The Cross of Jesus

April 5, 2004

A short time ago I went with a friend to see The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s film depicting the last twelve hours of Jesus’ earthly life. This film has received much attention, both positive and negative, from critics and the public. I have been struck by how many people have said they have been profoundly moved by the film. I must admit I was somewhat startled when the ticket taker at the theater said to me cheerily, “Enjoy the show.”

Having heard so much about the film, I was quite curious to see what my own reaction would be. I wondered if I would be moved, or repelled by the violence. I also wondered if I would find myself seeing the film at variance with my own understanding of the Passion. What was clearest to me as I left the theater was how much my understanding of the Cross derives from a sense of its life-givingness rather than the extremity of Jesus’ suffering.

This life-givingness is made clear in the film when the centurion who pierces Jesus’ side with a spear is bathed in the torrent of water that issues forth. The baptismal imagery at this point is unmistakable.

The image of the crucified Jesus that most draws me is very different from the one presented to us in The Passion of the Christ. It is the cross of San Damiano, most likely painted in the 12th Century by an Umbrian artist influenced by Byzantine icons of the crucified Christ. It was before this cross that Francis of Assisi prayed and from which he heard Christ address him and tell him to rebuild the church.

The image itself is devoid of suffering, though Jesus is clearly crucified. His arms are extended in such a way as to suggest an embrace in which he is gathering to himself all that lies before him. Beneath the arms of Christ on both sides of the Cross are panels depicting a variety of people, including the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene. The dress of the figures suggests the broad spectrum of medieval society. Their position under the arms of the Cross makes it clear that they, together with those who contemplate the Cross, are enfolded within the embrace of Jesus’ extended arms.

When I pray before the San Damiano cross I am put in mind of the opening words of one of the prayers for mission at the conclusion of Morning Prayer in our Prayer Book. “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…” As I pray this, I know that I too am caught up in that saving embrace, as indeed is the whole of humanity.

To be enfolded in Christ’s embrace is both consoling and challenging, and I am obliged to reflect on my own life and consider my own capacity to embrace others in the power of Christ’s embrace. Left to my own devices, my capacity to embrace is partial and incomplete. It is beyond my ability to embrace everyone. But, as Christ’s Spirit moves within me, I am enabled to extend my arms and welcome all that stands before me. That is, I am only able to embrace all others when I allow myself to be drawn into Christ’s embrace and then ask Christ to embrace the others through me.

Here I think also of Jesus’ words to his disciples: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.” The Cross, therefore, is about God’s love embodied in Jesus drawing us like a magnet out of all that is partial, incomplete, disordered and false into the reality of a transforming and deathless love which reorders all things, including our lives, and makes all things new. It is the triumphant Christ drawing the world to himself who most profoundly speaks to my heart.

Beyond dispute the Cross was an instrument of torture and death. But Christ, by his death and resurrection, has transformed an instrument of death into a tree of life. And while we may be deeply moved and indeed convicted in our sinfulness by contemplating Christ’s sufferings, we must never forget that the Cross is the enduring sign of abundant life.

Tagged in: Frank T. Griswold