Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Thoughts on an empty cross

Growing up in the Presbyterian church, I was accustomed to rather simple liturgical surroundings. The pastor's black robe was like those worn by my parents in the choir; the panes of the stained glass windows were large and rectangular, often in pastel colors, rarely depicting anything. Communion was dried bread cut in stale squares and served with grape juice 4 times a year, and there was only one cross, usually behind the altar, and always empty.

Which meant that when, at the urging of the Episcopal priest who counseled me through my divorce, I finally agreed to try worshiping at an Episcopal church, the whole experience seemed garish, popish even, and very overwhelming. We were expected to juggle three books -- hymnal, bible, and prayerbook -- plus the bulletin and the leaflet of service music. Communion was served every Sunday, and included Real Alcohol (tasty! I'd never had port before) and a lot of unexplained kneeling and standing.

There were liturgical colors, which changed mysteriously with the seasons, and there were crosses everywhere -- in the stained glass windows, on the altar, carved into the pulpit -- and many of them had Jesus' body on them. It seemed almost vulgar, this emphasis on a dying man, depicted always as muscular, white, and brunette though surely no one could have known what he actually looked like.

But by that time I'd had not one but two conversion experiences, both of them specifically triggered by the disturbing fact of Jesus' death, so I could see that this sort of art might in fact serve as a grounding, an embodiment of faith, and a reminder that life isn't always smooth and pretty but can sometimes get quite edgy and painful. I was still uncomfortable with what looked like the glorification of death, but my own faith at that point was still fueled primarily by the fact that Jesus died for my sins, so it seemed appropriate to remind myself of that on a regular basis.

So it is amusing to realize that now, years later, though I still worship in an Episcopal Church, it has no stained glass and no crucifix. And though there are many crosses, both placed about and embedded into the church's architecture, they speak more to the resurrection, to that moment when human and divine reunite rather than to the moment of painful separation. And as I prepare for my spirituality class this morning by re-reading Freeman's take on the Resurrection in Jesus the Teacher Within, I see that these more austere surroundings are a good match for the faith I am carrying into the autumn of my life.

Because my faith itself has died and been resurrected. And it is no longer Jesus' death on the cross or my awareness of my own undeserving sinfulness that lies at the root of my belief system, but rather a sense of a loving divine presence in my life, a presence best symbolized by the intersection between horizontal and vertical that lies at the center of the cross. As the hymn composed by St. Patrick puts it:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

When we shift our focus from the man on the cross to the resurrected Christ, we are no longer isolated and alone, wallowing in our sinfulness and dependent upon this single horrific event for redemption. We are instead drawn into a loving awareness of the divine presence which moves in and through not just us but also through those around us, enfolding all of creation in a compassionate and unifying embrace.

At least, that's how I feel about it now, today, when I'm standing at the Episcopal end of my personal spirituality spectrum. The Buddhist in me gets pretty uncomfortable about the word "Christ" and immediately wants to change St. Patrick's words to something a little less "churchy." It likes the idea of the compassionate oneness, though, so it has decided to let me get away with this sort of preachily religious post. I'm still working on reconciling these two parts of me; can you tell?


karengberger said...

Diane, you've inspired me. I am going to refer to this in a posting soon...Thank you for sharing how it is for you. Love from me!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I can tell. And you do good work.

Kim and Jesus