime complicity of the oppressed. Shouldn’t such a life have been rewarded by his being recognized as a heroic prophet? Or perhaps a paradigmatically saintly sage?

Yet Jesus is remembered first and above all for being crucified. Our Lenten celebration is a journey with him to Jerusalem, preparing to ponder there before his cross what can be expected from and for our poor human condition. Lent is also of course a journey with the catechumens who come to the church to be baptized into the death of Jesus, hoping they may one day share the glory of the life his cross reveals. It is likewise a time to relearn some of the deepest lessons he had to teach us through hearing again, for example, the Sunday Gospel stories of the temptation in the desert, the Transfiguration, the conversation with the Samaritan woman, the healing of the blind man, the raising of Lazarus, the entry into Jerusalem and the first reading of the Passion. But the days of Lent all take us toward the Sacred Triduum, and the Triduum to the cross, and the cross to the darkest and most desperate image of death one can imagine. Even the deepest resurrection faith rises only through the cross.

As theologian Shawn Copeland has pointed out, “There is little in contemporary life to help us grasp the horror and revulsion that people in the ancient world felt about crucifixion.” This revulsion, reinforced by the Old Testament’s prohibition of graven images and the fact that disciples of Jesus were still being crucified by the Romans, explains in part why images of the crucifixion were not common in the early church. (Only in 337 did Constantine ban such executions.) Instead, Jesus was represented by images of a fish, or of a lamb, or through the bread and wine over which the story of his redeeming passion was recited. And then, after many generations had passed, the crucified was imagined in ways more concerned with his honor than with the horror of his death. Centuries passed before icons of triumph yielded to those of tribulation.

In the Cloisters, for example, which house most of the Metropolitan Museum of New York’s medieval collection, there hangs a magnificent Romanesque cross from the town of Palencia in Castile-León, Spain, that is dated to the second half of the 12th century (Palencia, incidentally, is the birthplace of the newly elected superior general of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás). On a large blue cross with gilded borders, embellished partly still by semi-precious stones, the regal figure of Christ hangs in beneficent calm. Above his long, oval face, wide-open eyes, prominent nose and decoratively curled beard is a gilded crown. His outstretched arms seem more to pray than to bear the weight of his body. An elegantly carved tunic, knotted at the waist, hangs to his knees. His feet are separately nailed to a footrest on which he stands with slightly flexed knees, again diminishing the sense of physical suffering.

This is Christ in solemn majesty, reigning over a redeemed earth from a time beyond time, his resurrection implicit in his grandeur. He has the powerful proportions, the resonant reserve, the sense of simple material invested with sublime significance that people have come to love in Romanesque art and architecture of the period. St. John’s Gospel inevitably comes to mind: Jesus glorified on his cross, rising in his dying, showing us in his own person the truth of his farewell words on love, service, union. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men and women to myself” (John 12:32). One can only imagine the comfort and courage this great piece must have brought to the townspeople of Palencia. It offers courage and comfort still to anyone journeying to Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters to stand (and perhaps kneel) before it.

A desperate Jesus

An entirely different perspective on the cross is offered by Hendrick Ter Brugghen’s “Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John” (circa 1625), also in the Metropolitan. The painting is indeed the closest parallel we have in America to Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, which shows the Crucified in all but unbearable anguish. Ter Brugghen (1588-1629) had studied in Rome and was influenced both by Caravaggio’s realism and by the conventions of late Gothic devotional imagery. Like Caravaggio, he used ordinary people for his models. In his “Crucifixion” the perfectly plain, red-nosed John stands barefoot and open-mouthed, his hands wringing in confusion as he looks up to his Lord; only the red cloak over his right shoulder adds strong color to the picture. In subdued gray and violet, Mary is half in shadow, to the right of her son. Blood pours so copiously from the wounds of his twisted body that it seems about to spurt off the canvas. He seems already a corpse, with green-toned face and belly. Behind him, above a very low horizon, a hallucinatory sky studded with stars heightens the impression of a supernatural event.

-- Courtesy of the Metropolitan
Museum of Art

Hendrick Ter Brugghen's "Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John"

The painting claims your attention almost violently. It was probably done for a “hidden church” in Utrecht, the center of Catholic life in the Netherlands, where public worship was forbidden but privately tolerated. You imagine people devoutly climbing to the top of the home in which it would have hung -- and with them have a new sense of Jesus’ words in Mark’s Gospel, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). But here the desperation becomes eerily cosmic, as encompassing in its surrealistic way as the universal kingship of the Crucified Christ peacefully intimated by the Palencia Cross.

Two such different ways of imagining the crucifixion might seem to represent the poles between which Christian imagination moves in prayer before the cross. There are, however, other axes of experience from which art has approached it, not to mention musical treatments, from Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” to Britten’s “A War Requiem.” Some may indeed prove to be as lastingly powerful as either of the types we have just considered.

On the cover of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s 1971 book Theology of Liberation, for example -- and thus one of the most published images of the cross in the 20th century -- is a harrowing image of Christ as a campesino on the cross. From the humblest materials, wood and clay, we are given the humblest Christ. On rough-hewn wood the agonized figure hangs twisted and tortured, the oversized, splayed hands and feet nailed sharply in place, a gusher of blood pouring from the left side of the exaggeratedly small torso, a prominent crown of thorns like a steel band on the head. But it is the face, and especially the gaping mouth with its full lips, to which the eye returns. The eyes of Jesus look back at you.

The cross is a great gift from Edilberto Merida, a Peruvian artist with a studio in Cuzco, Peru, and well-known in Latin America. Its cost is obviously not in its materials but in the knowledge of his people, their suffering, dignity and hope. You don’t look long at such a piece without thinking of the Resurrection it points to. On the other hand, you keep coming back to the pain. And to the pained people it represents, the brothers and sisters of Jesus who have often been treated as chattel, “the crucified people,” as Ignacio Ellacuría put it. This cross, in short, is terrifying.

It is also immensely instructive. Though Jesus died but once, and on but one cross, the Merida Cross reminds us of how almost infinitely varied the representations of Christ’s cross have been. Like the four Gospels that tell us the original story, like the countless styles of theology that have tried to interpret them, like the joys and sorrows of all the men and women who have believed in the Crucified, images of the event are beyond number. Some are far more representative of a given time than others. Georges Rouault’s etchings of the cross in his 1948 series “Miserere et Guerre” come to mind. But not even they, it seems to me, identify so thoroughly with a whole people in need and the suffering Lord of that people as does the Merida Cross.

Crucified to the world

-- Courtesy of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers

The crucifix by Peruvian artist Edilberto Merida

Before it, even if only in reproduction, you have a new sense of what Paul meant by saying he was crucified to the world (Galatians 6:14). As Paul was hung on the world as on a cross, so too the world of the campesinos has become Christ’s cross for them. For the enslaved of the American South, Shawn Copeland has written, “slavery was their time on the cross.” For the poor of Latin America -- as for all the poor -- the cross of Christ is not simply an event of the past. It is raised again and again through the course of time to display their humiliation and the humiliation of the One who identifies with them.

Does he not? Is he not there with them, more surely than in any church or chapel? For we go to church and celebrate liturgy not to leave our time but to live it more truly, reentering it with the story of our hope renewed, aware again that the one cross of Christ is borne also by countless men and women, only a minute fraction of whom we know personally, but all of whom belong to us, truly belong to us -- since all belong to Christ.

Dear reader, I ask you the question that I ask myself: Does Jesus look more like the sovereign Spanish king, the anguished figure from Utrecht, the Peruvian campesino, the Latino immigrant suffering absurd discrimination, or perhaps the friend dying in New York University Medical Center? Are the crosses of Christ sovereign? Severe? Desperately poor? Death’s portal for us all?

It is perhaps easier to answer this question than to keep asking it. For we can only keep the question truly alive by recognizing where Christ is suffering around us. Let us call the way people suffer with Christ the realization of the cross. It is the personal but also communal experience that truly to live one’s life can be costly beyond our imagining. Learning to accept our lives in their simplest, mortal terms, the chance through the years and to the end actually to become human, happens only if we are ready for the harsh as well as happy moments we share with our fellow human beings, near and far. To celebrate the paschal mystery this Easter with minds and hearts renewed, to believe in a new, realistic way in the hope of resurrection, I believe, depends on our embrace of the cross, the one cross of Christ and the many crosses of those he loves.

Fr. Leo O’Donovan is president emeritus of Georgetown University. He frequently writes on art and theology for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2008

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