I haven't always had a personal connection with the crucifix. This is somewhat surprising considering that I've spent quite a lot of time with crucifixes over the years. As a child I sat for hours in various Catholic classrooms, each with a bronze crucified Christ nailed over the blackboard. My childhood church featured a massive mural of Calvary behind the altar, looming above the priests as they celebrated Mass. It was impossible to ignore the tableau of suffering and pain.
Yet the crucifix wasn't always such a central part of Catholic worship. For the first few centuries after Christ's death, neither crucifixes nor plain crosses were common images. In a culture where crucifixions were still practiced, it was too horrifying a symbol to celebrate. But with Constantine's 4th century recognition of Christianity and the gradual ending of the practice of crucifixion, the cross began to be used in liturgies. In 692 the Council of Constantinople affirmed the importance of depicting Christ's body on the cross; the crucifix soon became a prominent and highly recognizable symbol of Catholicism.
As a child the crucifix was so central to my religious experience that I rarely thought about it. It was only as a young adult that I began to find it disconcerting. The image of a crumpled Jesus nailed to the cross seemed to represent all the things I was questioning about my faith. Suffering, dying, sacrificing : I found the Catholic viewpoint to be far too negative, too depressing. There's already enough grief in the world, I thought. I don't need to be reminded of it every time I walk into church.
Sadness is an inevitable part of the human story. Not one of us will walk through life without losing someone we love. Through my own personal experience of grief : the death of family members, the loss of an early pregnancy : I've come face-to-face with the various stages of mourning. I've learned that although healing eventually comes, first comes the period when the suffering is so complete there's no way to see beyond it. These are the times when words simply wont comfort, when there is nothing to do but to live in the midst of the grief, to walk through it as if through a storm.
It's hard to accept this, especially when someone we love is hurting. It's natural to want our loved one to speed through the dark valley into the light of healing. I used to believe that if only I could say the right thing, I could help my grieving friends move swiftly through their pain. But my own experiences of loss have shown me that in those first raw moments, we don't need someone to jolly us out of our misery. We need someone sitting quietly next to us, acknowledging our suffering and letting us cry.
This is why it helps to meditate on the crucifix. Contrary to what I used to believe, Catholicism isn't a religion that celebrates pain. It validates pain, and that validation is critical to the grieving process. There've been times when nothing but the crucifix could fully connect with my feelings, when the image of Christ in agony gave me much needed permission to fully acknowledge my own pain.
Even more, I could look at Jesus hanging there and think, "This is a God who gets it!" With the crucifix in front of me, I knew I wasn't alone in my suffering. Time and again it reminds me that God too has known pain : the kind of pain that cannot be transcended, that can only be endured.
On a visit to Oberammergau in Germany years ago, my husband bought a carved wooden crucifix. When he wanted to hang it in our living room, part of me hesitated, though I ended up saying yes. Now it seems perfectly placed, for when I watch the evening news and witness stories of incomprehensible grief, it's then that the figure on the wall comes vividly to life. That crucifix is a reminder that before the healing and the renewal, there is simply pain.
As we hang on, not knowing how we'll endure it, Christ sits with us like the good friend he is. "Go on and grieve," he says. "Cry as much as you need to. I've been there myself, and I'm here with you now."