All Catholic churches have some form of crucifix in the sanctuary, at least during the celebration of the Eucharist. The crucifixes take a wide variety of forms to express the key mystery of our faith – that Christ died so that we might be freed from the bondage of sin and that he rose from the dead on the third day.
Some crucifixes show a bloodless risen Christ triumphant on the cross, others a Christ crowned with thorns spotted with blood. Some crucifixes are gold, some stone, others wood. Some are small, others larger than life.
But few if any go the full nine yards in displaying the gruesomeness of the crucifixion. Perhaps we don't want to terrify the children; perhaps we don't want to upset ourselves. When Mel Gibson tried to show the full physical brutality of Christ's death a few years ago, he was roundly criticized for, among other things, emphasizing Christ's physical suffering.
Yet, there we have it. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became human and suffered the most ignominious death. It turned people off, people who were looking for a messiah who was a first century cowboy in a white hat, rounding up the bad guys and making life idyllic for the moral majority.
St. Paul states it bluntly: "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:23).
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The crucifixion reveals a God who goes an infinite distance to seek out reconciliation with us, even though we have injured him.
This is still an issue for us. What do we pray for? Do we pray, in the words of Bob Marley, for "Great God to come from the sky, take away everything and make everyone feel high"? Sometimes I do and I probably will again. Sometimes the suffering is too great or my desires are so strong that I just want an all-powerful God to fix everything according to my designs.
Or, do I pray for God to come and simply be with me in the most sinful, tortured parts of my being and to use that "thorn in the flesh" to take away my pride and self-reliance and make me utterly dependent on God's love and God's mysterious will? Not so much.
Yet St. Paul sees the cross not as defeat but as triumph. He wrote to the Colossians, God "disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them (in Christ) (2:15).
Scripture scholar James Dunn describes the reversal of values in this image "from the cross as the most shameful of deaths, to the cross leading the defeated powers in chains behind it, as about as audacious as one could imagine."
Moreover, the principalities and powers still do not know that they have been disarmed. They go on their way 2,000 years later as though they are triumphant.
For me, the most telling image of God is the one Paul presents in Philippians 2:6-11: "Though he was in the form of God, (Christ) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross . . .".
Christ did not temporarily stop being God when he became human. Rather his divinity was fully revealed in his humility. This is a revelation of service to humanity so profound that it is the pinnacle of what we mean by love.
It speaks to us not of an angry God seeking appeasement from humanity for our sins. Rather, it shows us a God whom we have injured going the infinite distance to seek out reconciliation with us.
This is a God to praise and worship. This God does not stand on Main Street demanding we come out to praise him. Rather, he comes to as obscurely as possible. Yet he also performs a transformation so powerful in our world that the only fitting response we can make is one of constant thanksgiving and praise.