When writer Natalie Trust agreed to do a guest post for “From Grape Juice to Red Wine“, I did a happy dance in my kitchen. Natalie is just one of those salt-of-the-earth storytellers: honest, gracious, funny and dead-on. I know you’ll enjoy her piece today. If you do, keep a look out for the memoir she’s working on - Stranger in My Bed.
When Empty Crosses Aren’t Enough
She had such a kind face; it was as if every laugh line crinkled joy into the atmosphere. If I had to pick one woman who demonstrated the love of Jesus in the most tangible way, to my pre-adolescent self, it would be this woman.
I remember standing by her hospital bed, her face beaming at me, wanting to know how I was doing, how were the other kids in the Sunday school class, the class she could no longer teach because her cancer had returned. We talked and talked and I felt seen and heard and loved during that visit; it would be the last time I would see her.
Before I left her room, she motioned to a crucifix on the wall, “I’ve been telling the nurses to take it off the wall so I can have it closer to my bed,” she paused, a twinkle in her eye, “and after they leave, I pick at it, trying to get Jesus off the cross because he isn’t there anymore!”
I smiled at this, and for many years, I often thought of my 5th grade Sunday school teacher whenever I saw an empty cross hanging in the evangelical churches I attended throughout my life.
The risen Christ, that’s what she clung to, that is what gave her hope, and today, I too, find hope in the risen Christ.
And yet, several years ago, the empty cross began to mean less and less to me.
I had suffered too much for the clean, pretty cross, and I didn’t know how to relate to it anymore.
I wanted the gritty; my life had turned gritty with intimate spiritual, emotional and sexual betrayal by my spouse.
For a period of years, I stopped going to church; I sought God in solitude and in trusted relationships, and in books and music.
I didn’t stop loving Jesus, I believed in his death and his resurrection, but attending church had become a source of severe anxiety and confusion.
Then, one day, through nothing less than the prodding of the Holy Spirit, I found myself sitting quietly in the back of a Catholic parish for the very first time, humbled by the sight of the detailed, mounted crucifix.
I needed a Christ hanging on the cross, ribs bulging, head hanging, arms outstretched and hands and feet nailed. I needed the gore because I needed to know, to see, the suffering of Christ.
The evangelical world often cleans up the sacrifice of Jesus’ life to make it palatable, at least in the way their churches are decorated. But empty cross never turned anyone’s stomach, never forced someone’s eyes to lower in reverence, but a crucifix, it tells another story.
I love the way Thomas Keating, a member of the Cistercian Order in the Benedictine tradition, speaks about the vulnerability of Christ in his book, The Heart of the World. I picked up a copy of this book during my desert days; my days of solitude and absence from organized religion. I found so much comfort in his words as he wrote about the crucifix in chapter two,
“The love of Christ manifested itself in his sheer vulnerability. The crucifix is the sign and expression of the total vulnerability of Jesus: the outstretched arms, the open heart, the forgiveness of everything and everyone. This sheer vulnerability made him wide open to both suffering and to joy.”
When I looked up at that crucifix a couple years ago, I believe it played a part in stirring my heart home to the Catholic Church. I know for certain it began to inform my wonder over the sacrament of the Eucharist and the extraordinary graces held within it.