The Chapel of the Holy Cross is built high into the side of a remote Arizona mountain. A pilgrim facing the chapel from the valley floor immediately sees the tall, narrow stone cross that literally is the building's structural foundation. The rest of the faÃ§ade is glass, giving the pilgrim who enters the chapel a spectacular view of the surrounding red-rock hills and valleys. The height and breadth of the cross that looks over the valley also dominates the interior of the chapel. Until the end of the 1980s, coming in to the cool and dim interior from the intense, blinding sun of the Arizona desert, a pilgrim's eyes were at once and almost uncontrollably drawn to that cross. The size of the cross and the incredible beauty visible through the windows would certainly have been enough to touch one's soul; but on the cross was a most astonishing representation of the body of the crucified Jesus. The corpus was made of blackened metal, twisted and jagged and severe. It was very a modern interpretation. There were no discernible features. It was more skeleton than flesh, more space than matter. It was very disturbing, very hard to look at, and yet powerfully compelling. This mangled, emptied Jesus held your gaze and forced you to contemplate the consequence of sin. Being confronted with this tragic image, a pilgrim might well consider the words of the prophet Isaiah in today's first reading: "Just as there were many who were astonished at himâin so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortalsâso he shall startle many nations." But, being confronted with this tragic image, a pilgrim also might be tempted just to turn away.
The cross is exactly what we're being asked to contemplate today. The Maundy Thursday liturgy left us in Gethsemane, and offered the night to remain with Jesus, to watch and pray. Now, we're on the move again. There's so much action in this Gospel. We see Judas betray, Peter deny, Pilate give in to pressure, Jesus suffer condemnation and torture, John and the women bear witness. We know this story by heart. We know each of the characters. We know their words. We know what happens. We might know it too well. We might allow these words to describe a past event only and not become a part of who we are deep in our souls. It is certainly easierâmore comfortableâto read this Gospel simply as an account of an event. But if we're going to take it seriously as Scripture, we have to consider what it's saying to us. There are many ways of doing that. We might think about how our own behavior is similar to the behaviors of the Gospel's characters. Have we ever betrayed someone elseâor even ourselves, our values, our responsibilities? Have we denied, as Peter did, by turning our backs on people or situations that need us? Are we disturbed enough by injustice and oppression to do something? We might also consider how we have, in fact, been faithful; how we have indeed witnessed to truth, to mercy, and to charity.
John offers us a very visual account that moves us from Gethsemane to Golgotha and has us "look on him whom they have pierced." But in the midst of the tragedy of Christ's passion and death, there is such hope! We know that today is not the end of the story, but rather it's a place on our evolving spiritual journeys where we must stop to contemplate and reflect on the power and conviction of the cross. But when we look upon him, when we admit that this complete offering is a result of God's unconditional love for each one of us, then we can begin the move towards Easter.
In the late 1980s a controversy began around the image of Jesus on that cross in the Arizona desert. Some were offended by an image so powerful, so visceral that you could not ignore it. There is an ugliness to the effects of sin that we just may not want to face, so that it's hard to stay and watch and pray. They took Jesus down. They took Jesus off that cross, cleaned it, patched the holes in the cross where nails had supported his body. The pilgrim's eyes are no longer uncontrollably drawn to that unthinkable gift of love. Yes, we rejoice in the coming of Easter morning. Yes, we live now knowing that the cross was not the end and we have been redeemed and Christ arose in glorious triumph, and perhaps it is a better thing that the pilgrim's eyes can be drawn more easily past the cross into the exquisite emptiness of the desertâperhaps, but are we absolutely convinced of that? Do we not still need today to look on him, to remain at the foot of the cross for a while, to watch and to pray?
Art affects different people in different ways, or any one of us in different ways at different times. Sometimes we are drawn to the graphic representation of the dying Jesus and sometimes we are so repelled by it that we can't pray. The same is true of movies or poems or pictures or even the story of the passion itself. The important thing is not to make ourselves, or try to make anyone else, use the "right" image as an aid to our prayer, but rather to seek what draws us closer to God and our neighbor. Finding what we need can be hard, and it can be surprising. Listening to others tell what helps them to pray can help us stay open not just to other ways of praying but to other people as well. Listening to ourselves, honestly, can help us stay open to the growth God would have us experience. Listening to God at the foot of the cross of Jesusâwhatever that cross looks like to usâcan calm us and excite us, both together, and so transform our lives.