In 2008, an Anglican vicar in Sussex had a crucifix removed from his church. He thought the crucifix was ‘unsuitable’ and ‘a horrifying depiction of pain and suffering: ‘The crucifix expressed suffering, torment, pain and anguish. It was a scary image, particularly for children… It wasn’t a suitable image for the outside of a church wanting to welcome worshippers. In fact, it was a real put-off. We’re all about hope, encouragement and the joy of the Christian faith. We want to communicate good news, not bad news, so we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross’. The Cross is apparently now a ‘stumbling block’ for Christians too.
A year later, I entered the Dominicans, and at the Good Friday ceremony in St Mary’s Church, Cork, I had the honour of holding the crucifix for the people of God to venerate. I saw people of all ages, races and backgrounds approach the Cross with unexpected intensity, and sometimes with tears. They venerated the image of Christ’s body with foreheads and lips and hands. What did they know that the vicar in Sussex didn’t? Why weren’t they ‘put off’ by this scene of execution? Indeed, why were they drawn magnetically to the crucifix if it represents only ‘bad news’?
When we Christians see the crucifixion represented, we don’t see it as a sad end, or an appalling scene. It does indeed represent a horrific event, but we take Jesus at his word: ‘I was born for this, I came into the world for this’ (John 18:37). The Cross was not an accident, but was planned and suffered as an act of deliberate love. The medieval theologian Peter Abelard said the aim of the Cross was simultaneously ‘to show forth His love to us… and to convince us how much we ought to love Him’. When we see how much Our Lord was willing to suffer for us, our hearts expand. When we understand that the Cross represents God’s heart beating with love for us, our hearts beat faster too.
How we see the Cross depends entirely on whether we are willing to receive God’s love: what the world sees as gruesome, the beloved sees as beautiful; what the world sees as meaningless suffering, the beloved sees as the most meaningful act of body-language ever performed; what the world wants to ignore causes the beloved to stop and gaze; what disturbs the world, brings peace to the beloved:
‘Without beauty, without majesty we saw him,
No looks to attract our eyes;
A thing despised and rejected by men,
A man of sorrows and familiar with suffering,
A man to make people screen their faces;
He was despised and we took no account of him.
And yet ours were the sufferings he bore,
Ours the sorrows he carried.
But we, we thought of him as someone punished,
Struck by God, and brought low.
Yet he was pierced through for our faults,
Crushed for our sins.
On him lies a punishment that brings us peace,
And through his wounds we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:2-5).