St. Mary’s Trappist Abbey in nearby Wrentham welcomes visitors not only to its gift shop and candy counter but also to the public transept in its chapel. Daily Mass at an early hour and the monastic hours of prayer spread throughout the day offer a quiet respite from secular considerations. Between the visitors’ pews and the nuns’ choir stalls, a central stone slab altar and a similar stand against a side wall for the tabernacle along with a vigil light, the abbess’ crosier, and small pipe organ are almost the sole adornments for this quiet sanctuary. Amid this architectural scarcity but properly prominent against the far wall is a carved, wooden representation of the crucified Christ. Similar to the San Damiano crucifix associated with St. Francis of Assisi, this depiction of Christ’s final hours dominates this quiet house of prayer.
There are many supernatural events in the life of Christ that could admirably dominate any sanctuary. The infant Christ at Bethlehem announcing that the Son of God had taken flesh is an awesome mystery worthy of commemoration. The charitable Christ feeding crowds, healing lepers, or raising the dead would certainly be a noble memorial to the Savior. The risen and ascending Christ is quite often depicted on sanctuary walls. Yet the critical memorial for any Catholic sanctuary is a representation of the Lord’s Passion – “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1Cor.2:2), as St. Paul tersely sums up salvation history.
A representation of the Crucifixion traditionally commands the attention of Catholic worshippers because that moment of agonizing death was selected by Christ himself as the memorial that he wanted to celebrate and commemorate his life’s work down through the ages. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus commanded his disciples on the night before he died, while, under the appearance of bread, he held his body broken and under the appearance of wine, he showed his blood poured out. Jesus deliberately wanted to be remembered, commemorated and celebrated as at the moment of his death. Jesus could think of no greater tribute to his life work than his final hours on Calvary. His Incarnation at Nazareth, his birth at Bethlehem, his baptism at the Jordan, his Transfiguration on Tabor, his countless victories over the Scribes and Pharisees on Palestine’s street corners, even his Resurrection in the garden and his Ascension from Mt. Olivet, while certainly memorable and significant happenings, did not speak as eloquently of Jesus’ mission as his crucifixion and death on Calvary. The crucified Christ is for all time the Gospel’s most significant and pointed message.
How privileged then are Catholic believers who can approach their parish altars, Sunday after Sunday, day after day, to receive the Body broken and the Blood poured out! How fortunate are those devout souls who can ponder quietly the self-giving of Christ made present in the Reserved Sacrament! Through the Eucharist, Jesus, although happily risen from the dead and seated at the Father’s right hand, preserves for all time that moment of his death when his self-giving erased sin and established similar self-giving among his followers as the hallmark of the Christian life. St. Paul certainly understood that this side of the grave the Christian life was much more Calvary on Good Friday than the garden tomb on Easter Sunday: “For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor.4:11). Death to self leads to being alive for God. Sacrificing one’s self daily on innumerable crosses is the Christian’s path to eternal salvation.
On this Second Sunday after Easter, a day which Pope John Paul II determined should be Mercy Sunday, the Crucified and yet Risen Christ returns to his disciples in the Upper Room and briefly summarizes the whole of salvation history. St. John writes, “Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side” (Jn20:20). The Master certainly offers his followers peace but also alerts them to the wounds, pains, and sufferings that an authentic Christian life will entail. The faithful Christian will surely discover an inner peace while heeding the Word of God and relishing the Spirit of God. But that same Christian will confront his or her own personal sins as well as the sins of one’s community and society. The Christian’s inner peace will be daily challenged by humankind’s fallen nature.
Jesus’ sacramental selection of the moment of his death as his chief memorial and the Church’s wise preservation of the Crucifix as the central reminder of Christ’s saving plan should certainly encourage every believer that acceptance of Good Friday, in fact, the embrace of Good Friday, is the sure Christlike path to the fulfillment and happiness of Easter Sunday.