Saturday, March 30, 2024

Veneration of the Cross?

    Yesterday was Good Friday, when we again heard the recitation of the story of the Passion of Christ. That same service also includes the Veneration of the Cross, in which the whole congregation advances one by one to kiss or otherwise reverence a large wooden cross, representing the one on which Jesus was crucified. 
    This is one of those Catholic customs with which I have not yet become reconciled. It seems grotesque to me, all wrong. Jesus said about Judas in last Sunday's gospel (Mark 14:21), "the Son of Man is going to his fate, as the scriptures say he will, but alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! Better for that man if he had never been born!" So, why is the weapon that killed Jesus not also cursed? How can we talk about the "glorious Cross," as if it were this grim instrument of torture, rather than God's overflowing love for us, that defined the act of our salvation? 
    And anyway, salvation from what? From what are we being saved by Jesus's sacrifice? I will say right here, not for the first time in this space, that I fiercely reject any hint of "substitutionary atonement." The idea that God fathered a child (which ... I mean, "fathered" is figurative, OK? like being "born again") for the express purpose of sending him to an excruciating death, to buy us off from the death penalty that God himself had decreed we all deserve because of our sins, starting with the sin of Adam and Eve in succumbing to the temptation that that same Creator had planted right under their noses? NO.
    My experience of God is nothing but Love. My concept of the Incarnation is one of compassionate solidarity. God chose to become one of us, to go through the human condition of weakness, vulnerability, fear, grief, all the way through physical agony to death, because we bear those things, and he loves us and wants to bear them with us. And going all the way through that agony of death and beyond, to the resurrection, Jesus also modeled for us that suffering does not have the last word. 
    Yes, Jesus surrendered to crucifixion as an act of love, the Creator's love for us creatures.
    But that doesn't, for me, redeem the crucifixion itself! The Cross, the cruel instrument of his execution, is not glorious, any more than Judas Iscariot is a saint. 

    And yet....

    The previous evening, after the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper, during the silent time of adoration of the Sacrament, a gentleman approached me in the church wanting to talk. I hushed him and pointed to the narthex as a place we could speak without disturbing the others. He spoke to me of his life situation, in French of course, so I couldn't understand much of what he said. Besides the language barrier, I also suspected that maybe his sense of reality might not entirely match what the rest of us experience (in other words, he was likely mentally ill), and what a lonesome condition that must be! 
    I told him that my French was not good enough to understand him, but that what I could understand was that he was suffering, and isolated, and that I would pray for him. His name is Georges, maybe you will pray for him as well. And I told him that I also have suffered, I have been down in the depths, and that is where I found God. He seems to have felt heard, even if not understood, and obscurely comforted. He told me, twice, that I had the face of an angel.

    I also have been down in the depths, and that is where I found God.

    So then, what is the meaning of suffering? Is there some redemptive value in it? I thought of the people, the angels in human disguise, who had met me at my own low point and begun to show me, to model for me, a way up to grace and solid ground. If Georges saw an angel in me on Thursday night, I hope it means that he found comfort and hope for himself in my shift from past suffering to present peace. 
    I used to think that maybe my past trauma carved out the deeper space in me that allowed for such an intense experience of God's love. And maybe that is part of the truth, I don't know. Nowadays I tend to think that I am just hard-wired for hypersensitivity and intensity, that I am predisposed to extremes. I'm what people used to call "high-strung." Experiences that other (neurotypical) people just take in their stride, for me are intense highs and lows. Things that other people don't even perceive, for me are undeniable realities.
    I've been through a low period recently. Although very far from the state I was in when I found God back in 1986, it has still been pretty painful. And I thought, if I had the choice, I would consent to go on paying the price of suffering, for the prize of the overwhelming Love of God as I experience it. I see and honor the equanimity that is other people's gift, and honestly, I still can't bring myself to wish the extremes on anyone else. That depth of suffering is so dreadful. And so many people seem to be permanently harmed by trauma, and never to find their way out of it. But for myself, I am grateful for my own double-edged gift. Is wanting to spare other people the agony that goes along with ecstasy a lack of faith on my part? Do I believe that I was saved by chance, rather than by God's loving initiative? Do I not believe that even at the point of death, even deaths as horrible as Jesus's by crucifixion, every soul is held in God's loving hand, and nothing is ever lost?

    I joined in the procession yesterday to venerate the cross, still feeling very conflicted about it. When I knelt and bent down my head, my veil fell down between my lips and the wood, so that I went through the motion without actually kissing the (cursed?) cross. The question is unresolved. 

    Tonight is Easter Vigil. Pray with me for Georges, for all those living with the suffering and isolation of mental illness. I pray for all those living in the agony of trauma without knowing (yet?) the ecstasy of the infinite love of God. I pray that all those now living in the agony of crucifixion will find hope in the experience of those of us who have already known resurrection. Amen.


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