“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18
“…If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me.” John 12:32
A couple of years ago, my wife Susan and I were traveling a remote stretch of highway in western Idaho. We had underestimated the distance between towns and in the middle of nowhere, the car sputtered and died. Dumb! We would have to hail down a car and ask for a ride to the next town to get a can of fuel.
The first car that came along, an older minivan, slowed down, pulled over and the passenger-side window rolled down. We were greeted by a young hispanic couple, Maria and Pablo, with four children asleep in the back seats. They were all weary from a long road trip to visit family, but were happy to help us out. I crowded into the one empty seat and Susan stayed with our car.
On our way to the next town and back, we struck up a nice conversation. We talked about the struggles of building a life for their family in America. It was hard, but they had no complaints. They could do hard things. They asked about my family and about traditions that keep our family together. They had been talking about that on their trip. Maria, who spoke better English than Pablo, had a quiet strength about her. I got the feeling this little family was in good hands.
I noticed a beaded cross hanging from their rearview mirror and asked them about it. Maria told me she had made the cross by hand at a church function. Making individualized crosses together with the other parishioners had forged a special connection among them, so this cross meant a lot to her.
“Are you religious?” she said.
“I am” I said. “Actually, the cross has come to mean a lot to me lately.”
She nodded and flashed a warm, knowing smile.
About three months earlier, Susan and I were beginning a month-long stay in Italy. We wandered into an obscure little Franciscan church in the Umbrian countryside. As I strolled through the church, I paused in front of a simple, relatively unadorned cross. I found myself mysteriously drawn to it. I sat down before it and spent twenty minutes or so in quiet contemplation. I wondered how many generations of believers had sat in contemplation before this same cross.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Italy. I served a mission there in the late 70s. I loved my mission, the country and its people. Italy has become a bit of a second home for Susan and me.
We’ve visited countless Catholic churches in Italy, from impressive and ostentatious baroque cathedrals and basilicas to humble little country churches. I’m drawn irresistibly to sacred spaces. I’m inspired by the sacrifices people made to build them. I try to imagine the faith and prayers of believers who have worshipped in these ancient sanctuaries in ages past. Faith and worship were so much at the center of life then.
In all those visits, I had seen so many crosses they had almost become invisible to me. Honestly, I felt vaguely conflicted about them. But there was something about the cross in this church. It drew me in. Somehow, I was seeing “the cross” for the first time.
Why? How had this most powerful Christian symbol never become a part of my spiritual life? How had I been conditioned to lightly regard something so central to the original Christian message preached by Paul and other apostles of the early church?
I’m not sure words can do justice to my experience that day, but I’ll give it a shot.
First, of course, my mind went to what I already knew about the cross. I saw the cruel instrument of torture and humiliating death employed by an empire to keep its subjects in fear. I saw the rack on which Jesus was nailed to suffer public humiliation—nude, beaten, betrayed and forsaken even by his own Father—or so He thought. I imagined the earth groaning and then exhaling as Jesus breathed out his final breath.
The irony that Jesus had transformed this instrument of shame, fear and death into a symbol of wholeness, hope and life began to dawn on me.
As I continued to contemplate, new dimensions unfolded to me.
My eyes were drawn to the vertical member of the cross. I followed its line downward, imagining that it sunk deep into the earth. I thought of “the condescension of God”—God descending with us. I felt a sense of the depth of the pain of the human family, and how Christ promises He will descend to the dark places with us, be with us as long as it takes to heal our wounds and bring us forth whole again.
Then my eyes were drawn up the line of the cross, through the top of the roof of the little church and into the heavens. I thought of Christ’s ascent. I thought of my own ascent. Of humanity’s ascent. I thought of the upward yearning of believers, and prayers ascending to the Father. I thought of the image of father Adam, building an altar, looking and reaching upward to connect with God through prayer.
Then my eyes were drawn along the horizontal member of the cross. I followed its lines outward, extending in each direction across the earth, embracing all people and all living things. This was the idea powerfully taught and embodied by the original Franciscan, St. Francis of Assisi: the unity of all creation. I thought of my favorite hymn, taken from a poem by St. Francis. I thought of mother Earth who brought forth and sustains all life, symbolizing to me our Divine Mother—always silently but surely with us, nurturing us.
I thought of our brother Jesus–naked, despairing, forsaken, betrayed, arms spread on the cross, fixed by nails of our making–still reaching wide, welcoming all, comprehending all. I thought of how He chose to bear the marks of those nails for eternity, a gesture that assures his commitment to us will never falter. I thought of those same outspread hands gently holding us and gathering us inward to the center of the cross, where we can truly feel each other’s pain and bear each other’s burdens, and in so doing reach up to God.
I saw the vertical member of the cross symbolizing our direct connection with God, and the horizontal member representing our connection with our family, neighbors and even the natural world.
I saw the heart of Jesus Christ at the center of the cross, where God and humanity intersect. That great heart in which all of his brothers’ and sisters’ suffering and alienation is deeply comprehended, held and eventually reconciled. Breaches are healed. A fractured reality is mended. We become whole, individually and collectively: At-One-ment. We are destined to be drawn to each other and to become one with our Heavenly Parents through Christ, their Son.
On that remote Idaho road, Maria and Pablo pulled up to our car to drop me off with my can of gas. I thanked them for their kindness, for their warmth and respect. What a precious little slice of time we had shared together. As I opened the door to get out, Maria took her cross from the mirror and offered it to me. I protested. It had such special meaning to her, not just as a symbol of her faith but also of her connection with the brothers and sisters of their congregation. I couldn’t possibly take it.
“You’re our brother now,” she said. “Please take it and remember,” again with that warm, knowing smile.
I will remember.