One of my parishes is building a new parish school.
One task before the principal is to furnish the school with Christian images and symbols.
He advises that the Establishment has moved away from crucifixes because it distresses some children.
Many schools have an image of the risen Jesus sort of floating in front of the cross:
Neither of us were very keen on that idea because it too obviously sanitises one of the most important parts of our faith. We’ll probably end up with images of Jesus the Good Shepherd, or maybe the Holy Family.
That conversation raises something interesting though. The crucifix is perhaps the preeminent image in our Catholic tradition. Most of us would have a crucifix in the home. The crucifix certainly has a prominent place in this church, and in every Catholic church.
Why the crucifix? Why not the resurrection?
I think today’s Gospel answers that question. It starts with some Greek-speaking visitors to Jerusalem who would like to meet Jesus. The Lord’s response to this request is unexpected.
He could have said, “Sure, introduce us.” But instead he launches into a long discourse about the hour of the Son of Man. It comes across as an elaborate refusal. The visitors, it seems, are rebuffed — until we get to his conclusion:
“And when I am lifted up from the earth,
I shall draw all men to myself.”
So in the end, the Lord is actually granting their request to see him. Jesus in fact wants everyone to find him; to know him and love him on the cross.
It’s no accident that the crucifix looms so large in Catholic imagery. It’s in direct response to today’s Gospel. The crucifix is the great revelation of the heart of God. It exposes a heart blazing with so much love that it is pierced for our sake; it stops beating for our sake. God dies for our sake.
The Lord wants us to approach him on the cross. It is from there that he draws us to himself. Some time or other, you fill find yourself there, at the foot of the cross.
It is desolate, but it is not peaceful. It resembles the eye of a diabolical storm. You might be conscious of hellish howls; frightful thoughts; violent passions. But the predominant feature of Calvary is an oppressive absence of God. Abandonment. The foot of the cross is dark. There is no light; no warmth; no reprieve.
You will pray to God, and to the saints, for the saints are there, surrounding Our Lady, and St John, and St Mary Magdalene. But the more you pray to them for help, the more they will lift and press you into that cross, against its splinters and sharp edges. You may cry out in pain, but they are apparently indifferent.
Why does it happen? Because Jesus is on that cross, and they are lifting you up towards him.
“When I am lifted up from the earth,
I shall draw all men to myself.”
This is a great privilege he gives us: to share his cross. But it is as painful for us as it was for him.
It is a shame that the crucifix is increasingly banished from many Catholic schools (not to mention Catholic hospitals). However, I think the reasons for it are substantial.
There are some students who might be distressed by the image of Jesus, nailed to the cross. I’m conscious that there are some little ones who are very wary — even frightened — by the two angels in our church hall!
The fact is, in most of my parish schools, there is a large crucifix in a prominent position at the school entrance. But it’s also a fact that for some of our students, school is the only place where they find safety and stability.
Warmth, security, affection — these are precisely the qualities our Church should provide, because these are the qualities of the heart of God. The heart we see on the cross.