Tag Archives: sign of the cross

Of Head Nods, Hat Tips, and Empty Crosses

10 Aug

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 A045_YouthTipsHatto 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 th4_fpc_bouldere 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?Travel_1holy_name-255x255

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.

Of Eunuchs, Emmaus, and Holy Water Fonts

11 May

Baptism is enough, it is sufficient to evangelize.
~ Pope Francis

Katharine made her First Holy Communion last Sunday – a momentous event, a holy moment! Naturally, she received some gifts to mark the occasion: A scapular (the plastic bothered her; I’ll get her a cloth one), a child’s Bible, and a beautiful ceramic holy water font. The font clearly caught her fancy, and she asked me that same evening how we could get the “special” water for it.

Fortunately,BoyAtHolyWaterFont-b I already had a small bottle of holy water in the house, so we hung up the font near her bed, filled the reservoir, and then dipped our fingers to bless ourselves. She went to bed very content – happy to have received Jesus in one Sacrament earlier in the day, and then encounter him again in that mini-Sacramental reminder just before sleep.

My guess is that she’s been using that font pretty regularly since then because of what happened a couple nights ago. After donning her PJs, Kath sought me out, holding up one hand very solemnly above the other. Without saying anything, she touched her wet fingers to my forehead, made the sign of the cross, and then headed off to bed. It was a blessed moment, come and gone so quickly, and so profound: My daughter, blessing me, and giving me such an intimate reminder of my baptismal dignity.

That profound encounter came to mind as I listened to the first reading last Thursday about St. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. You remember: The seemingly chance encounter on the road; an explication of opaque biblical texts; an entreaty to linger followed by the administration of a sacrament; and finally, a miraculous disappearance that paved the way for an apostolic journey.

Then it dawned on me: I’d just heard the same basic story on Sunday! Only then, it was Luke telling about the two disciples who ran into Jesus on the Road to Emmaus.

Cradle Catholics will have grown up hearing the Emmaus story as an image of the Mass: The Lord’s explaining the Scriptures parallels the Liturgy of the Word, and then, in Emmaus itself, there’s a meal that concludes with the breaking of bread in which the disciples “recognized the Lord” – an obvious parallel to the Liturgy of Jan_Wildens_Landscape_with_Christ_and_his_Disciples_on_the_Road_to_Emmausthe Eucharist.

The implications of those parallels are made plain in the sudden disappearance of Jesus precisely at the moment he was recognized – the moment, that is, when his bodily presence became almost redundant since he had become truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. In other words, those disciples in Emmaus had nothing on us: We have Jesus here today in our Tabernacles just as much as they did around that Emmaus dinner table!

But, back to Philip and the eunuch – the similarities with the Emmaus story are striking, and many scholars have commented on it. Besides, both stories were recorded by St. Luke – the Emmaus story in his Gospel, and the Ethiopian eunuch story in his Gospel sequel, the Book of Acts. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And, as I mentioned, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what Luke was intending in the Emmaus narrative, but what about the Ethiopian convert? And why the parallels?

Here’s a few thoughts inspired by Kath’s holy water font.

First, Luke uses the eunuch story to teach us about baptism – that we’re all utterly unworthy of the divine life it transmits to us, and there’s nothing we can do to earn it. It’s totally free – like Kath coming to me and bestowing her blessing that evening. Completely unexpected; a startlingly fresh gift. “Look, there is water,” the man asks Philip. “What is to prevent my being baptized?”

Apparently not anything! Not the brevity of his catechetical formation, not his pagan background, and not even the fact that he was mutilated and made impotent – something that would’ve prevented his being fully admitted to God’s family under Mosaic law. The adoption of this complete outsider into the body of believers marks the newfangled Way of Christ as radically open – extravagant, even. As extra(c) National Trust, Anglesey Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationvagant as God himself!

But there’s a responsibility that comes with the gift, and that leads to my second point – the disappearance. When Christ disappears in the Emmaus story we understand that to mean that the Lord had become present in the Eucharist. So, in the Acts narrative? When Philip vanishes? What else can Luke mean than that the apostolic authority has now become manifest in the newly baptized!

What? He can’t be serious! The foreigner had barely covered a rudimentary overview of the whole Judeo-Christian enterprise, and now we’re to see him on the same level as an Apostle appointed by Christ himself?

Yes, indeed. Luke records that the eunuch “continued on his way rejoicing.” And we, who also have been baptized, are called to that as well. And every single one of those cute little infants we baptize in our churches on Sunday mornings. They’re all called to be apostles – we’re all called – to spread the Gospel, to preach the Faith. Even the Pope says so:

Do we believe in this? That baptism is enough – sufficient to evangelize? [All of the baptized must] announce Jesus with our life, with our witness and with our words. When we do this, the church becomes a mother church that bears children. But when we don’t do it, the church becomes not a mother but a baby sitter church, which takes care of the child to put him to sleep.

And that leads to my final point: The whole eunuch thing – what’s that all about, right? Very awkward. Like trying to talk to junior high boys about St. Paul’s teaching on circumcision. (NOTE: I’ve tried this – forget it. It’s impossible. If you ask me, just skip to the Parables and forget about circumcision until they get into college.)

Nevertheless, awkward or no, the eunuch must be dealt with. On a superficial level, Luke notes that the Ethiopian official is a eunuch simply because it was the case – it was noteworthy in Luke’s mind, perhaps as a way of identifying the actual individual in question. We have to keep in mind that the Ethiopian eunuch and other biblical characters aren’t just literary devices utilized by authors to make theological points. Although it’s true that Scripture doesn’t record events the same way the New York Times would today, those whom God inspired to compose Holy writ were still jotting down actual occurrearticle-2538097-1A97C26800000578-298_634x645nces involving actual people. It’s God who orchestrated events to reveal truths; the human writers just recorded and reflected on them.

That being the case, the fact that this early catechumen-turned-neophyte in Acts was a eunuch takes on a deeper meaning which Luke draws out. Obviously, a eunuch is infertile by definition, and yet, once baptized, this eunuch immediately sets out to proclaim the Gospel and plant seeds of faith. Tradition even goes so far as to associate this early convert with the foundation of the very ancient church in Ethiopia. The infertile transformed into the fertile that should be me, too!

Ah, but there’s risk involved in being an apostle – a risk of humiliation and shunning, even a risk of death. It’s no accident, I think, that this story of the pagan Ethiopian convert shows up in Acts on the heels of Luke’s mention of the martyrdom of St. Stephen and its aftermath:

And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria.

Baptism is an infinite boon folded in with a dire warning: Beware! Danger ahead! And yet, new life as well. More life than you can possibly imagine! So much life that the risk of martyrdom will pale in comparison! The Catechism, quoting Vatican II, teaches us as much:

“Reborn as sons of God, [the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church” and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God.

Thus, when my daughter dips her fingers in the font to cross herself or me? It’s no small thing. It’s a reminder of baptismal grace, to be sure, but also a reminder of apostolic burden: Be a missionary; proclaim the Word; make Jesus present wherever you find yourself, no matter the cost!

Next time I dunk my own fingers in Kathy’s holy water font, I’ll think twice, and pray for strength – for both of us.

_____________________________________________________

Versions of this story appeared on Oblation and Catholic Exchange.

%d bloggers like this: