In my travels, I often encounter artifacts from different countries and cultures. Among these, the most powerful are always the crosses and crucifixes crafted in a style that reflects the specific struggles and sufferings of those communities.
Let me describe three.
In a Jesuit-run gift shop in Cambodia, my eyes could not leave a simple form of Jesus on a cross made from thick black wire. Jesus was missing the lower part of his left leg. This was crafted by land mine survivors who have lost limbs to these deadly contraptions designed with a sole purpose: to maim and disable.
In the depth of their misery, these individuals joined their suffering with Christ. The victims’ cross is an expression of Christ bearing their pain and their bearing the cross. In their suffering, they claimed and proclaimed God.
Years ago in China, I was gifted with an unpainted clay statue of a peasant woman holding an infant boy high above her head. His arms are outstretched as in a cross. Her feet step on a menacing dragon. This statue was created during a period when religion and religious objects were banned in the country. This statue appropriated the legend of a young woman from a village who hoisted a lantern on her head and stood on the top of a mountain to give light to her husband and father lost at sea in a storm.
I love the statue, as it was an act of defiance from a faith that could not be extinguished. It imparts the promise of light from what would have been the lantern with the symbol of the cross. In the midst of utter darkness, through the cross, Christ shows the way to him, our home.
A dark ebony cross from the border area between Sudan and South Sudan hangs outside my office. Carved on the vertical and horizontal bars of the cross are hands touching each other. Only the two hands at the ends of the horizontal cross-bar have their palms turned outward as depicted in crucifixes.
From a territory beset by conflict, starvation, bombings, eviction from one’s land and violence against the church, the hands carved on this cross bring another dimension of Christ’s passion into view: the relationship between the one who suffers and those who cause the suffering.
The hands express a longing for solidarity and community, for human contact that renders strangers into acquaintances and acquaintances into friends, hands stretched out in a gesture of peace.
Integral to the experience of the cross is forgiveness: the last act of Christ before he surrendered his spirit, offered to the one who sought it and to the many who did not. In a land where peace seems so elusive, the hands carved into this cross are perhaps a reminder that the peace we seek does not depend solely on us but on God who promised that it is his peace that he leaves with us.
Carolyn Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.