As we heard again the account of the Lord’s Passion, I wonder what image came to your mind? The thing is, there are so many images of the crucified Christ that our memories are overwhelmed with them. Back in November at the Feast of Christ the King, I suggested just a few. Those were different days and we feel the pain of not being able to gather in this place to reflect on another aspect of Christ’s execution the hands of religious and political pragmatism. At this point in time, we might naturally feel drawn to what is the most common depiction of Christ on the cross, and that is of his suffering. Indeed, in other times of widespread disease, the image of Christ suffering in solidarity with the sick was a source of strength and comfort, and I’m sure your mind’s eye is taking you straight to Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece as stunning example of that. Christ’s agony is surely at the front of our minds as we consider the widespread suffering of this present pandemic.
But that’s not where I felt drawn this morning. Instead, I couldn’t get away from another very well known, indeed, almost certainly better known image of the crucified one, and that is the iconographic crucifix that once hung in the little church of San Damiano in the valley below Assisi where St Francis heard, three times, the call from Christ to rebuild his church. It’s such a familiar image that we might have stopped noticing how strange it is. I don’t know about you, but these last few weeks have caused me to look again at many things in the light of a deeply unfamiliar set of circumstances. And this particular image has been with me for a long time, as I’m sure it has for many of you, especially those who have a connection with the Franciscan family. My first real acquaintance with the San Damiano Crucifix was as a student, visiting Alnmouth Friary regularly in my late teens and early 20s.
For those who are less familiar with it, I’ve posted it on my blog or you can easily find it online, but let me briefly describe it and its oddness. It is a large piece, painted in an iconographic style that shows how close early Italian ecclesiastical art was to Byzantine art. It is full of detail, but I don’t want to get into that. Instead, I want to focus on the image of Christ himself. Unlike earlier depictions, which focused on his regal triumph over suffering and death, and later ones that showed his suffering and pain, the San Damiano cross shows Christ in attentive stillness. His body is not contorted in pain, as Cimabue would begin to show a few decades later; his eyes are open though not looking directly at us, and his face shows no hint of agony. How would you describe that expression? It’s neither resigned nor submissive; not exactly serene and not in any kind of ecstasy. Two words suggest themselves to me: still and open.
The stillness is a sort of unflinching steadiness, a total presence. Jesus is present to the reality he faces and present to those who look upon him. He bears with his circumstances and refuses to flee. It is something more powerful than resolve; it is an abiding presence and I find that very comforting in these difficult times.
The openness is an invitation to meet with him. It’s no surprise that Francis heard a voice speak from that face and many after him have found a deep encounter with Christ in contemplating this image. It’s an invitation and it’s a boundless openness that is willing and able to embrace not only the circumstances he faces but the circumstances of all who come to him. Nothing is excluded from that gaze.
We might protest that images like this do not do justice to the real human suffering of Christ or to the historical realities of a crucified man. But historical retelling, even if it were fully available to us, would not exhaust the meaning of the cross. Icons like this unfold the mystery of Christ. They present us with the inner meanings of his paschal self-offering and they are many. Each of the days in the coming week will offer us a particular facet on the paschal mystery. We are doing more than recounting history. We are delving deep into the truths that lie beneath the surface.
And the truth that the San Damiano cross unfolds to us is that died as he lived – in boundlessly open love towards all. This is the same Christ who entered into mystical union with the Father in prayer by night and on deserted hills and who entered into the mystery of human lives every time he encountered one who was prepared truly to meet with him: the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus by night, Mary and Martha in their grief, Peter in his shame, his Mother in her agony by the cross, Mary Magdalene in the garden. In this face we see the love of one who will abide close to us, unflinching, no matter what we face. We see the love of one who will not flee the direst circumstances. We see the stillness of one whose word to us will always be one of peace. We see the forsaken one who will not forsake us.
The coming days will offer us the chance to encounter the stillness and openness of Christ in new ways. We won’t have everything we’re used to but perhaps that will allow us fresh insights into the meaning beneath the surface of the events we recall. Holy Week is not a re-enactment, but an encounter that comes alive when we too keep still for long enough to allow our hearts to open up in loving response to Christ.