March 26, 2010

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Crucifixes embrace a Christian realism about life, death and resurrection

During Holy Week, we contemplate the tortured face of Jesus as he hangs on the criminal’s cross outside the city walls. It is the scene of humiliation and degradation—a double humiliation of death as a criminal and banishment outside the walls of the sacred city.

The late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin once described a photograph from a book he had been given on the Holocaust.

“Two men face one another. One is a Nazi soldier. The other a Jewish civilian. … The soldier’s mouth looks as if it is just about to break into a grin. He seems to be enjoying what he is doing. By contrast, the Jewish civilian’s face is contorted, twisted, as if he is about to weep. There is great pain, grief, agony, embarrassment in his countenance. In his right hand, the soldier holds a pair of scissors—not a weapon. He is cutting off the beard and earlocks of the Jewish believer. The caption under the photo reads, ‘Shearing off or plucking out beard and earlocks of Orthodox Jews in front of jeering crowds was a favorite pastime in occupied Poland.’ ”

The late cardinal asked, “Why does that picture remain in my mind? On the surface, it is far more benign than the pictures of emaciated bodies lying strewn in a huge mass grave. … Why does it stand out? Because it is so close to being ordinary. Because it is not so horrendous as to be totally alien to our own experience. Because it is within the realm of our own possibilities of cruelty” (Bernardin, The Journey to Peace: Reflections on Faith, Embracing Suffering, and Finding New Life, pp. 97-98).

Cardinal Bernardin made the point that, as we look at this scene, we realize that we are, at our worst moments, capable of this kind of heartless ridicule. A person can transform the simple act that barbers perform every day into an act of humiliating desecration. There is a smirk on one face, and deep pain, humiliation and loss on the other.

This week, as we contemplate the tortured face of Jesus on the Cross, we do well to probe our capacity to harm others.

No, we would not crucify Christ. We would not kill another person. But we could mock another person. We could humiliate another person. Children can bully each other on the playground. Adults can tell jokes that mock another person’s faith or race or status in society. This week, we do well to pray in reparation for our sins and the sins of the world, which continue the humiliation of Jesus.

It is difficult to stand at the foot of the Cross. We don’t like to look at ugliness. We don’t feel comfortable in the presence of another person’s suffering. It is particularly difficult to stand at the foot of the Cross because we have been party to inflicting such suffering on Jesus, who hangs on the Cross.

In another reflection, the late Cardinal Bernardin remarked that standing at the foot of the Cross is a difficult place to be for every generation, especially our own.

As we stand there, “we are immediately struck by Jesus’ extreme suffering on our behalf. In an age like our own, marked in part by the quest for instant relief from suffering, it takes special courage and determination to stand on Calvary. But standing at the foot of the Cross teaches us something very profound. What ultimately counts is that we say yes to what God requires of us, no matter how costly it may be” (Ibid. p. 117).

Perhaps that is why our Church clings to the tradition of displaying the cross in our churches with the image of the body of Jesus on it. We need and we want to be reminded that a real human person stretched out his arms on the Cross and suffered deeply because he loves us.

Our crucifixes embrace a Christian realism about life and death and resurrection, and they strike a chord in our human experience. The love of Christ calls for our love in response. On Good Friday afternoon, as we kiss the wood of the Cross, may we dig deep into our hearts and renew our own love for Christ, especially as we encounter him in our neighbor.

It was humiliating for Jesus, a Jew, a member of the chosen people, to be executed outside the walls of the sacred city. The banishment was the ultimate degradation. Yet can we not look on that banishment as breaking open the walls that separate peoples?

By his victory over death, Jesus would bring down the walls that separate neighbors. For, as Jesus taught us, everyone is our neighbor.

In our Good Friday service, the celebrant will lead us in solemn prayers for all peoples, for all our neighbors in our human family.

Let’s pray humbly and with repentant, generous hearts. †

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