by Father John P. Cush
One afternoon after Sept. 11, 2001, I was sitting in St. Helen Church in Howard Beach, my first priestly assignment.
Praying Evening Prayer in the Church around 4:30 p.m. became a regular habit of mine in my years in the parish. As I sat in the pew nearest to the tabernacle, I noticed a man walking up and down in the church, stopping at all the shrines and statues, looking rather confused.
The man came to me and asked a question: “Excuse me, Father, but where’s the crucifix in your church? I just wanted to say a prayer before the crucifix for all those people who died and all those people who are suffering.”
I was taken aback. I realized that nowhere in our sanctuary was an image of the crucified Lord. In fact, nowhere in the body of the church itself was a cross. Sure, we had a beautiful image of the risen Christ, but there was no crucifix besides a processional cross we kept in the sacristy and a large crucifix in the church’s meeting room.
Shortly afterward, my pastor, Msgr. Joe Pfeiffer and I concelebrated a funeral Mass at St. Rose of Lima Church in Rockaway Beach. Both of us were taken with a beautiful crucifix hanging over the altar.
Msgr. Pfeiffer contacted Chiarelli’s Religious Goods and ordered a standing processional cross version that we placed permanently at the side of the altar, prominently displayed. Later, parish priests would use it by the ambo with the beautiful scripture citation: “We preach Christ crucified,” or actually use it as a strikingly dignified processional cross.
The reaction to the Cimabue crucifix from our parishioners was mixed. For some, they thought the image of the Lord Jesus on the cross was extreme. Bent and broken, there was no mistaking that Christ was suffering on the cross, bearing the weight of the sins of the world, physically injured by the buffets and blows of those who rejected Him, the Lord of Love. It was considered extreme by some who were perhaps used to a more sedate image.
Others took comfort from gazing on the cross and saw it as a sign of hope in the midst of a world which was suffering under the weight of so much heaviness and turmoil after Sept. 11. In those years spent at St. Helen’s, I spent many an afternoon in prayer before that crucifix and I personally took comfort in the Lord.
Regardless, I was not able to look at a crucifix ever again in the same way. Prior to seeing this beautiful Cimabue crucifix, I simply saw the cross as another liturgical accoutrement, another insignia, if you will, of the Christian faith. How often I would not even acknowledge the presence of a crucifix or see it as just a piece of jewelry, but after realizing what the image really represents, I began to develop a great devotion to the Holy Cross.
In the Gospel we proclaim this Sunday, in which we commemorate the Lord’s Passion and death (the only Sunday of the year in which we as a Church hear the story of the crucifixion), the image that predominates is the crucifix of the Lord. To look at that cross, to hear the story that we have heard at Mass this Sunday, to see this man hanging there, to the eyes of the world, we see something horrific.
To the eyes of the world, we see an abject failure. We see a man who came preaching peace, understanding and God’s unconditional love, and he is completely, totally, unjustifiably rejected. We see a man who was beaten savagely, bloodied, broken, bruised. We see a man who is suffering emotionally, physically, spiritually. We see a man who is sleep deprived, exhausted, scourged and mocked, nailed to a jagged piece of wood and left to hang there in a public area as a warning to all those who would see it as a example of what would happen if one were to challenge the way of the authority of the world. It is the ultimate bad thing.
Yet, to see that same image with the eyes of faith, we see God’s Love made flesh for us and our salvation, opening His arms on the cross in an embrace of love for you and me. We see God’s great big yes to the world. We see that nothing in this world can and will stop God’s desire to save and His desire to reconcile all in and through His greatest gift to the world: His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. It is the ultimate good thing.
When we see the cross of Christ, we should see it as the most beautiful image of all time. It is God’s symbol of victory over the forces of sin and death. We should see it as the ultimate message that out of anything bad, anything tragic, something good can and will occur. Perhaps it may not happen right away, perhaps it will not even happen in our lifetime, but, even if it is just a lesson learned, good will win in the end.
The cross of Christ is the symbol of faith when we represent the theological virtues. However, when we see the symbol of hope, the anchor, we can perceive the image of the cross. Jesus’ cross is the symbol of hope for the world. Today, may we place our fears, our stresses, our anxieties on the cross of Jesus. In His loving sacrifice, in His loving embrace, may we see that our suffering is not in vain. May we see that out of anything bad, something good can occur. May we see that out of the Passion and death comes resurrection and new life.
Readings for Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord
Procession with palms: Luke 19: 28-40
Isaiah 50: 4-7
Psalm 22: 8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
Philippians 2: 6-11
Luke 22: 14 – 23: 56
Father John P. Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a doctoral student in dogmatic theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.