Reflections on the San Damiano Crucifix 2003-2005
GOLD (SEPTEMBER 2003)
Gold is a predominant color in the San Damiano Cross. A thin border of gold surrounds the cross and fills in the background in certain parts. Gold adorns the loin cloth that girds Christ, shines in His massive halo, and accents the garb of many figures who surround the crucifix. Gold is the color of hope, of glory, of the sun, of richness. The gold reminds the viewer that the penances of this life, which are typified in the crucified Lord, are like gold coins placed in our eternal bank account. With them, we'll be purchasing eternal life. And what a glorious, golden life it will be! May God be praised!
RED (OCTOBER 2003)
Last month we discussed the color of gold in the San Damiano Crucifix. Red is almost as predominant as gold in this icon. Red is a vibrant color, reminding us, first and foremost, of Christ's Blood shed for us. That blood spurts in living streams from the wounds of Christ as painted on this crucifix. But red, because it is the color of blood, is also the color of life. The Jewish people believed that life was in the blood. There is so much red in this icon that it practically screams to the viewer, "Look on Life. Life that died so that you might have life. Life being poured out even now for you. Life that goes on living in the Holy Spirit, in our faith." Red indicates that the message of the San Damiano Crucifix is a living message. It is for now. The more we study this crucifix, the more it will speak to us.
BLACK (Nov. 2003)
The three predominant colors in the San Damiano Crucifix are red, gold, and black. We've discussed red and gold in previous months. Let's consider black during this month of the Holy Souls. We generally associate black with sin and death. The color seems to have that same symbolism in the San Damiano Crucifix.
Black is a background color on the crucifix which vivifies, by contrast, the reds and golds of this icon. In a similar way, the precious and bright realities of heavenly glory (gold) brought about by God's incomparable mercy (red) appear electrifyingly beautiful against the dismal contrast of sin and death (black) in this world. Christ's arms are stretched across a black cross beam as if He is rising out the blackness of the tomb behind Him. He is also standing on a black platform, from which rises a vertical black beam, presumably the cross post which joins with the black cross beam. We could see this juncture if Christ were not impaled on this cross, for He is hiding the juncture with His Body. The cross on which Christ has been crucified is, therefore, black, the color of sin and death.
However, Christ is standing on a platform from which arises the vertical, black beam. Christ has put sin and death beneath His feet. From this black platform on Christ's right rises a black border which outlines the shape of the icon but, which, curiously, ends in what appear to be flames that are parallel with Jesus's left shin. Thus, the black border rises from the platform but does not complete the path to return to it. The flames block its way. Above the flames, but still within the black border, is a crowing cock, which reminds the onlooker of Peter's denial of Christ, shortly before Christ's crucifixion. This leads to a curious meditation. Was the artist showing that sin and death encircled time as the black border encircles the crucifix, until, in time, they met the flame of God's Love, personalized when the Word died on the Cross? In that flame of love, death and sin were consumed so that we who were born in sin do not have to return to eternal death because of it. Indeed, below the flame, the border is red, as if death, because of the flame of God's Love, has been blotted out by the Blood of the Saving Victim.
Christ, may You Who gained the victory over sin and death, smile on us in Your love.
LIGHT (December 2003)
Light is a predominant element of the San Damiano Crucifix. Haloes glow around the heads of various saints and angels clustered around the main figure of Christ. Christ, as He ascends into heaven at the top of the crucifix, and Christ, as He is centrally portrayed on the cross, is adorned with more elaborate haloes than the other figures, each halo imprinted with a cross symbol. Behind the five central figures on either side of the crucifix, light glows. The most outstanding source of light, however, is Christ Himself.
The crucified yet triumphant Christ's Body radiates light. The astute viewer can catch a subtle difference between Christ's flesh and that of the other figures on the cross. Christ is radiant. The Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix is a visual portrayal of these words at the beginning of the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man's decision but of God.
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth.
(John 1:1-14. New American Bible)
We see the glory of Christ in the radiant Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix. May He Who was born to be the Light of the world enlighten our minds and hearts with His radiant message, so that we understand what it means to live always in the Light and to trust where the Light leads.
THE EYES OF CHRIST (January 2004)
For many, the eyes of Christ are the prominent feature of the San Damiano Crucifix. The eyes are large and wide open. They are penetrating, beautiful, forceful, filled with peace and love. They seem to see directly into each soul who contemplates the Lord through this icon.
Indeed, the gaze of Christ does pierce our souls. Each of us is known through and through by the Lord. Nothing we do, say, or think is hidden from the all seeing vision of God. He knows our every motive and all the hidden ways of our hearts. We may succeed in hiding some things even from ourselves, let alone from others, but we can never hide them from God. God knows.
God also understands. Imagine being understood by a Person Who knows each of us better than we know ourselves. Such a Person can integrate every single influence on our lives, including those we have forgotten or repressed. Our God knows how everything has effected us, to the smallest possible detail. No wonder we respond as we do. God understands.
Those piercing eyes of the San Damiano Christ call us to understand ourselves, too. Not that we ever can understand ourselves as God understands us, but we can understand some things. We can accept our humanness, our frailty, our stupidity, and our unreasonableness. We can know that we do not know and we can know that God does know. Such thoughts will keep us humble. Such thoughts will keep us sane.
Rather than be alarmed by the all-seeing, all-knowing, piercing stare of the Lord, we ought to be comforted by it. God, Who knows us through and through, created us out of love, knowing exactly who we would become. Yet He loves us. While God is Justice, He is also Mercy. Like any loving parent, who will forgive his child the wildest infractions if the child is sorry, God allows His Mercy to outweigh His Justice in our regard. We can trust that penetrating glance. Our God's Name is Love.
THE ROOSTER (February 2004)
The rooster is a very small figure on the San Damiano Crucifix but certainly a very important one for us penitents. You can see this figure easily on the original, nearly life size crucifix, but not so easily on smaller reproductions. The rooster is located just above mid-calf of Christ's leg, in the right, black border of the crucifix. The rooster's beak is open, indicating that he is crowing.
The rooster immediately recalls Peter's three fold denial of Christ which Christ foretold in these words, "Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times." The story is so significant that it is told in all four Gospels, which is not the case with many other incidents in the life of Christ.
The icon needs to be considered as a whole tableaux. As Christ is crucified, His wide open eyes taking in all the world including all of those who gaze at Him, the rooster is crowing, announcing the Lord's betrayal and reminding us that what Christ prophesies comes to pass. In this feathered image we recall our own weakness and sinfulness and our own many betrayals of Christ Who, at the same time, is loving us with outstretched arms and eyes that call us to Him. In fact, Christ loved us even before we betrayed Him by our sins of anger, fear, impatience, lack of trust, greed, lust, and so on. He loved us and created us, knowing we would still betray Him, just as He knew that Peter, whom He loved, would also betray Him. Still, Christ called Peter and loved Peter just as He calls and loves us.
The cry of the insignificant appearing rooster is a call to penance (conversion), a call to which we penitents, insignificant betrayers of Christ, are calling our world and ourselves. It is a call of hope and trust, for we know that Christ loves us in our imperfections and weaknesses, even as His gaze lovingly calls us to change. How we want to be more perfectly His, to be more perfectly all He created us to be!
The rooster is a sign of that hope as well, for roosters crow at dawn. Thus this rooster symbolically proclaims the new dawn of the Risen Christ and the new dawn of ourselves, who will rise with Him if we repent. We can imagine that every rooster Peter ever heard crow after his denial reminded him of who Peter was and of Who Christ is, of what Peter had done to Christ and of what Christ had done for Peter. The rooster on the San Damiano crucifix calls us beyond recognizing our sinfulness to recognizing our Hope Who is our Redemption. It says to us who meditate on this icon, "Whenever dawn breaks forth in the morning sky, recall Him Who has broken forth into your darkness and given you Light." Let us, called to serve Him in lives of penance (conversion), even though we serve Him imperfectly and perhaps sometimes reluctantly, praise Him for having graced us with His call. Let us pray for Him to call all, whoever and wherever they be, to follow Him. Allelulia! Come, Lord Jesus!
MARY OF CLOPAS (March 2004)
Beneath the arms of the San Damiano Crucifix stand five large figures, two under the left arm of the crucifix and three under the right. The middle figure on the right, the woman clothed in a blue veil, has been identified as Mary of Clopas. St. John tells us in his Gospel "Near the cross of Jesus there stood His Mother, his Mother's sister Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene" (John 19:25) as well as St. John the Evangelist. Acts 1:13 states that James, the son of Alphaeus and his son Jude were among the apostles. Jude, in his epistle, identifies himself as the "brother of James" (Jude 1). Some Bible scholars believe that Alphaeus and Clopas were the same person. If so, then Mary was married to Clopas, had at least two sons, James and Jude, and at least one grandson, Jude. Luke tells us that "Mary the mother of James" (Luke 24:9) was one of the women who went to the tomb to anoint the body of Christ. This would likely have been Mary of Clopas but we can't be sure.
We know very little about the middle figure under the right arm of the San Damiano crucifix. Maybe God intended that we know so little about her, for she represents all good, holy, humble and faithful followers of Christ who live and die without fanfare. Outside their neighborhoods, they are unknown. Their obituaries make only the local news. They are the multitudes known, not to television or radio or newspaper audiences, but to God alone. How faithful was Mary of Clopas? More faithful at the crucifixion than the "big names" were. Even Peter, the head of the apostles, was no where near Calvary. History records her presence, in memory of the presence of the compassionate multitudes who preceded her and who followed and will follow. The Mary's of Clopas are those who pray for others, who bring meals on wheels, who attend funerals and visit nursing homes, who send cards to the sick and who bring muffins to the new neighbors. They are the ones who let you in front of them in the grocery store, who amuse a child while his mother tries on a dress in the local department store, and who bring canned goods every month for the St. Vincent DePaul collection. Only God knows how many rosaries they have prayed when they die or how many lives they have touched. He honors their presence by bringing them, who stayed with Him in His Passion on earth, into His glory in heaven. For many of us, Mary of Clopas is the saint whom we might best emulate. Her presence was her gift to Christ. It can be our gift to Him as well.
SAINT JOHN (April 2004)
Beneath the arms of the San Damiano Crucifix stand five large figures, two under the left arm of the crucifix and three under the right. The beloved disciple John is the male figure next to Christ, upon whom flow the blood and water from Christ's pierced side. Speaking to the Blessed Mother, the smiling John points to Christ as if to say, "Gaze at Him Who died for me."
In his Gospel, St. John writes, "Near the cross of Jesus there stood His Mother, his Mother's sister Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Seeing His Mother there with the disciple whom He loved, Jesus said to His Mother, 'Woman, there is your son.' In turn He said to the disciple, 'There is your mother.' From that hour onward, the disciple took her into his care." (John 19:25-27)
John represents all humanity, gifted with Our Lady's care at the foot of the cross. On John, on all of us, flow the blood and water of grace and cleansing, the life and death of Christ which take away our sins.
During Christ's Passion, all the apostles except John fled. John, no doubt, felt the same fear they all felt, namely that they, too, would be seized and killed. Of all His male followers, only John confronted and overcame that fear. John walked the journey of the Passion with the Lord, even though doing so could mean his own suffering and death.
Isn't it interesting that, of the twelve apostles, only John would die of natural causes? All the other apostles, who had been afraid to die for Christ during His Passion, would later die for Him, following His Resurrection. Might our Lord be telling us that the very thing to which we cling is the very thing we must relinquish, if we are to love Him perfectly?
Perfect willingness to relinquish is enough. God may not take what we don't want to give up. But we have to be willing to let Him have it. John would later write, "Love has no room for fear; rather, perfect love casts out all fear" (1 John 4:17). It is perfect love that enables us to give God all.
Of all His apostles, John loved Jesus most perfectly which is why he was the apostle most beloved by Christ. Perfect love allows nothing to come between oneself and the Lord, the beloved. Thus, on the San Damiano Crucifix, nothing, not even air space, comes between John and the Lord.
With the Lord, comes the cross. St. John reminds us that loving Christ means embracing the cross on which He died. It also means receiving the sacraments of Eucharist (blood) and Baptism (water) which flow from the loving heart of Christ, pierced for our sins. When our love is perfected, we cannot help but smile as John is doing, for we have come to know and to love Love while being certain that Love, in turn, loves us.
THE LOINCLOTH (May 2004)
The San Damiano Crucifix is rich in symbols, some of which we tend to overlook. One of the often overlooked symbols is the loincloth on Christ.
Historians have told us that Christ was totally stripped for the crucifixion, as were all "criminals," so that no shred of dignity was left to the crucified victim. Out of respect for Our Lord, artists added a loincloth to their portrayals of the crucifixion The artist who painted the San Damiano Crucifix went beyond a desire to cover Christ's private parts. The artist instructs through the loincloth which he painted.
First, the loincloth appears to be sheer, thus giving Christ both coverage (respect) and exposure (accuracy). The loincloth is no rag as it is often shown in other renditions of the crucifixion. It is trimmed in gold which is reminiscent of Christ's kingly and priestly roles. Furthermore, the loin cloth is knotted at Christ's waist with a curious triple knot, each of the knots equal in size and shape to the other two. The knots form a triangular shape at Christ's naval. This is certainly a symbol of the three equal Persons of the Trinity, positioned at the part of the body from which issues physical life. The artist is telling us that our life issued from our Trinitarian God Who, in the Second Person of the Trinity, took on our humanity so that we might know the extent to which we are loved.
THE HOLY SPIRIT (June 2004)
On the Crucifix of San Damiano, the Holy Spirit is not depicted, as is traditionally done, by a dove. The Holy Spirit is symbolized by the extended fingers of the Father's Hand which is at the very top of the Crucifix. The Spirit, Who is invisible, emanates from the Father, through His creative Hand, to raise the Son to life and to assume His body into heaven. The resurrected and ascending Christ is directly below the Hand of the Father, with His own hand and eyes directed upward. The sense of the Father both beckoning and drawing the Son to glory, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is strong on this icon. May the Holy Spirit beckon and draw each of us as well!
THE FOX (July 2004)
Possibly the most rarely seen figure on the San Daminao Crucifix is that of a small, brown fox painted in the left margin next to Christ's leg, opposite the rooster in the right margin. The image is so squeezed into the margin that it's almost indistinguishable, just the way the icon painter desired it.
In Scripture, foxes are depicted as being sly, destructive, and hidden. In Judges 15, Samson takes revenge on the Philistines by setting afire the tails of three hundred foxes and then releasing them among the standing grain of his enemy, thus torching the entire crop at once. The male lover in the Song of Songs cries out, "Catch us the foxes, the little foxes that damage the vineyards; for our vineyards are in bloom" (Song of Songs 2:15). The prophet Ezekiel compares false, lying prophets to "foxes among ruins" (Ezekiel 15:4). In Luke 13:32, Jesus calls the crafty, evil, tricky Herod a "fox." Jesus acknowledges that "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His Head" (Matthew 8:20 and Luke 9:58). All of these portrayals of the fox were likely important to the San Daminao Crucifix painter.
As foxes destroy both the grain to make bread and the grapes for the wine, so lack of faith and skepticism can destroy our faith in the bread made Body and the wine made Blood in the Eucharist. Lies, deceit and falsity sent Christ to His death, making spiritual ruin of those who perpetrated the untruths. Herod the Great had tried to kill Christ as an infant and his son Herod Antipas sent Him back to Pilate to be crucified, thus accomplishing his father's goal. While the foxes could hide away, much as the fox hides on the Crucifix of San Damiano, Jesus had no hiding place. He, innocent, would be found and crucified for the sins of the "foxes" in the world.
The icon of San Damiano tells us that sins is a sly fox, lurking in the lair of our denial but ready to scurry out and destroy. The juxtaposition of the rooster, symbolizing the public sin of Peter, with the fox, symbolizing the many private sins of humanity, is intentional. Depicting both of these creatures near the feet of Christ, and in such small images, clearly shows that Christ has overcome both public and private sins in His glorious sacrifice. We are to take heart and repent, for we will be forgiven.
THE NECK OF CHRIST (August 2004)
Most folks don't pay much attention to necks unless they belong to giraffes! But according to iconographers, the neck of Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix is an important symbol. Christ's neck is very strong. It symbolizes the freedom and strength by which the will of God, symbolized by the mind or head of Christ, is connected with the love (heart) and action (hands) of God. What God wills, He loves. What He loves, He creates. The thoughts of God are never impeded but instantly transformed into love and creation.
Only through our neck does our body receive messages from the brain. So the neck is a channel for whatever the brain determines. Medieval theologians compared the Blessed Mother to a neck. God the head sent His graces to the body of believers through Mary, the neck. She is thus the mediatrix of all of God's graces, not the originator of grace but the channel through whom all grace comes to us.
We might meditate on the neck of Christ and ask ourselves what sort of channel we are. Do we recognize Christ as our head? Do we want to be connected to Him? Do we want His graces to flow through us to the body of folks who people our lives? Or are we trying to be head, neck, and body ourselves?
Lord, keep me humble. Let me know that any good that I do originates with You, not from me. Help me to understand that I must channel that good to others because I, too, am but a neck.
COLOR OF THE HALOES (September 2004)
All of the haloes on the crucifix of San Damiano, with the exception of the large halo around the head of Christ Crucified, are outlined in red. That red is the same color as the blood spurting from the wounds of Christ. The iconographer is telling us that our holiness comes from the sacrificial death of Christ. Only to the extent that we allow that death to transform us--to that extent will we be holy. May the Lord help us to embrace the Passion of Christ with love so that we may partake of His glory.
CHRIST'S HAIR (October 2004)
On the San Daminao crucifix, Christ's hair is quite distinctive. Three curly locks of hair cascade over Christ's left shoulder and three over his right. Between these locks of hair rises the head of Christ which is the focal point of the crucifix.
The symmetrical nature of the hair locks plus Christ's head is reminiscent of the seven branched candelabrum called the Menorah which was lit in the Temple Sanctuary every evening and cleaned every morning, with fresh olive oil placed in the cups for burning before the altar of the Lord. The description of this menorah is in Exodus 25:31-32.
"And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold; of beaten work shall the candlestick be made; his shaft, and his branches, his bowls, his knobs, and his flowers, shall be of the same. 32. And six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side."
The menorah is a symbol of the servant of God who is to be a "light to all nations" (Isaiah 42:6). Light is not a violent force. It gently invades everything that does not block it. In Zechariah 4: 1-6 is recorded Zechariah's vision of a seven branched candlestick that symbolizes " Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts."
In the menorah, the side branches and cups point upward as does the center candlestick. On the San Damiano Crucifix, the six locks point downward with only the head of Christ erect. The six downward pointing locks symbolize the reversal of what God was achieving through the crucifix. Here, in Christ's crucifixion, death is being reversed into eternal life. The popular notion of a military Messiah is turned upside down into that of a suffering servant of God. Israel's expectation of a wealthy king is upturned to present a poverty-stricken man condemned as a common criminal. The Messiah and what happened to Him was the opposite of what the Jews expected.
The menorah symbolism is enhanced by the huge golden halo surrounding the head of Christ just as light would surround the lighted candelabrum. Christ is the Light of All Nations Whose Spirit enlightens the darkness and reaches to all who do not block Him.
THE CROSS TOPPED STAFF (November 2004)
At the top of the San Damiano Crucifix, an ascended Christ is welcomed into glory. The Hand of God is blessing Him while ten angels welcome Him. As He steps triumphantly into Glory, Christ is clothed in a white tunic and wind blown ochre colored stole. All of these details, rich in meaning, will be discussed in future newsletters, God willing, of course.
For this month, consider the blood red staff, topped with a white cross, which Christ bears in His right hand as He enters glory. Immediately we catch the symbolism. Christ holds the cross topped staff in His right hand as a king would hold a scepter. The cross is the symbol of Christ's rule over us, the authority of a Shepherd King.
Shepherds used a staff to ward off predators, to give balance as they climbed rugged terrain, and to control a wayward sheep or save an endangered one by catching its leg in the crook at the top of the staff. The staff Christ bears in this icon is topped, not with a candy cane curve, but with a white cross. The love of Christ is both pure (white) and sacrificial (red). The staff indicates Christ's authority over us, the sheep of His flock. It also shows His deep love and compassion since the shepherd's staff is used for the good of the sheep. By the power of Christ's death on the cross, satan is kept at bay. Graces, which Christ gained from the cross, support us spiritually as we travel life's rugged terrain. The One Who died upon that cross snared us and pulled us from spiritual danger. He laid us on His shoulder to bring us home, rejoicing. The cross is the perfect emblem for Christ our King. May we trust Him Who loves us so much that He embraced the cross for our sake.
CHRIST'S BELLY BUTTON (December 2004)
A belly button, even if it is Christ's, may seem like a very odd point of reflection! However, most crucifixes, upon examination of the crucified Christ image, do show Christ's belly button.
Only life that grows inside the womb of a mammal has a belly button, but the portrayal of Christ's belly button isn't merely a point of anatomical correctness. The belly button shows us that Christ really was human. He really was born. He really grew inside the womb of His Mother. He really was conceived. He really was just like us in all things except sin.
We thank You, Lord, for taking on our humanity. We marvel at the Virgin who carried you in her womb for nine months and from whom You received nourishment and protection. What other god would have so humbled Himself to come to us in this very human way? Help me, Lord, to love You as I ought, for You have loved me far more than I deserve. Amen.
THE "WOMB" OF CHRIST (January 2005)
The artist has painted a "womb" on the belly of the Christ of the icon of San Damiano. This perfect circle, which has the belly button at its top and which is transfixed with a circular line to indicate protrusion as a perfectly shaped ball, is not to imply that Christ was of female gender. Not at all, for the image of Christ on the San Damiano crucifix is distinctly male in the bearded face and bodily proportions.
However, the "womb" is quite distinct. It is outlined in red, one of the predominant colors in the icon of San Damiano. The red is purposefully chosen. The other outlined parts of the Lord's Body, such as His kneecaps, breast, and body cavity, are not painted in red but rather in a deeper flesh color. The red outline of the "womb" is meant to indicate that the "womb" is a symbolic, not a realistic, part of this icon.
The red outlined "womb" recalls the Blood of Christ, which is spurting from His wounds on this icon. The "womb" reminds the viewer that Christ conceived us Christians in His Passion and birthed us in His crucifixion. As a new life begins in the womb, so our new spiritual lives begin in the outpoured Blood of the Lord. In the "womb" of His Blood, we are conceived; in His Blood, we grow; because of His Blood, we are reborn into new life with God.
CONTRAST OF DARK AND LIGHT (February 2005)
The San Damiano Crucifix is a masterful study of dark and light. The light which seems to radiate from the body of Christ glows in stark contrast to the black and red background. Christ's halo and the light behind the major figures below the crucifix tend to heighten the distinction between dark and light.
As Lent begins, we might reflect on the dark and light of this penitential season. The ashes placed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are black, the color of sin and of the sorrow for it and of death which faces us all. That death will be our physical deaths some day but ought now to be the death of sin in our lives. The brilliance of Christ's resurrected yet crucified foreshadows the burst of light said to have taken place at Christ's resurrection. We, as penitents, are to move from sin to holiness, from death to life. Lent is a reminder that we are called "out of the darkness into His marvelous Light" (1 Peter 2:9) The San Damiano Crucifix is a tangible picture of that persistent and insistent call.
RISEN WITH WOUNDS (March, 2005)
The icon of Christ on the San Damiano crucifix is both crucified and risen. Although nailed to the crucifix, with blood spurting from His wounds, the Christ on the San Damiano crucifix is not suffering. His eyes are not glazed with pain but are wide open, their gaze serene and penetrating, filled with love for all who gaze upon Him. Saint Faustina, to whom Christ entrusted the message of Divine Mercy, relates that Christ once told her, "Daughter, when you go to confession, to this fountain of My mercy, the Blood and Water which came forth from My Heart always flow down upon your soul and ennoble it." This flowing Blood is what the artist, who preceded Saint Faustina by centuries, has depicted on the San Damiano crucifix. The blood of the Risen Christ continues to run. His heart remains pierced. Christ's ever spurting blood constantly reveals His merciful love, covering our sinfulness with His precious life.
CHRIST OF JOHN'S GOSPEL (April, 2005)
The icon of the Christ of San Damiano is a visual message of the Gospel of John, particularly of John 17:1-5: "When Jesus had said this, he raised his eyes to heaven and said, 'Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do. Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.'"
We might call this the Icon of Christ in Glory. Christ is clearly the main and prominent figure because He has primacy over all creation. He is wearing the ephod of the High Priest so that we see that He is the High Priest of the New Covenant, interceding for us in heaven. Yet, because He is crucified, He is also the sacrificial victim. Christ is the Priest Who offered Himself and Who died but lives. Christ's glory is His sacrifice and His resurrection for love of us.
Mary, the Mother of Jesus (May 2005)
Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is the first figure under the arms of Christ on the San Damiano crucifix. She is smiling as she talks to John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. In an attitude of peaceful attention, Mary is resting her chin on her left fist as she and John converse. Her right hand, like John's, is open and points toward Christ. She and John appear to be sharing their faith in and love of Christ even as He is both dead and risen over them. Remember that the icon of the Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix shows a glorified savior. On this icon, and John have lived through the life, Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Mary is the single human being who most intimately knew the Lord from even before His conception. One wonders what she is thinking as she shares with John. We may do well to meditate on what she kept hidden in her heart and pondered.
THE WOUND IN THE SIDE OF CHRIST (June 2005)
The wound in the side of Christ, on the San Damiano Crucifix, is definitely a gash. It reminds the viewer of the gash in the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, revealed to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque in several visions. However, the San Damiano Crucifix predated Saint Margaret Mary by five centuries.
The blood which spurts from the gash in Christ's side and heart reminds us of the extent of His Love for us. Not only did He leave heaven and come to earth to teach us, not only did He suffer rejection and poverty in this life, not only did He undergo His incredible Passion and excruciating death, but even His precious Heart was pierced for us. The heart is a symbol of the origin and seat of human love. When someone we deeply love is lost to us by rejection or death, we say that "our heart is broken" with grief. Christ's Heart was not only broken; it was also pierced, and by the lance of one of those who crucified Him. Yet His Heart ever and only loved. No condemnation came from the Heart or the lips of Christ but only the words, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
The pierced and bleeding side of Jesus is a central image on the San Damiano Crucifix. It is a visible and constant reminder to penitents to love one another as Christ has loved us and to forgive others as we have been forgiven by the Lord. May the Lord grant us hearts that love and forgive all.
THE BLOOD OF CHRIST (July 2005)
We've mentioned the blood of Christ during other reflections on the San Damiano crucifix, but in this reflection, we will focus on the blood alone. The blood of Christ is mirrored in the predominant color of the crucifix, which is red. The artist seems to want to portray that the blood of Christ really covers everything.
Gaspar del Bufalo, founder of the Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood, stressed that conversion begins with a complete and persevering trust in God's mercy. The basis of such trust can be found in meditating on the meaning of the spilling of Christ's Precious Blood. "Those in the purgative way (the first step on the path to total union with God) must depend on the riches of the blood of the Lamb," Saint Gaspar wrote.
As the Passover lamb in the Old Testament was slain in place of the Jews who escaped the deadly plague that felled the Egyptians, so Christ was slain in place of us, so that we could escape the deadly plague of punishment for sin. As the lamb before the shearers opened not its mouth, so Christ does not cry out either. His ever pouring, living blood is offered daily in the Eucharistic sacrifice. The Jews were forbidden to consume blood, for they believed that life was in the blood. Jesus told us to consume His Blood because His Life is in His Blood. His life gives us life. May the ever living Blood of Christ, so prominent on the San Damiano crucifix, give us life forever.
THE BLOTTED OUT SAINTS (August 2005)
Beneath the feet of Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix are six figures of saints. We know they are saints because the last two figures have haloes. We can't see the first four, however, as they have been blotted out over time. In fact, we can't be positively sure that there are four blotted out saints although there appears to be room for four, judging by the size of the last two, clear figures. Historians conjecture that the six saints might be Saints Damian, Rufinus, Michael, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul, the patron saints of the churches of Assisi. However, no one can be sure.
We might think of ourselves as unknown, blotted out saints. In time, our memory will be blotted out, photos of us will fade, and what we said and did will be lost to time. Like the vast multitudes of now nameless, forgotten people, we shall pass into eternity, unremembered by anyone but the Lord. History and time will blot out all recollection of us, but God never will. As penitents, we can rejoice in our unimportance as far as the world goes. We can be glad that we are part of humanity whose impression is written only on the souls of those whose lives we touch. We know that God has written us in His Heart for He created us out of love. Love blots out no remembrance of the beloved. Love remembers forever.
PEOPLE SAINTS AND ANGEL SAINTS (September 2005)
The San Damiano Crucifix is an excellent tool to teach the truths of our Catholic faith. One misconception, that may be more prevalent today than in the past, is that good people who die become angels. While the media fosters this misconception, the San Damiano Crucifix sets the record straight.
At the very top of the crucifix, surrounding Christ ascending into glory beneath the Father's hand, are ten haloed figures, five on the left of Christ and five on the right. The figures are clothed in red and white, and each one is beardless with short hair. In other words, the figures could be of either sex. Nevertheless, those on the left are people and those on the right angels. How can we tell? Because those on the right are on a light colored background against which one can see their wings while those on the left are on a dark colored background and are wingless.
The artist is depicting several truths in these images. First, gender is unimportant in heaven. Those in heaven "neither marry nor are given in marriage," as Jesus explained. Secondly both the human and angelic souls in heaven are saints, as the haloes testify. Third, the blood of Christ, as implied by the red garments in both the angelic and human spheres, saves both humans and angels. Finally, angels are not human beings. The good angels have always existed in the light of heaven, as evidenced by the light behind them, while good human beings have lived in the darkness of this world from which they emerge to enter glory. People do not become angels when they enter heaven. They become recognized as saints.
THE CRUCIFIX AND THE VISION OF SAINT FRANCIS (October, 2005)
The Feast of Saint Francis receiving the Stigmata is celebrated on September 17 (although one major historian believes that he received the wounds of Christ on September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross). Saint Francis' Feast Day is October 4, the date of his entry into eternal life in 1226. We do not have a specific date for his conversion, when the Crucifix of San Damiano spoke to Francis, asking him to "rebuild My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruin." One very interesting point about the Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix is His similarity with the Christ of the Vision which left Francis with the stigmata.
Saint Bonaventure, in his biography of Saint Francis completed in 1263, writes that Christ, under the appearance of a six-winged, brilliant, crucified Seraph, swiftly descended from the sky and appeared to Saint Francis who had been deep in prayer. "He rejoiced at the gracious way Christ looked upon him under the appearance of the Seraph, but the fact that He was fastened to a cross pierced his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow." (Major Legend of Saint Francis, Chapter 13) In comparing this vision with the Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix, we note some striking similarities. In both cases, Christ is both crucified and risen. In both case, Christ is luminous, brilliant with light. In both cases, Christ's "gracious" gaze penetrates the soul of the one gazing at Him. Certainly Francis must have instantly made the connection between the two images.
Why might God have appeared to Francis in Vision that resembled the Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix? We can only humbly and crudely postulate an answer. Certainly the crucifix in San Damiano was imprinted on Francis' mind as he had prayed intensely and often before it. To now see a crucified, risen Christ gazing at him with love would say to Francis that God was continuing to give Francis a means to "rebuild My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruin." That means was the stigmata, a visible way to suffer with and for Christ, to become more like Christ even in the flesh. The wounds on the image of Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix are fresh; blood spurts from them even as Christ is victorious over them. Was God telling St. Francis that his own wounds would continue to bleed but that he would be victorious over his own pain? Was God letting Francis know that the stigmata, which greatly embarrassed Francis, would become the defining characteristic of his own life just as they had been in Christ's?
With God, there are no coincidences. The Christ Who strengthened Francis at the beginning of his mission, when his father and all of society were opposed to his radical following of Christ, appeared to him two years before his mission's end to strengthen him yet again when his friars were opposing his guidance and straying from the rigors of the Rule as Francis had written it. Christ and Francis experienced not only physical wounds but also emotional and spiritual ones, but those very wounds served to make them glorious in the plan of God.
THE CENTURION (November, 2005)
Under the left arm of Jesus, on the San Damiano Crucifix, is a man holding three fingers up, to indicate the Trinity. He also holds a block of wood and is clothed in a head covering, red cloak, and gold bordered tunic with golden boots. Unlike the other four figures under the arms of Christ, this man does not wear a halo. The artist has labeled this man a "centurion." The question is, "Which centurion?"
Two centurions who believed in Christ figure in the Gospel of Luke. One of them, mentioned in Luke 7:1-10, had built a synagogue for the Jews. He sent some Jewish elders to Jesus at Capernaum, asking Him to cure his ill servant. Jesus set out with them, but when He was approaching the house, the centurion sent friends to tell Jesus that "I am not worthy to have You enter my house." Jesus should simply, "Say the word and my servant shall be healed." Jesus commended this man's faith and healed the servant without going into the centurion's house. Since this centurion built a temple, many of those who "read" the icon of San Daminao believe that the centurion pictured is that one whose servant Jesus cured.
Saint Luke mentions another centurion, this one present at the Crucifixion. "The centurion, upon seeing what had happened, gave glory to God by saying, 'Surely this was an innocent man.'" (Luke 23:47). Could the centurion present at the Crucifixion be the same one whose servant Jesus healed? It seems very possible. In Chapter 7, Luke first mentions A centurion. But in Luke 23, he says THE centurion. "THE" would indicate that this centurion had been mentioned earlier.
What a beautiful mediation, if the two centurions were, in fact, one man! The one whose servant Jesus cured now stands below the Cross and sees the great healer succumb to death without lifting a finger to help Himself. The centurion's comment is interesting. "Surely this was an innocent man." Did he have some questions about Christ's innocence? Did he think, as we often do, that if someone is condemned by those in authority, then he or she must be guilty? Did the centurion put more faith in the government than in what he knew about Jesus, than in what he had personally experienced at Jesus's hands? Maybe the centurion is not yet wearing a halo--is not yet holy--because he has yet to fully believe, not only in the innocence of Christ but also in His Divinity and in His supreme sacrifice of Redemption. Nevertheless, the centurion is moving toward that belief. He stands below the Cross where Christ's Blood, dripping from His left arm, is about to fall on the shoulder of this centurion. The centurion will be washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb. It is only a matter of time.
GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST (December 2005)
Angels were present at the birth of Jesus. "Glory to God in the Highest," they sang, and the shepherds heard and hurried to worship the Baby born in Bethlehem. At least eleven angels adorn the crucifix of San Damiano, and they, too, seem to cry out, "Glory to God in the Highest!" Glory to Him Who was born, Who preached and healed and taught, Who died and was raised, Who ascended into heaven., and Who sits at the Father's right hand. The visible angels are symbols of the invisible ones. Viewers of the San Damiano Crucifix get the impression that angels surround not only Christ but also us, as, indeed, they do. Not only at Christmas time but every day of the year ought the faithful join with the angels in glorifying and praising God for all He has done for us.