One of the great things about being married to an artist is that I now have someone to explain everything to me in museums. My father could always tell me the history behind an awful lot of art and architecture, but Doan can tell me why a certain piece is masterful, decent, or really not very good at all. Doan had a tough time with me in the Rodin Museum in Philly – I liked the building more than the sculptures it contained. Everyone knows Rodin because of the Thinker, which is certainly iconic, and if you want to know what the rest of his work looks like, just think of the Thinker in any number of different poses. At least that’s my impression, hence Doan having a tough time with me. Anyway, last year was the 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death; Rodin was a complicated guy who lived in complicated times, and he did some interesting things. He was a faithful Catholic, he even tried to join a Catholic order, the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, but they found him more suitable for sculpture. Anyway, his faith never waned, and one day “found an enormous, carefully carved wooden crucifix beside a road. Rodin bought that cross he so admired and had it carted to his home. But when it arrived he found that the cross was too big to fit inside his house. So what did he do? He knocked down the walls, raised the roof, and rebuilt his home around that cross.”
Rodin made the cross the literal center of his home, a constant reminder that everything in life is somehow built around that cross. And yet, the cross is a challenging symbol, to say the least; it would seem that if you wanted to live a happy and peaceable life, you wouldn’t build that life around an instrument of torture, shame, and death.
But Jesus being Jesus, He makes us contend with that device and everything it symbolizes; He commands us to actually carry it with us. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
“As Steve Garnaas-Holmes has said, “the cross in Jesus’ day was not a logo or a metaphor…The cross was an instrument of pain, shame, absolute loss and death. It was a real weapon: the only way to, ‘take it up,’ was to become its real victim.”
As an aside, this passage from Mark’s Gospel is one of the reasons I love the Bible so much – it’s one of the things that makes the Faith so attractive to me. The writers of the books of the Bible seemingly whitewashed nothing. Outside of Jesus, every character in the Bible, even the heroes, the one’s considered righteous, were screwed up people: Noah, Abraham, Samson, David especially, Solomon, all the disciples, they all had massive flaws, they bumbled through life like the rest of us. Then we finally get to Jesus, perfect in every way, and what does He do? Knowing what’s coming, He embraces the most hideous torture machine ever and tells us that if we want anything to do with Him, we have to do the same. No one can say Christianity is either wimpy or boring.
Anyway, despite death on a cross being a real possibility for Mark and for the early Christians he was writing for, and despite Peter, Andrew, Philip, Thaddeus, and Simon actually going on to be crucified, crucifixion is no longer a real threat for the average Christian. So what do we do with this cross thing?
Well, the first thing we need to think about is what Jesus did with that cross. As one of my favorite Lenten collects says, Jesus made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life; Jesus took all of human sin and brokenness with Him on His cross, and therefore made that cross to mean the exact opposite of what sinful humanity meant for it to mean.
The cross, then, has become the “place of our ultimate transformation…a place to hang our arrogance, our rage, our bitterness, our prejudice, our greed –and then let them die, so that something more eternally good and grace-filled and Christ-like” can be raised up in us.
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Will this Lent be the time in which you take your cross and hang every evil on it, every injustice on it, every hardship and pain on it, and let the cross do its work?” Will this Lent be the time you build your spiritual home around the cross?