By Michelle Francl-Donnay
Jews demand “signs” and Greeks look for “wisdom,” but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, and an absurdity to Gentiles. – 1 Cor. 1:22
For more than 20 years I’ve sat on the same side of the chapel for Morning Prayer, facing the statue of St. Joseph holding the child Jesus in his arms. Each time I settle to pray, I notice the tender look on the saint’s face as he gazes at the young Christ and am reminded of the loving fathers in my life – my own, my brothers, my husband – and our heavenly Father. That is, until a few weeks ago.
As I bent to gather my keys and breviary at the end of Morning Prayer, the gentleman behind me asked me if I’d ever noticed anything odd about the statue of St. Joseph. I turned once again to look, wondering what after all these years I had missed. “Not really, no.”
“The infant Jesus is holding a cross.”
I murmured an affirmative, wondering where this was going.
“Well, what kind of father would give his child an instrument of torture for a toy?”
I haven’t seen the statue the same way since.
It is difficult for us who make the sign of the cross when we pray, who let the crucifix lead us into and out of the church, who finger the rosary in our pockets when we are worried to see the cross as anything other than a familiar icon of protection and comfort.
“Human kind,” says poet T.S. Eliot, “cannot bear very much reality.” And so I rarely choose to confront the harsh reality of the crucifixion, a ruthlessly cruel and public death meted out to those who mattered least. I’m more likely to stumble into its depths upon hearing it proclaimed in the Gospel on Palm Sunday or Good Friday, or in turning a corner in a museum to see a particularly evocative painting of the Passion, than to deliberately walk into those torrents.
Now when I face St. Joseph each morning I cannot get out of my head the absurd notion of a Father who would allow His beloved Son to embrace a horrific death – for us. I am challenged again and again to see Christ crucified, head on.
Death on a cross is not a rational act. I cannot reconcile the Father who so tenderly loves the Son with the Son left to die, crying out that He has been abandoned by God. St. Augustine reflected, “there is no way this gospel truth could have been made acceptable.” In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul says the crucifixion can be a stumbling block, a skandalon in Greek, for those whose eyes are fixed on other things, whether they be prophetic signs or the world’s wisdom – or beloved statues.
Paul calls me to turn the usual order of things in my life upside down, to shake out the bits and pieces of the world that obscure my vision of the cross, that it make something I occasionally trip over rather than what grounds and shapes my life. In the crucifixion, I confront the fullness of what it means to give your life for others. In the crucifixion, I see modeled the ultimate obedience to God’s will. Christ’s death not only brings us life, it teaches me how to live.
I began this Lent marked with the sign of the cross. The ashes on my forehead have long been washed away; instead I strive to bear what reality I can and so let my life bear the mark of Christ crucified for all to see.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable,
a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
– John Updike from Seven Stanzas at Easter
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.