Where do we Meet the Dying Jesus?
The solemn veneration of Christ on the cross on Good Friday is for me a profoundly moving ritual. In fact, it was during this ceremony that I first resolved to turn away from my previous jet-set life and dedicate myself instead to working for the Church.
The words of the Good Friday hymn seemed to be addressed directly to me: “Love so amazing so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all” (from Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”).
So I share with other Catholics a commitment to the power of the crucifix as a symbol of my faith — so much so that I wear a small one round my neck. However, I suspect that like many Catholics I also sometimes forget that the symbol should not be a focus in itself but should point beyond itself to a deeper truth.
The crucifix comes into its own on Good Friday but, in fact, it has become the dominant symbol of Catholic Christianity all the year round. So even when we are celebrating the Risen Lord at Easter, or the new-born infant at Christmas, our churches are dominated by the symbol of the crucifix.
We are so used to this that we probably don’t realise how very Catholic this use of the crucifix is.
Of course, the cross is the universally recognised symbol of Christianity, even if in different forms. But Catholics have a focus on the crucifix—a cross with the body of the dying Jesus — which is not shared by other parts of the Christian family.
Our Protestant brothers and sisters would tend to have an empty cross to focus not on Christ’s death but on his resurrection. Our Orthodox cousins are more likely to have an icon that focuses on Christ in Glory than on Christ still dying on earth.
There are interesting theological, historical and artistic reasons why there are these different traditions. And if we do not understand those, we may fall into the trap of seeing the crucifix as a Catholic badge of honour — the one that we use to mark ourselves out from other Christians.
This came to a head for me when recently someone asked me if the Denis Hurley Centre, which I serve as its director, was truly Catholic.
I was taken aback by this. After all, the centre is named after a Catholic archbishop, the foundation stone has clearly been blessed by a cardinal, and there is a personally signed message from the pope in the foyer. Our Catholic origins seem to be pretty clear for anyone to see.
But the complaint was this: “Where is the crucifix?” Not “Where is the cross?” — there are plenty of these since they are part of our logo — but “Where is the crucifix?”
The concerned visitor went on to say that the presence of a crucifix is a constant reminder of Christ’s Passion.
I agree that the Passion is a key foundation of our faith — though so are the Incarnation and the Resurrection. A crucifix can remind us of the Passion. But, since we are not idolaters, we must remember that the crucifix is still just a symbol. We do not venerate it for what it is but for what it points to.
Jesus’s Passion is the pre-eminent proof of God’s com-passion, God’s willingness to suffer with us.
The words in the Good Friday liturgy remind us “ours were the sufferings he bore”. So the crucifix should be a reminder not just of the pain experienced by one man 2000 years ago but also of the pains of all humankind before and since, which that one man carried.
I am reminded of that by a wooden figure on a cross. But I hope I am also reminded of that when I see homeless people looking for food, or drug addicts seeking rehabilitation, or sick people waiting for care, or refugees searching for a friendly welcome.
There are images of Jesus’s suffering hanging in our churches. But in Holy Week 2016 there are also images of Christ’s suffering on the streets outside our churches.
Am I prepared to gaze on them as keenly as I gaze on the crucifix?