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Horror/Love Image

 

Jesus_on_CrossParaphrasing Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven, I fled the image of the Crucified Jesus “down the nights and down the days…I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind…” Always knowing that one day I would have to embrace the Crucified Jesus. Now very late in life, I find myself dwelling on this image of horror, this image of God’s love for us.

The image of the Crucified Jesus should have been an image of love and hope. Instead it became an image of horror because of its association with the price of redemption. I fled that image. I promised myself that I would embrace it some day, but not now. And the years have come and gone. My assumption is that many people have suffered this terrible ambivalence. How do we heal this spiritual ambivalence? Let me suggest three ways.

Contemplate the Crucified. What is there to analyze? An Infinite Lover, infinitely mysterious, expressed infinite love to humanity on Calvary. God did it his way, and his ways are not our ways, and certainly not within our capacity to understand. In Sr. Ilia Delio’s book, Christ in Evolution, we read: “St. Bonaventure maintained that God, who is a Trinity of incomprehensible love, reveals that love in the mystery of the cross….only one filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, the fire of love, can enter into this mystery; here the mind gives way to the heart and we are drawn to the one whom we can never fully understand but whom we desire from the depths of our being.”

Contemplation of the Crucified is required, not rationalization by our computer-like minds. Our rational minds divorced from our hearts cannot deal with mystery. They produce all the wrong answers—penal substitution, ransom, Father’s vindictive justice. Rather, we must embrace this mystery—being fully present to it with loving hearts and attentive minds. We must surrender ourselves, gift ourselves to the image of the Crucified. And let the image speak to our hearts and our hearts to it.

Change Image of Crucified. What has always disturbed me about images of the Crucified Jesus is that they show Jesus as a single isolated, abandoned individual being crucified. Just too horrible to gaze at! St. Bonaventure’s comment that the Trinity of love was present on Calvary manifesting love for mankind raised my comfort level. Inspiration! Find an image that reveals this Trinitarian relationship and participation. Friends pointed out Salvador Dali’s painting “Christ of John of the Cross.”

This painting communicates that idea. It was based on a drawing by the 16th Century Spanish friar Saint John of the Cross. Dali says that he was inspired in a dream. Dali employed a triangle and a circle for Jesus’ figure: the triangle is formed by Jesus’ arms suggesting the Trinity; the circle for Jesus’ head suggesting Jesus as the center of the universe. Jesus, the medium of our union with the Trinity of Love! It is an image that I cherish and pray with.

Identify with Crucified. Jules Massanet’s opera Thais surprised me with a whole new approach to deepening my relationship with the Crucified Jesus. The opera is the story of a monk who attempts to convert Thais, an Egyptian priestess, to Christianity. The monk presses the crucifix in her face and pleads with her to abandon her sinful living.

In the next scene she is lying on a lounge pondering his words. Her meditation is expressed through an apparently erotic dance by a topless dancer. She had me entranced. We hear the composer’s beautiful interlude, Meditation. The stage prop is a hollow frame of the cross. Its structure allows the dancer to move in and out of the cross’ frame. Finally the dancer lifts herself onto the cross taking the pose of the Crucified Jesus, her body writhing in agony.

An “erotic” dance became a sacred dance—expressing Thais’ self-emptying, spiritual nakedness, self-transformation. She had surrendered, totally identifying with Jesus. Her surrender was the Spirit’s invitation to me to identify with Jesus’ passion and death. Before the Consecration at Mass, I try to identify with the Crucified Jesus through this image. It is an appropriate time. The Risen Jesus brings the fire of Calvary to our altars to create his crucible of love, in which he melts down our alienation from God, from others, from ourselves—if we are open.

Conclusion. For almost 2,000 years the Church has preached, and continues to preach, a theology of redemption with its message of penal substitution. Fr. Joseph Komonchak defines that message as: “Christ stepped into our place and endured the full wrath of God’s vindictive justice…to pay off the immense debt incurred by the sins of humanity.” He calls this theological viewpoint oversimplistic. Oversimplistic because the Church sought a rational explanation. We need loving contemplation to enter into this mystery.

“Those who gaze upon the crucified long enough—with contemplative eyes—are always healed at deep levels of pain, unforgiveness, aggressivity and victimhood,” states Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM. “It demands no theological education at all, just an inner exchange by receiving the image within and offering one’s soul back in safe return.”