“Why did they do that to him?”
My sister Iris’s question caught me off guard. She was standing at the base of a crucifix in a side chapel of a local Catholic church. Although we are Anabaptist, our parents – wishing to introduce us to other Christians and their forms of worship – had taken us to observe Mass on this particular Sunday. Just over four feet tall, Iris stood at eye level to Jesus’ feet, and she gazed in horror at the large nail piercing and bloodying them. She had never before encountered the reality of his crucifixion in this way: our own worship hall was simple and unadorned, devoid of any imagery or sculpture depicting the passion of Christ.
“Why did they do that to him?” she asked again, turning toward our mother. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.
Mom was at a loss. Putting her hand on Iris’s shoulder she replied, “I don’t know.”
Mass had concluded and most of the parishioners had left. My father was casually chatting with the priest near the altar. Feeling awkward and out of place in the unfamiliar surroundings, I shifted from one foot to the other, wishing they could just hurry up and finish their conversation so we could leave.
Now Iris had caught their attention and they began moving in our direction. Oh no, I sighed to my pre-teen self, there’ll be a big scene and we sure won’t be getting out of here any time soon. Doesn’t Iris realize that it’s just a statue and that the blood is only red paint? Doesn’t she know there’s one of these in every Catholic church? People walk past them every day and don’t start crying and carrying on.
The priest’s calm voice broke through my misplaced anxieties. And were his eyes moist? “She has the attitude of a true worshipper,” he said. “If only each of us had the same response.”
I have often pondered his words, Iris’s tears, and my reaction in the years since. Here was a child responding from the heart, while someone who considered herself wise dismissed the situation with nary a twinge of pain: Crucifix? Catholic. Idolatrous. Irreverent. Ostentatious. Let’s move on.
Iris, with the priest’s help, yanked me out of that comfortable, safe world of self-righteous snap judgments that day and took me straight to the foot of the cross. Those bloodied, pain-wracked feet were all that was needed to break her heart. For me – and for many others, I suspect – the journey is not always that brief.
Ensconced in the trappings of principle, creed, habit, worldview, and knowledge (it’s always the immaterial things that are hardest to let go), it can be difficult to find the path to the place where we can only arrive if we have nothing. We hold so tightly to that last excuse, that last gratification. Of course, we do so at our own risk – the risk of missing the depth of the suffering love of God incarnate.
Which is why there is Lent. In Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, Edna Hong calls this time of preparation the “downward ascent,” and points to the humbled heart of a sinner at the foot of the cross as the only place from which Jesus’ victory over death, sin, and suffering can be fully grasped.
A broad spectrum of Christian thinkers and mystics, both ancient and modern, echo and expand this thought in the Bread and Wine anthology, which accompanies the reader throughout Lent and Easter with seventy-two readings divided into sections entitled “Invitation,” “Temptation,” “Passion,” “Crucifixion,” “Resurrection,” and “New Life.” Each piece is chosen for its ability to help us come to a new realization of what Christ did for us, regardless of the writer’s denominational affiliation. Its ecumenical scope alone does away with some of the walls that must be demolished on the way to the cross.
Because no matter our confession, we will meet there. And no matter who we are, it can never become normal to see an image of Jesus’ suffering and walk by unaffected: We must be confronted each time we remember his pain. Our stomachs should constrict and our hearts pound when we see him suffering in the hatred, the confusion, the poverty, the violence of our world.
Unlike my sister, though, I cannot ask, “Why did they do that to him?” for I know too well that one of “them” is me.
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