The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Thursday, May 03, 2007

On the Crucifix

A Jesús Crucificado

A vos corriendo voy, brazos sagrados,
en la cruz sacrosanta descubiertos,
que para recibirme estáis abiertos,
y para no castigarme estáis clavados.

A vos, divinos ojos eclipsados,
de tanta sangre y lágrimas cubiertos,
que para perdonarme estáis despiertos
y para no confundirme estáis cerrados.

A vos, clavados pies para no huirme;
a vos, cabeza baja, por llamarme;
a vos, sangre vertida para ungirme;

a vos, costado abierto quiero unirme;
a vos, clavos preciosos quiero atarme
con ligadura dulce, estable, firme.

(Juan M. García T., poeta colombiano)

(To Jesús Crucified

To you do I flee, holy arms,
On the holy cross uncovered,
To receive me you are wide open,
And to not punish me are you nailed.

To you, divine and eclipsed eyes,
Covered with tears and blood,
In order to forgive me you are awake
And in order not to scare me you are closed.

To you, feet nailed so as not to make me flee;
To you, bowed head, that calls me;
To you, blood shed, that washes me;

To you, opened side that unites me;
To you, precious nails do I want to tie myself
With a sweet, stable, and firm bond. )
(Image and poem found on this site)

Even during my fascination with Byzantine iconography, the figure of the Roman Catholic traditional crucifix always moved me. The crucifix and I have a lot of biography together. In the old Catholic church in Hollister, the most prominent side feature of what is left of the interior of the church is a life size crucifix whose feet I must have kissed hundreds of times. Mothers will still bring their children up to it to kiss the feet, and I have seen grown men crawl towards the cross to do the same.

In seminary, I would always pass a large crucifix on the way to my room until they put it up in the church itself. In my grandparent’s house, one hangs over the living room, half broken and with a bloody corpus hanging from it.

I have tried to think what it must have meant for young children like me growing up for hundreds of years with this image at the center of our Faith. I know that the crucifix has not always played the role that it did; indeed, its prominence is quite recent in terms of Christian centuries. Even the first crucifixes, as it is often pointed out, were more of the Christus Victor than the over-the-top displays of Catholic despair of Baroque Catholicism. Non-Mediterranean crucifixes also tend to be “cleaned up” a bit, with an immaculate corpus with surgically made wounds hanging from two very well crafted boards. Get to the Latin crucifixes, and then you are entering the realm that I am used to: knees, hands, sides, forehead, all opened up and bloodied. Eyes staring up in despair or closed in defeat. A visage that can scare a child or lead you to the farthest depths of compunction and pity. As a child, that is the crucifix I was looking at.

The word that I am looking for, many of you might protest, is grotesque. What did it do to the consciousness of Christian people to enter the church for hundreds of years and stare at this icon of death, as one of my Orthodox readers once called it? Is there some sort of psychological trauma that inflicts the consciousness of Western man that this image caused, as some Eastern Christian theologians would point out? What was the point of having a realistic image of a naked criminal agonizing on a tree as the most prominent religious symbol of the largest group that calls itself Christian?

There is not one answer, but I have one that I like to think is the most poetic, at least to me. I am currently reading the short stories of the Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector. In two of her stories, “Love” and “The Smallest Woman in the World”, people confront the other as grotesque, different, and loveable. In the former, a housewife’s life is briefly overturned by seeing an anonymous blind man chewing gum. In the latter, a French explorer finds the smallest Pygmy woman in the world and, after many weeks of playing the scientist with his specimen, realizes briefly that she is just as much a human being as he is. This is indeed a common theme in Lispector and in literature in general: the grotesque can serve not just as something that shocks, but it can also reveal, and self-reveal.

The cross in itself has a theology, but the crucifix adds a spin to it. The crucifix speaks to us on how really strange and unsettling daily life really is. The fact that Catholics can walk past a life size portrayal of naked man being executed and not flinch shows us how far we are from seeing the world in its proper light. And that is the root of our problems: we look past the Other, or we see him either as a target or a burden. How many people must have walked by Calvary’s foot when the Savior of the world hung from a tree, and did not even stop to see what was going on because it was too bloody, too unpleasant, and too grotesque? The crucifix shows God becoming completely Other, and when He becomes completely Other, He shows us ourselves as we really are.

To hide this reality, to try to “transfigure” it, does it no justice. There is suffering, poverty, sadness, and despair here and now. This is the image of God suffering with us in a suffering that will not be complete until the entire body of Christ has suffered it. As one of my favorite sayings by Pascal goes: “Jesus Christ will be agony until the end of the world. We must not sleep the while."
And in that, there is both compunction and comfort, fear and mercy, despair and hope. It is not the despair and hope of theologians, but the despair and hope of daily life.


At 9:15 PM, Blogger Archistrategos said...

I agree with everything you said.There is something about the crucifix that drives home the fear of hell and simultaneously,the love of God that no mural of the Last Judgment could ever do. The intimacy of its setting is perhaps its greatest and most powerful asset as well. It is as if you were literally thrust into the foot of Calvary.

I remember my dad would tell me stories about how he would dread it whenever his parents would scold him, because they would make him go to the family altar and kneel before this grotesquely bloody crucifix for a whole hour.

If you've seen the original 'Carrie', the corpus looked almost exactly like the image of St.Sebastian there, only with more blood, more wounds(His ribs were showing,and His wig was an unruly mess.

Today it's in a less prominent place than before,mostly due to its advanced age. But it still packs the visceral punch to repulse-- and more importantly, to edify.

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Peter said...

I have always looked upon the Crucifix with His words in John 15 in mind:

"This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you. *Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends*. You are my friends, if you do the things that I command you. I will not now call you servants ..."

To me it is the greatest symbol of Love the world has ever seen.


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