Preferring the crucifix

Christ on the cross reminds us of world’s suffering and our need to respond
October 31, 2006

I have lost the small silver crucifix that I wore around my neck on a slim silver chain. I wore it under my shirt, as I regarded it as a personal piety of my own. I think someone swiped it when I was in the hospital for surgery in the fall of 2004. It was just after that when I missed it.

I am glad that someone stole it and hope it gives him or her comfort in some way. It had little monetary value; I bought it in Puerto Vallarta for $20 a few years before. We in the catholic tradition like the crucifix with the body of Jesus on it. The more Protestant tradition likes the empty cross symbolizing that Jesus has risen from the dead in triumph.

I have been shopping for a new crucifix but have not found one to my liking. I saw many crosses -- silver, gold, filigreed, laurel-leafed and even plain wood. But somehow I was never satisfied and noted that I preferred a crucifix.

My basic theology is that of resurrection and new life; we start over into new life every day, at every moment. At Trinity, San Francisco, where I was rector for 20 years, the cross on the high altar is studded with precious stones, is deeply engraved and features sunbursts pointing to new light and new life. It is very beautiful, ornate and beautiful. It fits as the focal point of a resurrection church.

But for my personal use, I like the crucifix and even at home have a stark wooden one hanging on the wall in my study. I wondered often about this curious combination of pious practices.

Then, just last night, it hit me. The New York Times carried pictures of men wounded in Iraq. Some were blind, some had no limbs, one was demented and was holding his 2-year-old daughter on his lap. These men are suffering and will be for the rest of their lives. More than 2,000 American soldiers have been killed in that war. Their families are suffering for the deceased youths that went off to fight the war on terrorism.

Then I thought of the untold numbers of the people of Iraq, soldiers and civilians, who have been killed or maimed by our military actions. The people of Iraq suffer because we Americans have invaded their country.

Then I thought of the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust, the pain of the African-Americans in slavery, the Native Americans butchered by good Christian settlers in the American frontier. Africa, Central America, South America -- nay, the people of the world who are suffering came to mind.

It became so clear to me why I wanted to always carry with me a crucifix. Here is the symbol of a very good man who suffered torture and death of the cross, the awful method of capital punishment in the first century of the Common Era.

Our Christian story is that Jesus’ death and resurrection gives us hope for life after death. The Christian story is that Jesus was God incarnate, who died on the cross that we are assured of eternal forgiveness and life after death. This wondrous and complex story is our Christian faith and life. It takes constant thought and pondering to understand and enjoy.

However, the cross is the most potent symbol for pain and suffering. Now I know why the poorest of Christians have a crucifix in their homes, on the altars and walls of their churches, the Stations of the Cross where Jesus’ torture, suffering and death are depicted in pictorial detail and in the readings and prayers. Often they are suffering themselves.

They know many who are suffering and dying. They remember that Jesus suffered; they even believe that God suffers for the pain and sorrow of the world.

So I will continue to shop for a small crucifix that I can wear under my shirt on a silver chain. It must be aesthetically pleasing to my eye. But I will wear it as a constant reminder of the suffering of the world and that I, as a Christian, am to do something about it.

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