(Click on the photo to see a different photo of this Crucifix.)
At Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis I often meditate on the Crucifix, because the Crucifix represents incarnate Love in His most loving act. Here before me is what I am to become, what I am to long to become, that I might participate in "the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death." (Phil 3:10) But what is here before me? Here before me is death, death preceded by unbelievable suffering and agony. I must therefore long for suffering and death. For its own sake? No, for Love, and for all those Love loves. Why must suffering and death be necessary for Love? (Luke 24:26) Love says, "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone." (John 12:24) Love, by its very nature, cannot be alone; Love is always for others, even when abandoned by them. To live for others, I must die. I must embrace death, and all its accompanying sufferings, in order to give life to others, and to give glory to Love, who is Life. Love "does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered. " (1 Corinthians 13:5) Love is like this in us only through the embrace of suffering and death. Love does not take into account a wrong suffered, because Love has embraced suffering. Love is not provoked, because Love has embraced death. To love, and to love Love, is to embrace suffering and death for the sake of Love and the love of Love.
The greater suffering Love suffered was not His physical suffering; it was the suffering of rejection and betrayal, abandoned by those He loved, scorned and mocked by His own people. That this was His greater suffering can only be understood by those who have loved deeply. Love was rejected and abandoned by those He most loved, those to whom He had poured out His heart. "He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him." (John 1:11) The greater the love, the greater the suffering when that love is rejected. And Love's love is unlimited, hence His suffering in soul was unfathomable. In the lowest level of Dante's hell are the betrayers, and in the lowest zone of that level are those who betrayed their own lords and benefactors. Why is this sin so great? Because it is the most contrary to Love. To turn against those who love us, and to repay them evil for good, and hatred for love, especially when they have opened their hearts to us in love, is to cause them the greatest suffering. This suffering too Love embraces.
Those to whom Love came and revealed Himself and opened His heart, turned their backs on Him. But He says, "I gave My back to those who strike Me" (Isaiah 50:6). They praised Him on Palm Sunday, referring to Him as a King. He opened His heart to them and wept in front of them. (Luke 19:41) But a few days later they demanded that He be crucified. They had not the sensitivity or empathy even to bear with Him in the garden, where He obviously was longing for the support of their companionship. "Could you not keep watch with Me for one hour?" (Matthew 26:40) To be united to Love is to embrace rejection and betrayal by friends and family, not just persecution by enemies of the Lord.
To be a Christian (i.e. a Christ-follower), I must be like Christ, allowing my hands and feet to be stretched out and pinned to my instrument of death, my instrument of eternal life. Thus nailed, I am made immobile, dying to that natural clinging instinct to avoid death at all costs. I am to bear the shame of my indignity exposed. I am to be silent in the face of those who ridicule me (1 Peter 2:21-23). I am to turn my cheek to those who pluck my beard. (Isaiah 50:6) I am to allow my heart to be pierced in violence, even by those whom I love dearly. To be a Christian, to share Christ's cross, is to carry around suffering and death in my body. St. Paul tells us this very thing, saying that we are "always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies." (2 Corinthians 4:10) To be a Christian is to love to the point of suffering deeply. Can we carry around in our bodies the pierced heart of Jesus, and not allow our own hearts to be pierced?
Is it only death that is before me as I look upon the Crucifix? No. It is Life that is before me. Life is found in this death. This is the death that death cannot hold, the death that overpowers death and gives Life. (Acts 2:24) Do we really understand what it means that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God"? (Matthew 4:4) If I were a mere beast, I could live by bread alone, at least so far as I (as mere beast) could determine. But insofar as we try to live on bread alone, we treat ourselves as though we are mere beasts. "Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die." (Isaiah 22:13; 1 Corinthians 15:32) It is precisely because we are made in the image of God that we cannot live on bread alone. "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee." (St. Augustine, Confessions, I) If we try to live only for bread, we treat our lives as meaningless and hopeless, and we thus die, for man cannot live without meaning or hope. In the encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict writes, "Tantummodo cum futurum certum est uti realitas positiva, tunc praesens dignum est ut vivatur." (Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well.) This is what is meant by "man does not live by bread alone". The gospel of Life makes no sense to those who conceive of life as nothing more than metabolism. Our gospel message includes this message: Awake, you without hope, to your hopelessness and the impossibility of bread giving you hope or life or meaning, the very things you as bearers of God's image crave above all else, and without which you wither and die.
But the gospel message is not just negative. Before me represented in the Crucifix is the very "Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Father", the "Living Bread that came down from Heaven". To eat this Bread is to receive Eternal Life. This Word says:
"For the Bread of God is that which comes down from Heaven, and gives Life to the world. ... I am the Bread of Life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. ... I am the Bread of Life. Your fathers ate the wilderness, and they died. This is the Bread which comes down from Heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the Living Bread which came down from Heaven; if anyone eats of this Bread, he will live for ever; and the Bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. ... Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the Bread which came down from Heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this Bread will live forever." (John 6)In the Eucharist I receive the Bread of Heaven, and my heart is no longer restless, for now I truly Live, not as a mere beast, but fulfilled in my nature as a being made in the image of God. Before me, represented in the Crucifix, is the Love by which I am Loved and Fed, and by which I am given true meaning and hope, a participation in Eternal Life Himself. Love's suffering and death, represented before me in the Crucifix and in which I participate in this present life, is "not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us." (Romans 8:18)
Only by this Love, with its accompanying embrace of suffering and death, can the divisions between Christians be overcome. Love seeks to work through us to do what Love does, bring unity. Why does Love seek to work through us? Pope Leo XIII wrote:
"Although God can do by His own power all that is effected by created natures, nevertheless in the counsels of His loving Providence He has preferred to help men by the instrumentality of men. And, as in the natural order He does not usually give full perfection except by means of man's work and action, so also He makes use of human aid for that which lies beyond the limits of nature, that is to say, for the sanctification and salvation of souls." (Satis cognitum, 2)"For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps." (1 Peter 2:21)
While my heart still beats I wish to follow Christ's example, loving deeply "from the heart" (1 Peter 1:22), stretching out my hands and feet, so that my heart too may be pierced, and in Love I may embrace the suffering and death of His cross. In that Love, in union with His sacred heart, is Life Abundant (John 10:10), and overflowing joy, for Love tells us that our "sorrow shall be turned into joy" (John 16:20). By following in His steps we participate in His joy (John 17:13), the joy He receives in loving us and sacrificing Himself for us (1 Thess 2:19-20), the very joy for which He endured the cross. (Hebrews 12:2)
Lord Jesus, teach us from Your cross. Unite your people, in love, through us, as we follow your example on the cross, embracing in ourselves Your suffering and death.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.