God’s love evident in a highly public act

Women pray before the crucifix in the Church of Pope Saint Marcello on Via del Corso in Rome.

As I have learned of Bishop Dennis Sullivan’s directive concerning crucifixes in places of worship in the Diocese of Camden, the theology of the cross, and its relationship to the One our human race would nail to a tree has been on my mind a great deal this week here in Rome.

Among the countless iterations of that defining moment in cosmic history around town is the incredibly lifelike image in the Church of Pope Saint Marcello on Via del Corso, between Piazza Venezia and Piazza del Popolo.

This crucifix, which “miraculously” survived a 1519 fire and is believed to have once stemmed an infectious plague ravaging the city, today stands in an ornate chapel in the church. The ceiling above it depicts the creation of Eve from the side of the sleeping Adam, a portrayal obviously inspired by Michelangelo’s version of that scene in the Sistine Chapel. In the background of San Marcello’s painting, a gnarled tree pointing toward the heavens foreshadows the one on which would one day hang the savior of the world.

Devotion to the miraculous crucifix gave rise to a local “confraternity” in the area, a social and charitable organization with a patron saint or symbolic honorific (the cross, the swords of sorrow piercing Mary’s heart, etc.) much like those made famous in the Spanish processions for Holy Week. All of the confraternity’s good works are read through a devotion to veneration of the crucifix.

The rays of gold emanating from the San Marcello crucifix remind one in some ways of those surrounding the image of the Virgen of Guadalupe. And the multitude of votive offerings (or “ex-votos”) surrounding the image make clear the vast numbers of faithful who have prayed to Christ (not to the image!) while in its presence, and felt their prayers were answered.

The crucifix has long played a central role in the prayer life and spirituality of Catholics, who see in it not a macabre reminder of a gory execution, but the raising up in triumph of the self-sacrificial nature of a God who truly accompanies us in the human condition, and all that it entails. We as a community feel called to “look on him whom they/we have pierced” (cf. Zechariah 12:10).

The theology of the cross lies at the heart of the Triduum, the holiest period of the year — when we remember the betrayal and institution of the Eucharist, the passion and death of Christ, and the resurrection from the dead. They serve as a sort of tryptic, the three-paneled altarpieces that need to be interpreted collectively as whole.  At the center is the cross, which in Johannine theology is itself the exaltation, where the nations witness the saving power of God. “Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (Jn 3:14). It is this highly public act, not the resurrection to which there are no direct visual witnesses, that unites God’s agapic love to his people in an absolutely final and irrevocable way.

And so for ages, this moment has been a particularly central element of our communal narrative, one necessarily interpreted through the divine life and ministry that came before it and the rising from the dead that came after it. But the cross represents the linchpin moment, on which the narrative literally and figuratively hangs, and so as the Carthusians put it so beautifully: Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis. “The Cross remains fixed while the world turns around it.”

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.