May 15, 2014

The Crucifix: Mystery and Symbol

Online Edition
April 2014
Vol. XX, No. 1

The Crucifix
Mystery and Symbol

by Thomas Howard

No doubt the symbol that, above all others, even including that of the Madonna and Child, symbolizes the Christian religion to all the world is the Crucifix.

Crucifixes may, of course, be seen in museums. No museum curator would feel his collection of art to be anywhere near complete if it lacked the Crucifix — or a number of Crucifixes. One of the most profound and delicate indexes of our mortal sensibility is the shape we have given in our various cultures over the centuries to the Crucifix.

There is the young hero on the Cross, entering the fray to do battle with the Prince of Darkness and to overthrow him. The Old English poem “The Dream of the Rood” speaks in this way. The lines are spoken by the Cross itself:

Then I saw the King of all mankind
In brave mood hasting to mount upon   me….
Then the young Warrior, God, the All-Wielder,
Put off His raiment, steadfast and strong;
With lordly mood in the sight of many
He mounted the Cross to Redeem mankind.
An Anthology of Old English Poetry, Charles W. Kennedy, ed., (New York, 1960), p.145.

As the centuries pass, this heroic image finds itself gradually replaced by the Suffering Servant, more and more obviously the Victim, until we reach the late Middle Ages, with the twisted, emaciated, and blood-spattered figure on the Cross. (To pursue the changing image of the crucified Lord from century to century, and also from country to country, and to see what corollaries could be drawn between this and the greater or lesser emphasis on the Sacred Humanity of the Lord in Catholic devotion would furnish a rich task for some scholar.) Questions of sheer taste press in closely here, of course; and to sort out sentimental, or even saccharine, depictions from those that exhibit authenticity and fidelity to a devotion that is not simply lachrymose would be an infinitely delicate task, and one beleaguered with the danger of snobbery. For in the presence of the Crucifix we have moved beyond the frontier of the merely aesthetic to a region where canons of taste and artistic integrity falter.

There is a point of view, widespread among non-Catholic Christians, that dismisses the Crucifix with the remark, “Oh — we worship a Risen Christ.” This stricture springs, no doubt, from a notion that is not in itself wholly false, namely, that Good Friday was not the end of the story. Easter followed forthwith. Indeed, indeed  — the Christ we invoke in our prayers and supplications is not dead. He is alive in heaven, Saint Paul teaches us; He makes intercession for us, He is at the right hand of the Father, and all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Him. And He is alive in our hearts in the person of the Holy Ghost.

All of this is true. And, more than this, it has been the case that Catholic devotion, perhaps especially various forms of folk devotion, has from time to time seemed to focus with such ardor on the suffering Lord and His sorrowful Mother that the glorious mystery of the Resurrection has seemed to recede. Good Friday processions and obsequies have overwhelmed Easter.

But abusus non tollit usus. The abuse of a thing does not take away its proper use. If we find ourselves always trotting out our remark about worshipping a Risen Christ as a stricture against the propriety of the Crucifix and its centrality in Christian devotion, then we incur the guilt of impertinence. We have dismissed a great mystery with an airy slogan. It will not do.

For what the eye of faith perceives in the Crucifix is a mystery of such fathomless depth that the sun itself darkened and the rocks split apart. The Crucifix draws us to the point at which the Most High enters into the evil and suffering that despoils our humanity. And more than that: He enters into it for us (“This is my Body, broken for you”) and, more even than that, is overwhelmed by it (“Eli, Eli … ?”)

This is not an event to be set to one side in the interest of doctrinal punctilio. The fact that the Resurrection followed this dark event and brought it to fruition and filled it, paradoxically, with light and glory does not suggest to us that our devotion and our prayer ought not to unite themselves to this One in the very hour of His suffering when He most intimately bound Himself to ours. It is a mistake to insist, with sprightly accuracy, that the One who thus suffered here is now risen, just as it is a mistake, with similar accuracy, to insist to the parents at the open grave of their child that we will all one day be raised. There is a time for everything under the sun, and in Catholic devotion we find this acknowledged. Such devotion is not fettered to chronology, which might say that because the Crucifixion followed the Nativity, we should therefore set that birth to one side, as an inappropriate focus for our meditation and prayer, or that because the Resurrection followed the Crucifixion, we should similarly set the Cross, and the suffering figure on it, to one side since we must always exult in the victory of Easter. In other words, Catholic piety keeps alive every aspect of the Savior’s work of redemption. Hence the Crucifix.

Suffering is the very condition of our humanity. Beatitude is our destiny, with all that is implied in that rich word: joy, fruition, bliss, freedom, glory. But there is no authentic living of mortal human life without suffering. (If there is that unique person somewhere who would startle us all by claiming that life has never brought suffering to him, we need scarcely remind him that “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death” and that this happy exemption of his will come to an abrupt end one fine day with his dissolution.)

Suffering is the condition of our humanity. How far afield must we go in our canvass of this theme? Here is our neighbor, trying to carry on while his young wife dies slowly from cancer. Here is the infant orphan in the Romanian hospital (or the Iraqi, or the Rwandan, or the Vietnamese), dying of malnutrition without one single soul on this earth who knows so much as his name. Here is the woman, beaten daily by a churlish husband, doing what she can to make the word “home” have some rag of meaning for her children. Here is the child whose world has been wasted in the wake of his parents’ acrimonious divorce, shuttling between households by order of the court. And there is the blind pauper with his tin cup sitting motionless by the curb in Tangier.

Not to mention the Pagliaccis, transvestites, chorus girls, sideshow freaks, and barroom pianists whose task it is to make us all laugh, or to divert us, while their disappointed hopes ache and all but cry out beneath the sequins and polka dots.

We may go so far as to urge, without mere sentimentalism, that even the suffering of the animals is “our” suffering, in a mystery, since it was our disobedience that brought on the Curse, for a start, and also since, as Saint Paul teaches, the whole creation groans and travails in pain, awaiting the redemption, at which point (see Romans 8) we (humans) will be set free, thus signaling the liberation of the whole of nature from its suffering. The Alaskan brown bear gnawing off the foot caught in the steel trap; the wildebeest galloping in clumsy terror from the cheetah, only to be brought down and torn in pieces; the lioness stalking the faint and emaciated gazelle as a meager dish for her famine-starved cubs; the dog, all trust and hope, looking to one passerby after the other, unaware that he has been abandoned; the mallard, circling and quacking as the turtles pull the last of her ducklings under.

Are we mawkish to think thus? We hope, most earnestly, that the suffering of animals is greatly dimmed by their limited capacity to think. We hope. But who can hear the scream of the rabbit seized by the cat, the frantic cheeping of the dispossessed wrens, or the howl of the dog tangled in his leash without groaning “Kyrie, eleison!”?

And where do we find ourselves when we thus groan?

At the Cross.

But it is not an empty cross with the work finished and done. Oh, to be sure, logic and chronology (and some rigorous theologies) will dictate that it is so. Consummatum est. Yes. We know that. We cling to that. But that which is thus “finished” remains present and actual in time — in the dimension, that is, under which we mortals must experience what it is to belong to the race of Adam. The victory of Easter, with its empty tomb and mighty risen Prince, cancels sin, suffering, and death: but we experience that canceling, not as a mathematical point that has no longevity, so to speak, but rather as the condition of our salvation, that is, the condition by which we are brought to glory. Brought: this bringing takes time. We live in time. We suffer in time. We see not yet all things put under Thee.
To be Catholic is to assume this paradox of “finished” and yet “still present.” It is to draw upon the paradox as one prays. It is to place oneself at the feet of the Savior as He bears our sadness, sin, and suffering in His own body on the Tree.

It may be observed at this point that a similar paradox is at work in the Eucharist. Jesus Christ said to His disciples, as He broke the bread and blessed the cup, “Do this for a remembrance of me.” A mere remembrance refers us to an incident fixed in the past, which we try to recall to mind. But the word the Lord used here, anamnesis, has the force of “a remembrance that is a making present.” The Church has always understood the Eucharist to be just such a remembrance. The Mass is a true entering into the mystery of Calvary. The Sacrifice, offered once for all at the Cross, is “made present” in the Mass. The event, in time, is now past. But the Lamb slain there is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. The liturgy pierces the scrim that hangs between time and eternity, and past, present, and future are “made present” in the celebration. An idea not wholly unlike this is at work in the Crucifix. Yes, the body was taken down, buried, raised, ascended, and is now at God’s right hand in heaven. But even in heaven, there appeared to the eyes of Saint John “a Lamb, as it had been slain.” This is what we see on the Cross as we gaze at the Crucifix.

The paradoxes (“mysteries” would be the word familiar to Catholic piety) multiply as we ponder it all. How can God suffer for us? What does this “substitution” mean that Saint Peter speaks of when he says, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree” (I Pet 2:24)? The Church hears the same theme in the words of Isaiah: “By His stripes we are healed….  And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all…. Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is 53:5-6, 4). How can this be? In what sense is it true?

We ask such questions with particular earnestness when we find ourselves crushed with our own sorrow or confronted with some tragic scene, especially of the suffering innocence of children and animals. All the sorrow seems to be concentrated just here, or there, in the weeping women of Stalingrad, Warsaw, or Bosnia Herzegovina. Can there be any sorrow greater than this? In what sense has it been “borne” by the Savior?

Logic collapses in these precincts. Sympathy itself falters. Our bravest attempts to penetrate the mystery draw back. Faith itself staggers. Does it mean that we should no longer feel the weight of our sorrow, since Another has carried it? Some pert theologies speak as though this should be the case, but we know that this claim is a travesty. Sin, sorrow, and suffering, and death itself were indeed taken away at the Cross, but we mortals must enter into the depths of this mystery in actual experience. The fact that the Savior bore all this for us does not mean that we bear nothing of it; rather, it means that we are invited in to that place (the Cross) where suffering is transfigured. We (the Church) are His Body, says Saint Paul. As such, we “share” in His suffering for the life of the world.

This is what lies behind the old Catholic injunction to “offer it up.” It is a phrase wholly unknown to Protestantism, with its rigorous and logical insistence on “the finished work of Christ”: you can’t offer anything to God except your sinful self, to be washed in the Blood of the Lamb.

This is accurate, technically. But Catholic piety wants to penetrate what Saint Paul might mean when he speaks of “filling up that which is behind of the suffering of Christ” (Col 1:24) and of being crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20) and of “bearing about in my body the dying of the Lord Jesus” (II Cor 4:10). All of this has been neatly reduced by Protestant theology. But the Ancient Church has never settled the matter so neatly.

“Offer it up.” Catholics chuckle when they recall the nuns enjoining them thus to offer a hangnail or a lost glove or a skinned knee. Offer it up. To whom? Why?

Because Jesus Christ invites us to do so. He tells His followers that they will drink the cup of which He drank and be baptized with the baptism with which He was to be baptized (He was speaking specifically of His imminent suffering in Jerusalem). Where, suddenly, is the theology that teaches that because the Savior did it all, we thereby are reduced to the status of inert bystanders? Whether the sorrow of the moment is a lost glove or a lost spouse or a bombed city, I am invited by the Divine Mercy to unite this terrible loss (for the child, the loss of the glove may threaten the end of the world) with the suffering of the Savior at Calvary and thus to discover that my suffering is His suffering, and that — paradox of paradoxes — His is ours (again — we are His Body).

The pain is there. It has not suddenly evaporated. The Cross is the Cross, not a magician’s wand. And on that Cross Catholic eyes see the One whose self-offering transfigured all suffering. Stalingrad is still rubble: the Cross did not avert the Panzer howitzers. But insofar as I will bring my burden of sorrow and suffering (and sin: sins are indeed washed away here; this corpus is the Agnus Dei who taketh away the sin of the world) — insofar as I will bring my burden here, fall on my knees, and cry out for help, to that extent I may know that the Savior is receiving what I offer up and making it one with His own offering here.

This is what the saints speak of when they speak of suffering. The Divine Mercy, like alchemy, transforms the leaden burden into precious substance. We cannot know just what the experience of the martyrs was as the red-hot iron entered their flesh, but we know that they were enabled to bear the pain and even, incredibly, to sing and rejoice. It is all opaque — nonsense, even — to the squint of logic, but we hear the testimony of a thousand saints who have suffered, either physically or in the inner man, and who tell us, not merely of consolations, but of joy.

There is no guarantee of joy, of course: the darkness that shrouds Calvary is thick, and it is scarcely believable that the Son of God Himself had it all sunshine in His Passion. We go through that valley of the shadow of death with Him.

But with Him. With whom? Him — the Savior — the Agnus Dei — this figure on the Cross.
This is why the Roman Catholic Church keeps the Crucifix before our eyes and invites us not only to ponder the mystery but also to kneel and ask for succor. Do we importune a figure of wood or plaster when we do so? No — no more than a lover fools himself when he gazes at the portrait of his beloved.

The image assists us to gather our wayward thoughts and feelings. It focuses things. It may even come to our rescue if words fail: the corpus, bowed in agony but with arms stretched wide, says, not in sentences but in its very shape, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you….”

My burden of the moment may be sorrow: Warsaw, or a son debauched by his own choice. It may be physical suffering: paralysis, painful hospital tests, or arthritis. Or it may be sin — my own, alas, or the evil that regales me wherever I look.

With respect to sin, to be Catholic is to see both judgment and Mercy crowning the figure on the Cross. Here is where sin is “taken away,” as the sins of Israel were taken away by the slaughter of innocent lambs on their altars. (The truth there, of course, as the Book of Hebrews teaches us, is that the blood of lambs and goats could never take away sins but that the Sacrifice they anticipated, namely, this Sacrifice here on the altar of Calvary, does take our sins away.) We see the judgment of God in this Sacrifice: “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins” (Heb 9:22). The blood of Jesus Christ is the “price” of my ransom (I Tim 2:6). Hence, to be Catholic is to come and kneel, with penitence, and also with thanksgiving and the resolve to put away my sin. The Crucifix is a powerful emblem in the presence of which all of my truckling with sin is laid bare in all of its squalor.

But this Crucifix bids me also to the place where my exasperation or ire over others’ sins must be forsworn in the name of the Mercy that God Himself offers to the perpetrators of sin (I being the chief among them). What is it that rouses my ire in the passing scene? Someone cutting into the line at the ticket window? Bloody-mindedness on the part of some driver on the freeway? Cretinous inefficiency on the part of committees, boards, and panels of experts in local, state, or federal government? Monumental waste of taxpayers’ money on all sides? Cruelty to children, animals, or the poor? Poisonous ingratitude and self-absorption on the part of some old person being cared for? The list goes on and on.

And my ire seethes. Swift vengeance is what we want here, I say. Oh, for the power to set things right forthwith and finally. If I were in control…

The words die on my tongue as the Crucifix looms. Ah, Domine Deus. Depart from me, Lord: I am only a sinful man. Lord, I am not worthy. “With what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged” (Mt 7:2).

The judgment on my sins revealed itself at Calvary. Do I wish a separate, and stricter, judgment to come upon everyone else? Can I maintain such a wish as the figure on the Cross looks on me?
No. For in that look I am bidden to the region where all is forgiveness and for which I have been invited to prepare myself every time I have said “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Not only have I not been asked to participate in judging the sins of others: I have been offered the noble opportunity to join my voice with that of the Crucified as He cries out, “Father, forgive them.” That, and that alone, is to be my prayer as I think of others’ sins.

It is not an easy lesson. It may begin in me by my having, by main force, by an act of sheer will, to say (loudly, it may be — loud enough to drown out the vindictive voices clamoring in my breast), “save us (all) from the fires of hell; lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy” (beginning with me, the vituperative one).
To be Catholic is to confront all of this in the presence of the Crucifix. The image helps me. This is why the Roman Catholic Church has kept the Crucifix before our eyes at all times.

Thomas Howard, a prolific author and noted expert on C.S. Lewis, taught English at Gordon College, an Evangelical school, before he entered the Catholic Church in 1985. From 1985-99 he was professor of English at St. John’s Seminary College of the archdiocese of Boston. This essay, “Crucifix,” is a chapter from his book On Being Catholic (Ignatius Press, 1997). It appears in AB with Dr. Howard’s kind permission. In June 2013 we published “Eucharist” from the same work. The penetrating insights in this book are meditative and inspirational, and are as relevant today as when they were first written. Among his many other works are Lead, Kindly Light and The Night is Far Spent (Ignatius Press).

Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy


Thomas Howard