Tag: Jesus

Wine to Gladden the Heart.

Les Trois Dames de Paris wine drinking

Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth,

and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine,
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
(Psalm 104:15-16 RSV)

At a literal level this is clearly a song which blesses God for the fertility of the harvest and all the gifts which we as Man (male and female) derive from it. Because the psalms are divinely inspired works, though, the Church has always encouraged her children to look at the spiritual pearls which are buried in the field of Scripture. We might, for example, consider the three sacramental elements mentioned by the psalmist, wine, oil and bread, as representing the actions of the Father, Holy Spirit and Son respectively.

I shall leave you to meditate over that in your own way. Here I propose to look at the two heart relationships that are described. The divine gift which gladdens and the divine gift which strengthens. It is not fanciful to see in the wine divinity transcendent and in the bread divinity incarnate. Since these are not two divinities but the One God then responding to the one will lead us to the other. That is, loving and desiring the Transcendent One will lead us to love and desire His manifestation in the world which we physically inhabit, and not only does He have a name and a face here, Jesus Christ, but He is also present within all of us, so love of God in His illuminated transcendence leads us ineluctably to love of our neighbours. Conversely, when we have a disinterested, selfless love for our fellow creatures we will be led to love also the source of life that animates and then flows through them into the world, which is of course the Transcendent One.

Although it is the same God who is both transcendent and incarnate He is perceived by us to be operating in two different modes and so He has these two different effects upon our hearts, gladdening and strengthening. As the Transcendent One we see Him as being rather than as doing. So in gazing upon Him we are entranced by His beauty, His stillness, His silence, His infinite depth, His light, His pure love and so on. We, in a sense, drink Him in and He is a source for us of unending joy for so long as, being in a state of grace, we can contemplate Him or reminisce about our time in His presence.

As Emmanuel, God With Us, the Incarnate One has come down, so Jesus Himself tells us, as bread from heaven. In consuming Him we are strengthened, He Himself enters into us and we enter into Him. Because He is everything that we are, apart from sin, our weariness is His weariness, our sorrows are His sorrows, our weakness is His weakness. The strength that comes to us from Him lies in the truth that all of these frailties of ours proceed from our journey towards death but He is the Resurrected One, He has defeated death and lives forever and so long as we are in Him we too can share in His eternal victory starting here and now in this Today.

Insofar as love is real it is empty of Self and consists of a perpetual act of giving. Insofar as it is false it consists only of Self and aims at a perpetual state of receiving. The love of God for us, then, is an eternal giving of gifts, the wine that gladdens, the bread that strengthens. Our loving response cannot consist simply of a passive receiving but must be of the nature of a constant giving in return. St Catherine of Siena reports the Lord as saying “The service you cannot render me you must do for your neighbours.” That is, while we can directly give Him praise, thanks and worship the only way we can give Him consolation for His pain, water for His thirst and food for His hunger is through the good that we do to those whom we share the world with. So the gladness and the strength which we receive is not simply for our own benefit, so that we feel good, but for the benefit also of those around us to whom the divine gifts flow and overflow out of the abundance which we have received.

Now, you may think that all of the foregoing is mere inconsequential rambling. If so you quite possibly show good judgement. The point, however, is not how well I have carried out the exercise but the fact that I have carried it out at all. If this blog (and its predecessor Catholic Scot) has any purpose at all it is to rescue from disuse the practice of seeing Scripture as a multi-layered text which contains deep meanings that are not obvious at first glance.

Since the, ahem, changes inflicted on Christianity by Luther and his successors there has been a tendency to see literal readings of the Bible as the only legitimate form of interpretation. This has been compounded by the academic historical text criticism approach which seeks to limit Scriptural meanings to the historical context in which they were written, a context which archeology and other disciplines have increasingly recovered to a degree of fullness not previously known. All of this work is valuable and useful so far as it goes but it is too one-dimensional. The Spirit and spirituality flowed through the minds and fingers of the original authors of our sacred text. It contains depths and heights which go beyond the immediate context of their time, place and level of conscious awareness. They recorded on the pages of the books which they wrote not simply the things of which they were aware intellectually but also many things which they apprehended in ways beyond time, place and sequential thought. They left us, in the Bible, a great spiritual treasury and Christians, with the mind of the Church, should use all the tools at our disposal to unlock it.

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The picture is Les Trois Dames de Paris


The Spirit of Antichrist

Saint John the Evangelist Writing German, about 1340

Anyone who has had the great patience, or the great misfortune, to have read as many as half-a-dozen or so of my posts on this blog or its predecessor, Catholic Scot, might think that I have an obsession with the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. Personally I prefer to think that I am possessed by, rather than obsessed with, this fundamental tenet of the faith. There is a key text from St John the Theologian which, I think, justifies this singular focus of mine, to wit-
How will you recognize the spirit of God?
Any spirit recognizing Jesus as the Christ who has taken our flesh is of God.
But any spirit which does not recognize Jesus is not from God, it is the spirit of the antichrist.
You have heard of his coming and even now he is in the world.
You, my dear children, are of God and you have already overcome these people, because the one who is in you is more powerful than he who is in the world.
They are of the world and the world inspires them and those of the world listen to them.
We are of God and those who know God listen to us, but those who are not of God ignore us. This is how we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error as well.
(1 John, 4 )

There are and have been many inside and outside the Church who have recognised something about Jesus but not the thing, the one thing necessary. Namely that He is ‘the Christ who has taken our flesh.’ From Gnostics and Arians through to Anthroposophists and theological Modernists He has been proclaimed anything from an emanation of the Deity clothed in the appearance of flesh through to a great teacher of Wisdom who was nonetheless culturally conditioned and thus limited in His ability to see what ‘everybody knows’ in this present era.

Yet St John hits the nail firmly on the head in his advice to us. Jesus is fully and entirely the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, the Logos of God who has been with the Father from ‘the beginning,’ begotten not made, Light from Light. He is also fully and entirely the Son of Mary, flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood, dependant upon her in the womb, requiring the milk of her breasts in infancy. He is both these things at the same time, and because He is both these things, and only because He is both these things, He can come to us fully present in the material elements of the Eucharist and feed our souls.

The world cannot understand such a doctrine and rejects it as incomprehensible. Which is why the Theologian says that those who fail to recognise Jesus for who He is but who instead teach another Jesus, a false Jesus of their own devising, are inspired by the world. The wish to conform to the beliefs and prejudices of our neighbours overwhelms the little seed within which prompts us to conform instead to the Christ who has taken our flesh and who, in that flesh, was crucified.

Even among those who formally adhere the the Nicene Creed there are many who disbelieve in practice what they proclaim in theory, making void their profession. This can be seen in the qualifications with which they attempt to surround and hedge in our Saviour so that they can radically reinterpret Him in the light of the era in which they happen to live; as if the Son of God had lacked the capacity to once for all deliver a message to all the ages and for all the ages of human history.

Some translations, such as the Douay-Rheims, make the point even more explicitly-
Every spirit that dissolveth Jesus, is not of God: and this is Antichrist
To dissolve Jesus is to separate the Divinity of the Logos from the flesh of Mary’s Son. The result of such an operation not only diminishes Him it also diminishes us. If the Christ has not taken our flesh then our flesh has not achieved the consummation of perfection, a perfection which we can share if we clothe ourselves with Christ. If Mary is not the Mother of God then the death of her Son in the flesh has not won our Redemption, it has simply been another tragic episode in the long history of human cruelty, worse than some perhaps but not of such a nature as to change the entire fabric of the cosmos forever. If the Jesus who rose from the grave is not fully Man as well as fully God then death has not been defeated and it yet retains its sting.

When the doctrine of Incarnation is fully accepted, that is, when it is truly known and not simply known about, then it is a radically life changing truth. A radicalism that goes beyond the merely political categories that each generation clothes it with as if they were being daringly original. It is a radicalism that strikes deep into the category known as ‘me.’ And into every ‘me’ that ever lived. It is life changing because it teaches us the truth both that this ‘me’ killed God and that this God thinks me so lovable that He willingly embraced both my life and His death. If the 200 000 or so words I have written in my Catholic blogs have convinced anyone of the importance of this truth then it has been, at any rate, a magnificent obsession

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The picture of St John the Evangelist writing is from a 14th century manuscript in the Getty collection.

Jesus & the Marginalised: A Case Study

calling of st matthew caravaggio

There is a tendency within Christianity which argues that the primary purpose of Jesus’ mission was to affirm the marginalised and the excluded. Such a narrative does not fully account for the appeal which He had to wealthy and/or influential people like Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Joseph of Arimathea, the Sanhedrin member, or Nicodemus, the leading Pharisee. It is true, nonetheless, that among His closest followers were a disproportionate number of those who might be called outcasts. I have noticed though that those who emphasise that Our Lord had a particular focus on the marginalised and the excluded seldom ask the, to me obvious, follow through questions ‘marginalised by whom?’ and ‘excluded for what?’

The case of St Matthew (also named Levi) can give us some answers to these questions. He was a tax collector when Jesus called Him to become an Apostle. What, specifically did that mean? In his reflections on the subject Pope Benedict XVI summarised it thus
Matthew, in fact, not only handled money deemed impure because of its provenance from people foreign to the People of God, but he also collaborated with an alien and despicably greedy authority whose tributes moreover, could be arbitrarily determined.”

If we were to recast it in contemporary (2017) terms then Matthew would be an African-American employed by the GOP to administer (as their opponents see it) voter suppression. Or he would be a Palestinian Muslim serving as an Army officer in the Israel Defence Forces. Or he would be a German born Labour MP campaigning in favour of Brexit. That is, he would be someone that everyone who thought of themselves as being ‘on the right side of history’ would despise. By including Matthew in His inner circle Jesus would appear to be expressing a preferential option for traitors, collaborators and oppressors, and in a sense so He did.

Jesus did not simply have a mission to those people whom others exclude and marginalise. He has a mission to those whom you personally exclude and marginalise. He didn’t just call  a Frodo and an Eowyn He also called a Gollum and a Grima Wormtongue. And however much you might like to think that Judas Iscariot came from whatever the 1st century equivalent of white male conservative privilege was he might be just as likely to have been akin to a queer black liberal Democrat.

Our Lord called those who were excluded and rejected by the oppressed. He called those who were marginalised by campaigners for social justice. And He did that for the same reason that He called the poor and the victims of oppression. Pope Benedict expresses it like this-
..he rose and followed him! In this “he rose”, it is legitimate to read detachment from a sinful situation and at the same time, a conscious attachment to a new, upright life in communion with Jesus.

Jesus did not come to ‘affirm’ anyone. He came to convert everyone. Whether you campaign for or against abortion you require conversion. Whether you are in favour of or opposed to gun control you require conversion. If you support the European Union you require just as much conversion as the person who opposes it. And that means you must spend time focussing on your own sinfulness and inclination to evil. If you spend more time being angry at others than being angry at yourself the chances are you are doing Christianity wrongly.

If conservative Christians have a duty to be welcoming to LGBT people, refugees, illegal migrants, victims of racism and the disabled (which they do) then liberal Christians have an equal duty to be welcoming to Wall St speculators, white nationalists, racist police officers and misogynists. And if you marginalise people because they are oppressors then you are taking the same attitude that the Jews who marginalised St Matthew did and for similar reasons. No doubt you feel as justified as they did and can put forward a good case. But Jesus was more justified and had better reasons for His action.

We, each one of us, marginalise and exclude ourselves from the Kingdom of God. We do this because we are attracted to greed, to self-centredness, to the rewards of sensual satisfaction and praise. The purpose of Our Lord is to end this marginalisation and exclusion which we have inflicted upon ourselves by effecting a total change of mind and heart, a reorientation away from love of self towards love of the Other, beginning with God and through Him extending to each one of our neighbours. To achieve His purpose He calls each person who has alienated their affections from the Father and His preference is for those who have most so alienated themselves. Such persons may very well be millionaires or racists or homophobic trolls. They might equally well be people of colour who have spent a lifetime of advocacy for women’s rights or lesbians who have been hurt by a cruel rejection from their externally religious family. Jesus looks at what is inside a person, not what is on the outside. He judges that each one of us is worth dying for. We are called to judge as He judges and in no other way.

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The picture is The Calling of St Matthew by Caravaggio.

Christian Mysticism & the Incarnation

Simone dei Crocifissi Christ on the Cross with the Virgin the Magdalen and St John

Plotinus, a Neoplatonist philosopher, spoke for many different religious and philosophical belief systems when he described the vocation of the mystic as-
The flight of the alone to the Alone.
By which is meant the journey of an individual, particularly the spirit or mind (broadly defined) of that individual, towards God or the universal ground of being or the primordial Buddha nature or whatever label particular traditions apply to their goal. If successful this process culminates in a Union of Man (male or female) with God.

If most mystical traditions propose a pilgrimage from, as it were, Earth to Heaven Christianity with its doctrine of Incarnation reverses the direction of travel and offers a Union of Man with God achieved through the conception of the Logos of God in the womb of Mary. This Union grows and develops from its human side throughout the life of Jesus but is always supremely perfect in its Divine aspect. Christianity further proposes that what Jesus achieved by nature His followers can also achieve by Grace through participation.

Christian mystical tradition looks in particular at three exemplars of perfect Union with the Divine. The Blessed Virgin who achieved perfection primarily through reflection, as a mirror of the Blessed Trinity. St Mary Magdalene whose primary path was intense devotional love of the person of Jesus (what Hindus might call Bhakti Yoga.) And the Apostle St John who primarily achieved Union through direct intellectual apprehension or noetic wisdom (Jnana Yoga.) In this context ‘primary‘ does not mean exclusive, each of the three shared to a degree the approaches of the others but one particular way predominated for them. It is no coincidence that each of these persons was intimately involved in the drama of Christ’s Crucifixion, a point to which I shall return.

It would, however, be too simplistic to suggest that non-Christian mysticism is about Man’s journey to God while Christian mysticism is about His journey to us. All the great mystical traditions affirm that, in this life at any rate, the ultimate destination is the same as the original starting point. That is, because God indwells each one of us we are already in a state of Union with Him. The pilgrimage to enlightenment is a process of stripping away the veils which prevent us from realising (making real) an already existing truth. This idea has been illustrated in numerous texts, perhaps most strikingly in the classic Sufi work ‘The Conference of the Birds.

Christianity does not deny this truth, once again though the Incarnation makes a crucial difference as to how we perceive it. In the other traditions His Spirit unites to our spirit and our liberation consists in us becoming all spirit and only spirit (or Mind) and leaving everything material behind. For Christians flesh as well as spirit has been divinised because the Logos became the Son of Mary as well as the Son of the Father. This means that the Union with God which we must realise involves the whole of who we are, our bodies, our emotions, our hunger, thirst, cold and tiredness as well as our spirit because God Himself by nature through Jesus is united to these things. If we by grace participate in what He by nature is then we cannot take flight from any part of ourselves, except sin.

A key illustration of the significance this has for mysticism is to be found in the phenomenon of suffering. The Divinity as Divinity, or ground of being or Buddha nature or whatever cannot suffer. Therefore in the path to realising the Union with God suffering is a thing to be bypassed or left behind or somehow destroyed. Yet the supreme moment of most perfect Union which the Blessed Virgin, the Magdalene and the Evangelist achieved with God was precisely during those hours they spent at the foot of the Cross fully entering into the agony and death of Jesus. It was there, where Christ experienced extreme suffering and death that His Union with Man arrived at its total consummation, perfection and completion.

In order to be fully united with God it is not necessary that the mystic herself experiences suffering; it is necessary though that God goes through that experience. This is because the capacity to suffer and the certainty of death are not incidental to our human nature, they are a part of its essence. Union consists of a fusion between our essence and His essence and without a God who suffers and dies such a Union is necessarily incomplete and imperfect. The Incarnation, then, may be characterised as a flight of the Alone to the alone (there are theological grounds to quibble about the word ‘alone’ in this context but that would require more space than I have here.) It is precisely this flight which opens the possibility of the fullness of Union and it is precisely those who, through Grace, most closely identify with the suffering Christ that can enter into it.

The paradoxical elements of mysticism, that it involves a journey to a point at an infinite distance from ourselves and that everything we require is already fully present within us, are resolved through the self-emptying of the Son. He it is who makes the infinite journey, and He it is, dwelling within us, who has already plumbed the depths and scaled the heights of all that it essentially means to be a fully human person. The task of the Christian mystic is simply to make real our ‘Yes‘ to Jesus.

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The painting, by Simone dei Crocifissi, is Christ on the Cross with the Virgin, Mary Magdalen and St John.

Our Lady of Sorrows

There is an ancient Catholic devotion known as The Seven Joys of the Virgin, often associated with a prayer called The Franciscan Crown or Seraphic Rosary. As Our Lady of Light and the mother of the One who is the source of all joy there is no doubt that Mary experienced much happiness in her earthly life. Yet it is as Our Lady of Sorrows that many Catholics most love to think of her. There is wisdom in this; all the joys we can experience in time are but a foretaste or shadow of the state of joy which eternity provides. Only in time do we experience the fullness of the reality of sorrow (the damned are regretful, not sorrowful.)

The sadnesses of Mary’s life, like those of her Son, the Man of Sorrows, were cups which she drank to the bitter dregs just as we do. Her earthly sorrow was like our earthly sorrow. The only difference being that with her perfect faith in, perfect hope about and perfect love for Jesus she was able wholly to unite her sorrows to His and offer them through the Spirit to the Father as an oblation of charity for sinners, the most effective of all intercessory prayers.

Surely the most poignant of Mary’s sorrows was that occasioned by the encounter which tradition tells us that she had with her Cross-bearing Son on the Via Dolorosa. This was to be the last time, before death had its brief triumph, that they would meet. The last time that she would touch Him. Perhaps she held His hands in hers, or gently stroked that bruised, bleeding and thorn-pierced face which she had loved with all her heart for over thirty years.

It may be they exchanged a few words. If all she said was “My Son! My Son!” and all He said was “Mother!” it would, nonetheless be one of the most profound and heartrending conversations ever to take place on this earth. Most of all they would have looked into each other’s eyes one final time. What would they see? In the eyes of Our Lord there would of course be pain, the pain of betrayal and abandonment as well as that caused by scourging and the weight of the Cross. There would too be fear, the coming agony on Golgotha was something from which His flesh shrank. No doubt also there would be compassion, compassion for His betrayer, for His faithless friends, for His torturers and executioners, for all whose weakness and sin had brought Him to this Way of the Cross. Above all there would be compassion for His afflicted mother whose presence both strengthened and weakened Him, such is the paradox of love.

And in the eyes of Mary? Anguish, of course, who can be more anguished than a mother watching her child going towards agony and death? And such a child! Such a mother! There would be love too, the motherlove that sees not only the big picture but the tiny details, blood trickling towards a blackened eye, a body trembling under the weight of the hard and heavy Cross. More than that, deep down there would be a look of trust. Like her ancestor Abraham on Mount Moriah Mary could not doubt that the Father would be faithful to His promises. Somehow what the Archangel had said- “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.“- would come true despite all the horrors that she was witnessing on that first Good Friday.

Sorrow also would be visible in the eyes both of the suffering Son and of his distressed mother. A sorrow for loss and for the sin which brought this particular loss into the world. But it would not be sorrow without hope, sorrow without end, sorrow without consolation. Our Lady is a symbol to us of a great truth. The Christian life promises no exemption from suffering and death, pain and bereavement. It certainly makes no promise of prosperity or worldly success. What it promises is that no night is without an end, no death without a resurrection and no desolation need be endured alone. If we are with Him as she was with Him, if we love Him as she loves Him, then these things which we cannot escape will be transmuted, if not in time then in eternity, and our sorrow will become gladness, our mourning will turn into joy.

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On my old blog Catholic Scot I also wrote about this- The Fourth Sorrow of Mary: She Meets Jesus Bearing His Cross

The painting, by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, is Christ Bearing the Cross,

Imageless Prayer

Divine Mercy by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski


The 4th century Christian monk and mystic Evagrios the Solitary wrote-
The divine splendour only appears to the intellect during prayer, when the intellect is free from conceptions of sensory objects
Does this contradict or complement the idea of using images in prayer, about which I recently blogged? It is, I think, one of these things like ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom‘ (Sirach 1:16) and ‘perfect love casteth out fear‘ (1 John 4:18) where we need to bear in mind that the Christian life is a pilgrimage, a process of transformation, not a single conversion event where everything becomes fully clear and wholly resolved in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.

The insight of Julian of Norwich “to focus on the goodness of God is the highest form of prayer” helps us to understand something about this pilgrimage as it relates to how we could or should pray. God in His essence is goodness itself, He manifests that goodness throughout His whole creation and He incarnates that goodness in the person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully Man.

It is through His incarnated life that this goodness is most easily accessible to, and understandable by, us. Therefore it is with our eyes on Jesus that most of us, when led by grace to pray, will begin. This is illustrated by the saint of Lisieux who chose for her name in religion Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. Her prayer life began because her heart was drawn to the Divinity who made Himself a tiny vulnerable infant, protected only by the loving arms of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and also by the suffering Christ whose image was preserved during His Way of the Cross by St Veronica.

Jesus did all things well because of His hidden inner Divinity and perfect goodness. Sometimes our eyes will be drawn beyond His outward actions to His inward Sacred Heart, the source from which everything He did flowed. This is illustrated by, for example, St Faustina who’s vision of the Divine Mercy which pours out from Him to us always invites us to a form of prayer based more upon who He is than upon what He has done during His earthly mission.

Behind God who acts in His creation is God as He is in Himself, that is, His essence. He dwells in inaccessible light, a light so bright that it appears to us as darkness. He has no shape, or form, or structure that we can grasp with our minds and envisage. All we can do is empty ourselves of ourselves and wait for Him, if He so wills, to imprint His imageless image on our minds. The challenge we face, as philosopher Simone Weil put it, is that ‘The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass’ Our limited, physical brains abhor a vacuum and when nothing real exists to fill it will make stuff up (or permit demons to do so in the traditional formulation) and try to pass it off as being God. ‘The imagination, filler up of the void, is essentially a liar

So, to practice the form of prayer described by Evagrios we must, again in Professor Weil’s words, ‘continually suspend the work of the imagination filling the void within ourselves.’ This is an incredibly difficult task and only an extraordinary grace united to a very particular ascetic religious life has any chance of succeeding. Which is to say that this kind of contemplative prayer may be objectively superior to all other forms of prayer, in that it draws a person into the internal life of the Blessed Trinity, but it does not at all follow that this is the kind of prayer which all Christians are called upon to perform. Focussing upon the goodness of God in the way which best suits our talents and most fully responds to the particular individual vocation we have received from the Spirit is the best form of prayer for us. To aspire to forms of prayer to which we are not suited is as great an error in its way as to refuse to accept a way of prayer when grace opens a path for us into it.

Even if we believe ourselves to be drawn to contemplative, mystical prayer it is important not to confuse the end with the beginning. That is, we must start with what, or rather Whom, we know which is Jesus Christ and Him Crucified. If He wishes to draw us beyond gazing upon His Passion and His Five Sacred Wounds then He shall but we cannot decide for ourselves that such devotion is for little people and we ourselves are too grand for it. God has a preference for little people, for the foolish, for the humble. Before we can be great we must be small, before we can fly we must lie at the foot of the Cross, before we can see the ‘Divine Splendour’ we must adore the Son of Mary in His humanity as much as in His Divinity.

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The painting is Divine Mercy by  Eugeniusz Kazimirowski

Of Empty Crosses & Crucifixes


Catholics, generally speaking, are happy to use either empty crosses or crosses which have on them an image of the crucified Christ (a corpus) known as crucifixes. Those Protestants who have had their ideas formed to a significant degree by Calvinism tend to reject absolutely the use of crucifixes. Some evangelicals say, with what might be interpreted as malicious smugness, that they use empty crosses ‘because my Christ has risen from the dead.’

Is this one of these seemingly trivial sectarian differences that give unnecessary scandal to the world or is there something substantive at stake here? (I use the word ‘stake’ in its non ‘burnt-at-the’ sense.) Probably a bit of both really, the differences lie at a profound level of belief and it is good to be clear about what these are but the issue is not important enough to warrant bitter polemics or violent destruction.

The first point I’d make is more practical than theological. Insofar as these objects are used for purposes of devotion rather than as items of jewellery a crucifix works with the grain of the human mind. By contrast an empty cross runs the apparently paradoxical risk of encouraging what Aristotle would call excess and/or defect. That is, unless you are a hardcore ascetic the starkness of a bare cross will starve your mind of material with which to work or else it encourages your imagination to run riot and project all kinds of fantastic images onto the shape in front of you. A crucifix makes it easier for the mind to focus immediately and to stay focussed on the object of contemplation which is Christ and Him Crucified.

It is certainly possible to contemplate an austerely empty cross with great profit or to fritter away time spent in front of a crucifix. It is just, on average, easier for most people to pray appropriately in front of the latter than the former. I suspect fear of idolatry is at work in the Calvinists here, that people will end up worshipping the object itself rather than the thing which it represents. Again my response is practical rather than theological. If such a thing was going to happen it would have happened by now and if it hasn’t then it isn’t going to.

A second and more palpably theological point is that the Redemption was won for us not by Christ’s resurrection but by His death, specifically His execution as an innocent man condemned to a criminal’s death by hanging from a tree. If it was the Resurrection we wished to recall our symbol would be the empty tomb not the empty Cross. Certainly the Cross as such calls to mind that Divine sacrifice but more as an abstraction, as an event which is passed and done with. Yet it is not so, we crucify Him anew with every sin we commit. The corpus brings to mind not only the historical occasion it commemorates but our own living involvement in this drama which has not yet ended.

Related to this is a third point, namely that the Cross is not simply about Him, it is also about us in relation to Him. In contemplating the crucifix we see the nails we have driven, and are driving still, into His hands and feet. We see the wound we have made in His sacred heart. We see too the Crown of Thorns we have driven into His skull causing His sight of us to be obscured by the Precious Blood which we have shed. The corpus draws us into a truth about ourselves, we are sinners, we have made the innocent suffer and we will continue to do so unless we be converted, repent and accept that poor battered man hanging before our eyes into our hearts as our Guide, Teacher and Master.

The final point I would mention is about total love and total abandonment. The greatest possible distance in the universe is that between God in heaven and a man wholly forsaken by God dying the shameful and agonising death of a criminal. Only the greatest possible love can form a bridge over that greatest possible distance. The image of Christ Crucified is not that of mere anguish or mere death. It is an image of love at its highest possible point, it’s most perfect expression.

So to that (possibly) smug evangelical I would say ‘my Christ has risen too, it is His love for us which I remember most of all.’ The love stronger than death is what we see on a crucifix. It is for us to make it not simply an object for contemplation but also a mirror through which we are transformed into the likeness of Him whom we behold hanging there.

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The picture is a Tabernacle with Crucifixion Scene – wood mid or third quarter 14th century Made in probably the Veneto, Italy