I’m not used to crucifixes.
It’s been ten years since I’ve been in the same room as a crucifix. And now, since stumbling back to the Catholic church about a month ago, there it is. The stations of the cross adorning the walls on each side of the sanctuary.
Rory’s reaction was the obvious existential one to be expected from a 4-year old. So many questions.
Dad, what’s happening there?
Mom, who’s that?
Dad, what are they doing to him?
Mom, who’s that lady, crying?
So much drama on those walls.
That cross... I’ve always had bad juju with that thing. I think a lot of us have. It’s often shoved in our faces like, see what he did for YOU?
Or better, see what he did BECAUSE OF YOU?
I’d always be like, lady, I had nothing to do with that, so get outta my face, okay?…
That said, my reaction to that scene was defensive. I wanted to cover Rory’s eyes (but that would’ve just spoiled the fun).
On that first day back, the annual parish mission just so happened to be that evening, so everyone was invited back to listen to a special speaker and join in discussion about the spiritual direction of the parish for 2018. The speaker — a balding 80-ish-year old man — stood up and gave a small blurb during mass introducing it. Alex and I were intrigued. We liked his wit and warmth. So that night, we went back to check it out.
The speaker’s name was Michael Leach. I’d never heard of him before, but apparently he’s one of the most well known Catholic book publishers and authors out there. Although he was getting on in age, his youthfulness and humbleness came through in every word.
He started talking about how God is love, God is both masculine and feminine, and all-inclusive. He spoke about the Cosmic Christ (?!) and how, although the Catholic church talks about hell, they’ve never mentioned anyone actually going there.
He spoke of how, yes, the Catholic church has its flaws, but that there’s so much more to see than that. He spoke in support of gay marriage (and even hinted at support for abortion rights in a very non-direct way).
This guy was setting fire to belief after toxic belief of my conservative Catholic upbringing. If he would’ve given that talk at the Catholic church in our home town back in rural Nevada, he would’ve been welcomed out of the building by pitchforks and torches.
We were eating it up.
Then he started talking about the cross...
He pointed out how he didn’t see Jesus as being up there to take the brunt of punishment for humanity from an angry god. He emphasized Jesus’ open arms on the cross as being symbolic of a loving embrace towards all of humanity in spite of it all.
His final statement in human form seemed to be that God — this principle of life — is unconditional love and radical forgiveness. All the rest of it is made up, harmful, and utterly unnecessary. Yes, we can make a mess of things. Yes, life is complex. But the reality underneath it all is this ever-present possibility of love — even amidst hatred and execution and bone and blood being poured out.
I started to see how large this tradition is. How much room there is in it to hold such a wide spectrum of belief, from conservative to progressive. To say that the Catholic church sees things one way is like saying the United States sees things one way or any other large body of people (or even to say that one person sees things absolutely consistently).
I don’t know if Leach’s depiction is theologically sound (he seemed to back it up pretty well — however, I also know that you can back pretty much any point up via the Bible if you dig hard enough), but in that moment, what mattered was, the image of Jesus hanging on the cross totally changed for me. I looked up on that wall behind the speaker and saw something totally different than I’d seen before.
As far as I can tell, the story of Jesus being the human shield between humanity and a damning God’s wrath serves no one today. Maybe when the consciousness of humanity was more based around paternal allegiance and punishment — I can see that as a message-to-market match (sorry, I can’t help it).
But that narrative was made up by humans and perpetuated by humans (just like every other narrative in the Bible as well as Leach’s narrative and the one you’re reading now from yours truly — we’re all just trying to make meaning of this thing called life through metaphor, symbology, and narrative).
I’m still a little jarred by the crucifix, for sure. But my vision is changing and softening around it. I love the raw sacredness of it. A man, put to death for being an enemy of the state and defying the violent god of the day and preaching love in a world wrought with fear, greed, and death.
He absorbed the violence instead of perpetuating it.
It stopped with him.
I can feel those open, loving arms when I see that crucifix now. And it’s soothing. Because guilt and shame and doubt are real human emotions. We’ve all done things that we regret. We’ve all crucified another out of fear and for our own gain at some level. I think that feeling damned — if even on occasion — is something inherently human.
But there he is. Hanging up there. Those open arms saying, it’s okay. Sin no more. It’s okay. Sin no more. You are loved. You’ve never not been loved. Go forth in God’s love knowing that scapegoating and human sacrifice is no longer necessary.