I think it fair to say that the most striking and vivid symbol one encounters in all of Catholic religious imagery is the crucifix. Yet it is so familiar that we at times run the risk of becoming inured to the true power of its message. Nevertheless, it is absolutely central to the logic of Christianity: for Christianity without the Cross of Christ is in fact devoid of value.
I think that part of the reason for the dulling of our appreciation of the crucifix is that we tend to sanitize it, so to speak. And we tend to sanitize it because we fear it.
We have lovely crucifixes, carved in Bavaria, hand-painted and with gilded edges. They are clean and even beautiful at times. We wear them around our necks, sometimes displaying them nicely in 18K gold against our Florida-tanned skin.
In other words, something within us seeks to take the bite out of this image of a tortured man pinned cruelly to harsh wood by cold nails; a man mocked and spat upon, with his skin torn and bleeding, with a crown of needle sharp thorns pressed into the tender flesh on his head. It's understandable enough because such is the desire of unregenerate man: we want the glory of the Cross without the suffering that makes it glorious.
Some have gone even further and have not only purged the images of our Crucified Lord of any unpleasantness, but have actually liberated Him from the iron nails completely, as if to say, "My Lord, you do overstate Your point." I even heard of a church that had replaced the corpus of its crucifix with a statuesque butterfly, as if Jesus were not a man after all, but a caterpillar. Then there is the "Precious Moments" crucifix!
I think that part of the antidote to this spiritual pathology can be found, artistically at least, in Latin America. There you can find crucifixes so vivid and lifelike that one's first reaction upon beholding them is to wince and to hide one's children from them. There you will see images of Our Lord with the body so bloody there is scarcely any skin that can be seen; with the bone of the kneecaps exposed; with glass eyes searching in agony; (with human hair Elmer-glued to the head).
Now, in sophisticate company, the kind that actually pretends to have something intelligent to say about such things as Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe pop-art, the Spanish crucifixes of the steamy, chaotic nations south of the border might appear to be, well, excessive and perhaps even fanatical.
A friend of mine, (who, by the way, when we go out for pizza sops up the grease with napkins before eating) had just returned from Ecuador on business and told me of a crucifix he had seen there that he said he will never forget. The sculptor had made the wound in Our Lord's side so awful and gaping that one could actually peer into the chest cavity! And just in case the uninformed miscellaneous tourist in white sneakers was not astute enough to check, there was a tiny red light inside illuminating the Sacred Heart!
Tacky, you say? Not exactly something to hang over the wedding bed? Perhaps; but grippingly conscious of just what are the wages of sin, no one should deny.
Such crucifixes are born from the souls of those who understand the logic of the Cross, viz., that true love lies in self-sacrifice. True love doesn't take, it gives. It suffers. It is willing to die for the beloved.
Now there is one particular episode in Christian history that illustrates this very movingly, and sticks in my head. Some of you may have heard of the French Carmelite nuns of Compiègne who, during the Reign of Terror in Revolutionary France, vowed to offer their lives as a sin offering to God for an end to the hellish bloodletting perpetrated by the advocates of Liberté, Egalité, et Fraternité. There is in fact an opera by Francios Poulenc called the Dialogues of the Carmelites which has told the story on the stage.
The Terror, you may recall, was a fanatical anti-Christian fury that was fueled by the blood of thousands of priest and religious; that smashed the priceless stained-glass windows of ancient churches; that dug up and desecrated the bodies of saints; that erected a platform over the sacred high altar of Notre Dame de Paris and there enthroned a prostitute to mock God; and that even eradicated the seven day biblical week and replaced it with a ten day version that had no reference to God.
The nuns of Compiègne, knowing of this reign of sacrilege, were faced with the decision to scatter and hide, or to face the Terror. Famously, they chose the latter and did so with the explicit intention of vanquishing it and its principle architect, Robespierre. There were sixteen of these brides of Jesus Christ, and they stayed in their convent and awaited the day of battle.
It soon came: they were arrested on trumped up charges of counter-revolutionary activity and led by wagon to the Place du Trone where the guillotine waited to consume them as it had thousands before. It is said that the evil aura of the place and the stench from the rotting blood was so horrible that it was difficult even to prod the horses into the square.
But the sixteen Carmelite nuns entered the site with perfect serenity, chanting hymns to God and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The usually raucous crowd, inebriated with the killing, fell silent that day at the spectacle of such women. They were called to the scaffold one by one. And each nun in turn knelt before the Mother superior and said, "Permission to die, Mother?" To which Mother Superior responded by holding out a small statue of our Lady for the nun to kiss one last time, and was sent off with the words, "Go, my daughter."
The chanting of God's praises continued throughout the beheadings of the sixteen, fading successively until only one voice was left on the scaffold, and then silenced forever.
That was on July 17, 1794. That very week the tide turned against Robespierre and on the tenth day he lost his own head at the vary same guillotine and the Terror sputtered to an end, defeated ultimately, I firmly believe, not by a Christian army, but by sixteen holy women who understood perfectly the logic of the Cross of Jesus Christ.
My friends, the history of the Church is replete with tales of this kind of self-sacrificial love. They are not all as glorious as that of the Carmelite Nuns of Compiègne, but they all participate in the same vision to one degree or another.