Indeed he is not far from any one of us.
~ St. Paul
As a neophyte in Chicago, I was blessed with an abundance of Catholic culture. The Windy City is an immersion experience for converts – the ideal mystagogy – and I relished all the new language, rituals, traditions, and Catholic quirks, absorbing it all like a sponge.
For example: Nodding my head any time the name of Jesus is uttered, a habit I picked up from my godfather. In previous generations, this was a normal part of Catholic etiquette, as routine as genuflecting before entering a pew. You can see it in action in this scene from the 1940s film The Bells of St. Mary, where the schoolchildren sing a Christmas “Happy Birthday” at the end of their Nativity play.
Catch that? All their heads made a determined bob at the mention of the Holy Name, as if it would be unthinkable to do anything otherwise.
“But that’s a movie,” you’re thinking. “Those kids were acting; they were coached and directed.” Yes! That’s the point! Leo McCarey, the director, surely coached all the child actors, regardless of their actual church affiliation, to make the nod because he knew the Catholics watching the film would expect to see it. Actually, it’s not that the nod would’ve been expected, but rather its absence would have been unsettling and weird – because it was so normal at that time.
And you can still see vestiges of this once universal practice at Mass to this day – watch the priest, depending on the formation he received, and older parishioners as well – but it’s not nearly as common as it used to be. That’s too bad, because it’s an important reminder of a vital truth. In the Biblical tradition, names were wholly representative of the persons named. By bowing the head when Jesus’ name is mentioned, we acknowledge His divine majesty and dignity, as well as our relative status as utterly dependent. Thus, even a quick bow when His name is uttered (particularly when it is uttered as an oath) fleshes out in miniature St. Paul’s universal imperative:
God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Another time-honored Catholic quirk I picked up in Chicago is making the sign of the cross and tipping my cap every time I go by a parish church. My mentor in this regard was Mark Miller, a longtime Catholic Worker in Uptown who had a deep-seated devotion to the Eucharist. I would occasionally accompany him in his truck to pick up donated food for the soup kitchen, and whenever we drove by a church, Mark would lift his cap and cross himself. Eventually, I mustered up the courage to ask him about it. “Jesus is in there,” he responded flatly. “I’m just paying my respects.”
Of course, there are Catholic churches and chapels all over Chicago, which meant that we never went far in any direction without doffing hats and invoking the cross again and again. I didn’t mind, because it was an incredibly comforting gesture, especially to a convert. What a relief to be regularly acknowledging that Jesus was always close at hand, Really Present all over the place. Moreover, He wasn’t just present, but also waiting for me to come visit and offload all my burdens and worries and crud.
I starting performing the ritual right alongside Mark, and it quickly became a habit – eventually I ceased thinking about it much. And now, I do it automatically as I pass by the churches scattered here and there around South Bend. It has become routine, even perfunctory, like the head nod at the mention of Jesus’ name. Perfunctory, yes, and routine, but still a valuable sign – like a goodnight kiss between exhausted spouses. Not always heartfelt at the moment, but nonetheless an important sign of underlying commitment and relationship, not to be missed.
It’s the same way I’ve long felt about crucifixes in our home. I’ve ensured that one is prominently displayed in every room of our home, even though I know they eventually become part of the woodwork, so to speak, and hardly noticed in the bustle of life. But they’d surely be missed if they weren’t there – that is, I know I’d miss them.
I grew up with wall crosses as a Protestant, but they were always empty. Like many converts to Catholicism, I was drawn to the novelty of the crucifix with its visible corpus as a focal point of devotion. The crucifix’s three-dimensional Christ is a stark and startling visual reminder that our God does indeed understand his creatures’ plight firsthand; that He is not a detached deity, but an incarnate Lord, who has mucked around right alongside us in our little corners of this fallen world, and has known human pain and suffering and death.
St. John puts it a little more eloquently when he wrote that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” – that He “pitched His tent” among us as the Bible scholars tell us. I like that image. I’m guessing that tent-pitching in a foreign territory can be frustrating, messy, and even dangerous – just like our lives. The result of that tent-pitching for Jesus, of course, was deadly indeed, but it led to new life. Consequently, for us to see Him on our crosses at home can give us courage and confidence to keep trudging ahead in our own struggles because we already know the end of the story. The empty cross points ahead to Easter triumph, to be sure, but the crucifix is an image of God’s consummate empathy in the here and now along with an underlying message of hope for the future tied in.
That idea was brought home to me a couple years after I’d become a Catholic and I attended a funeral at the Presbyterian church of my youth. It was a funeral for a young person who’d died under tragic circumstances, and the anguish of the family and others gathered there was almost unbearable. Everyone was reduced to sobs and tears, me included, and for consolation, I instinctively looked up to the front of the church, hoping to gaze on the Crucified One.
But He wasn’t there. It was a beautiful cross, framed by stained glass, and comforting in its own way, but He wasn’t on it. The empty cross offered hope of Resurrection and life and eternal peace, yet that’s not what I was looking for at that moment. What I wanted, what I needed to see at that moment of intense grief was God suffering alongside all of us, and I didn’t.
This is what Nancy Murray was getting at in a recent issue of American Life League’s Celebrate Life magazine where she wrote movingly about her mother’s courageous battle with mental illness. “My mother once told me that she kept a crucifix in every room,” noted Murray, “so she could see Christ on the cross at all times.”
However, I’ve had a change of heart about empty crosses. Not too long ago, Fr. Martelli mentioned in a weekday sermon, almost as an afterthought, that he appreciates empty crosses – maybe even preferring them, if you can believe that – because they invite the faithful to picture themselves hanging there.
That caught me off guard. “Wait,” I thought. “What? Picture myself hanging there? Why?” I had to think about that one.
When I’m suffering through something, I already know it. In such moments, I’m looking for solace and comfort and understanding, not a mirror. Why would I want to picture myself on an empty cross when I can see God Himself up there as a sign of divine sympathetic rapport?
St. Matthew records the answer. Jesus tells his disciples (and us by extension):
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
This is the revolutionary notion animating Chaim Potok‘s Asher Lev, an Orthodox Jewish painter, when he explains why he chose to depict his mother hanging on a domesticated cross:
For all the pain you suffered, my mama. For all the torment of your past and future years, my mama…. For dreams of horror, for nights of waiting, for memories of death…for all these I created this painting—an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment.
Fr. Martelli and Potok were getting at the same point: The Cross, as a symbol of suffering, is profoundly universal. Yes, we Christians find relief in our present sufferings by seeing God Himself hanging on the crucifix, but the empty cross has value as well for all people. It is a powerful, truly catholic sign of hope amidst hardship, particularly when it is embraced in earnest.
And if we can see ourselves up there? Why not others – as Asher Lev envisioned with reference to his own mother. Seeing ourselves on the cross increases our empathy for our neighbors as they grapple with their own adversity and misfortune. Sure, I’ve got my problems, my crosses, but so does the cranky cashier at the grocery store, the guy who cut me off on the bypass, my dentist, my coworker, my son. They’re all crucified, they’re all Christ in a way, especially if we take to heart the idea that they’re all carrying a divine imprint, regardless of their faith tradition. As a rabbinical saying puts it, “A procession of angels pass before each person, and the heralds go before them, saying, ‘Make way for the image of God!'”
Maybe I should be tipping my hat and crossing myself more often.
A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.