Dum pendebat Filius

Last night I was taken off guard. As I went through the upstairs hallway of the rectory closing doors and turning off lights, I rounded a corner and was suddenly confronted by something new for us. Reflecting the dim glow of the one remaining light in a way that only cast pewter can, the body of Jesus hung there in front of me. And he looked exhausted.

We have a lot of crosses at our house, a fact I suppose that’s true of many clergy families. It’s not just that people give them to me when they’re not sure what else to get a priest for a gift, but in fact I’ve even bought myself a ton of crosses in the past few years, and we now have enough to hang one or two in every room. Our guest bedrooms house crosses made by humble artisans in Egypt, and our master bedroom and office showcase crosses we bought from the first Spanish mission in California: San Diego de Alcalá. We have little ceramic crosses from Seaport Village and big ceramic crosses from Flores de Petén and wooden crosses from Belize carved from ziricote and granadillo. I even keep stashed away among my little treasures a crooked cross that a friend of my parents, a blacksmith who is now deceased, had pounded out from an old railway spike. I would probably consider this a curious, even unique collection if I weren't also aware that most of my clergy acquaintances collect crosses to a similar, if not greater degree. It comes with the collar, so to say.

What is curious is how few crucifixes are included in my collection of crosses. Geometric patterns, flowers, and tight hardwood grains abound, but until recently only one of the crosses in our home featured the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. A traditional Central American depiction of La Nueva Creación, in it Jesus stands erect, victor over evil and president over a renewed earth, complete with farms, birds and butterflies. The cross itself is el mapamundi of this renewed world, and Jesus (freakishly white, I admit) stands superimposed, suspended over all as he pours out his Holy Spirit on a priest and deacon below, manus orantes. It is a beautiful icon, full of theological significance and meaning, but it’s not quite the crucifix we all know and recognize: a bare cross upon which hangs the helpless corpus of a Victim.

This absence (at least until recently) of a crucifix in our home was probably due more to aesthetic taste than theological aversion. These days, at least when it comes to visualizations of the Son of Man, I lean more towards John of Damascus than John of Geneva. That is, if in my home I can put up images of humans like my family, or Socrates, or the Simpsons, I ought also to be able to hang up an image of the truest human that has ever lived (and lives even still), identifiable by those wounds made by and for his human brothers and sisters. But rather than representing the fulness of Christ’s humanity, many of the crucifixes that I’ve come across are garishly inhumane, uncanny parodies of his humanity and ours. Its virtue may lie in its minimalism, but the empty cross of Holy Saturday does not offend my sensibilities with the overly white, overly effete, overly ripped (I mean, have you seen those abs?), overly Other Jesus found on so many others. All that’s to say, given our collection of crosses we had just never owned a crucifix.

But a few days ago we visited a dear little friend of ours, an eight-year-old boy sick with acute leukemia. He was back home for a few days, after dozens of rounds of chemotherapy in Mexico, and for a gift he brought us back a simple crucifix in the Benedictine style. The wood is darkly stained, and a small image of Jesus has been cast in pewter and affixed to the cross. Simple and beautiful, we thanked him for the gift and hugged and prayed for our little buddy, and we hung his cross in our upstairs hallway when we got home a little later. But it wasn’t until last night that I felt the impact of the cruciform figure that he had given us.

The impact came as I recognized, as if for the first time, the posture of the Christ. It was in the slump of the shoulders. In the disjointed curve of his taut arms. In the limp bow of his head. I had seen this posture when that same little boy who had given us our new crucifix collapsed limply onto his father's shoulders and just hung there as his body gave out. I had seen it in the figures of friends and loved ones who had been raked over the coals of life and who were somewhere between giving up and hanging on to hope. I had seen it in the tears of faithful servants who had given their lives for others but who, wounded and depleted, had nothing left to give but their exhaustion. And I had to be honest with myself, I was seeing it in myself that night.

I recognized the posture: he was simply hanging there. Suspended. Tired. Limp. 

Now, I knew that medically speaking, his death was from suffocation and exhaustion, products of a slow hanging, and not by punctures from nails or spear. But last night as I considered the physical gesture of his succumbing to gravity and letting himself go, his being suspended from the tree, well, it arrested my attention. It is a commonplace these days to say that it was his love, and not the nails, that held Jesus to his cross. But with his exhaustion in full view, I asked myself in a similar way: as Jesus hung there, what did he hang on to?

On that fateful Thursday night it may have been Judas Iscariot who gave up his friend, betraying him to his enemies, but on Friday it was Jesus alone who gave himself up to suffering and death. Exposed before the heavens and despised by the earth, he released his spirit to God and his body to the ground, a voluntary act of giving himself up to his Father’s will and to his Father’s care. The cross may have been an instrument of human torture and divine retribution, but by his last cry it is clear that Jesus was hanging on his Father’s promise. He may have been in deepest sorrow in Gethsemane and obvious agony on the cross, but he clung to his Father’s love. And though Jesus hung there bloody and bruised, exhausted and limp, through it all his Father held him up and brought meaning and power and life out of his suffering. Beyond all the suffering that Christ endured for us upon the cross, the bond of peace and love and purpose between Jesus and his Father, that pactum salutis formed before the foundation creation itself, could never be broken.

I really needed this reminder last night. I needed the reminder that the Son of God himself became exhausted, helpless, and hung limp in the hands of his Father, trusting and entrusting himself to almighty Love. I needed the reminder that Christ ascended to his Father and my Father, to his God and my God (John 20:17). I needed the reminder that when I feel exhausted and washed up, at that point when human capacity is depleted and I feel incapable of going any further, my duty is to surrender myself to the path and posture of Love and suspend myself in the loving arms of my God and Father.

So, I am happy that today this reminder is hanging in our home. Christ has indeed passed for all time beyond his humiliation, suffering, and death, and he has entered into his resurrection, victory, and exaltation. But on this side of my resurrection, I need to be reminded again and again of what he became for me, so that I can become like him, in heart and mind and will, and even posture.