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Reflections on the San Damiano Crucifix 2006-2007

December 2007: Angels

We associate angels with the incarnation and birth of Christ. The Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary to ask her to be the Mother of Our Lord. Twice an angel appeared to Joseph in dreams, once telling him to not fear taking Mary as his wife because her son was also God's Son, and the second time telling him to flee with Mother and Infant to escape Herod's murdering soldiers. Angels sang in the skies when Christ was born and beckoned shepherds to the manger where the Infant Lord lay. Angels figured in the life of Jesus as an adult when they appeared to Him in the Garden of Gethsemane to strengthen Him before His Crucifixion. The painter of the icon of Christ of San Damiano portrays angels as being present at the Crucifixion. At least eleven angels are depicted on the Crucifix, and perhaps as many as sixteen if the five figures on the top left are angels rather than saints (it is difficult to see whether or not these figures are winged). We can distinguish angels from people in this icon because the angels are winged. Since angels are pure spirits, they have no bodies so they could not have wings which are material parts of certain bodies. The symbolism of wings painted on angels is to show that these spiritual beings are not bound by gravity as fleshly beings are. They can go anywhere at tremendous speeds--they are free to dart through space as do birds. The angels present on the Crucifix of San Damiano portray the artist's belief that Christ was not alone on the Cross. God send His angels to sustain Him. This follows Church teaching, for our Guardian Angels are always with us, even in the most difficult times of our lives. The angels remind us that God is always near and that He always cares for us. He has given His angels charge over us. What a great gift for which we ought to be extremely grateful!

November 2007: Thinness of Christ's Arms and Legs

In some renditions of Christ Crucified, Our Lord's arms and legs are quite muscular, indicating strength and power. But the image of Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix has thin arms and legs. Was the artist trying to indicate that Christ was weak or skinny?

Not at all. The weak, thin arms and legs of Our Lord bear a message. Christ died for us and for all. His Holy Spirit is with us, but He no longer walks physically among us. He has no arms and legs in this world today, but ours. While the Holy Spirit is the one to bring about conversion of heart, people cannot know the truth about Christ unless others bring it to them. They will not know the love of Jesus unless others show that love to them. Saint Francis, in meditating before the San Damiano Crucifix, clearly understood the message when he heard, "Go and rebuild My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruin." Francis' arms became the strength in Jesus' arms, to lift the stones to rebuild San Damiano. Francis' legs became the muscles in Jesus' legs to carry those begged stones from Assisi to the tumbling down chapel.

In time, Francis would understand that those arms of his were to embrace lepers and console the suffering; those legs of his were to bring him to town upon town in order to proclaim the message of the Gospel. When we, as penitents, pray before the San Damiano Crucifix, we, too, understand that we, like Francis, are called to be the arms and legs of Christ in our world. So many do not realize that the empty place in their heart can be filled only with God. He calls us to go to those who do not know their own emptiness and to embrace them with love.

October 2007: God at the Center

When we meditate on the San Damiano Crucifix, we almost miss the obvious. "God is at the center of all things and above all," as one person noted. In comparing the San Damiano Crucifix with other crucifixes, we notice that Jesus on most other crucifixes is alone. We see only Him on the cross. However, on the San Damiano Crucifix, Jesus presides over the entire array of saints and angels who are clustered above, below, and beside Him. He is the hub about Whom they revolve; He is the God Who hovers over them. Jesus is the image of benevolent omnipotence when we view Him on the crucifix. We feel no fear in approaching Him, yet we understand the He holds the place of utmost power and authority. May He be at the center of our lives and we willingly allow Him to reign over us always.

September 2007: The God Who Calls, "Let Yourself Be Loved."

Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, a Carmelite nun who died in 1906 at the age of 26, wrote a letter to her Prioress, to be opened after Sister Elizabeth died. The letter was found in 1934, on the dead Prioress' table, showing evidence that it had been heavily read by the Prioress. Scholars have titled the letter "Let Yourself Be Loved," a phrase that Elizabeth used six times in the letter.

Being a Carmelite nun, Elizabeth of the Trinity may never have seen the San Damiano Crucifix. Nevertheless, the image of Christ on the crucifix seems to call to the viewer, "Let yourself be loved." Jesus' arms are open wide to welcome us into His embrace. His penetrating gaze beckons us to trust and love Him. Although He died for our sins, although His fresh wounds are spurting blood that  redeems us, Christ is anything but condemnatory. He says to us, "No matter what your sin, let yourself be loved. No matter what your past, let yourself be loved. No matter what your imperfections at this very moment, let yourself be loved. Gaze at Me. I am Love Who hangs before you, Love Who beckons, Love Who forgives, Love Who loves. Do not be afraid. Let yourself be loved." For some of us, it is difficult to let God love us. But those who do experience the joy and serenity of the human figures standing under the arms of the San Damiano Crucifix. To allow God to love us brings a peace that nothing in the world can bring. "Let yourself be loved."

August 2007: Heart of Christ

On the San Damiano Crucifix, we cannot see the heart of Christ, but we can see where it would be. Christ's chest is broad, accommodating both a large  heart and large lungs. The heart is the seat of life and love, and Christ exceeded all other human beings in both areas. Christ is eternal Life and endless Love. The iconographer portrayed these qualities by giving Christ a very broad chest. May we thank the Lord of Life and of Love for all His gifts!

July 2007: Forgiveness

Have you ever noticed that people cannot look someone in the eye if they are holding bitter, resentful feelings toward that person? This is because, as philosophers say, 'the eye is the window into the soul.' When we look someone in the eye, we are peering into his or her soul. It is almost as if two souls embrace in understanding. How could we look someone in the eye and not see the human being behind that gaze? How difficult it is to hold onto bitterness and unforgiveness when we probe the depths of the person's soul?

On the Crucifix of San Damiano, Jesus' gaze penetrates our souls. He looks us directly in the eye just as He gazes on His betrayers and executioners. We see no lowered or averted gaze in the Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix. Jesus has totally forgiven everyone who harmed Him. His gaze challenges us to forgive our enemies as well. May He help us to gaze into their eyes and find their human souls, with all their weaknesses and all their strengths, with all the ugliness and beauty, all the triumphs and defeats. When we can see the brokenness and the talents of our enemies, we are led to forgiveness. God asks us to forgive others as He has forgiven us. The iconographer of the San Damiano Crucifix has shown us how complete is that forgiveness.



Painted on the San Damiano crucifix above the head of the Christ of the San Damiano is a red plaque inscribed with gold letters IHS NAZARE. Translation? “Jesus of Nazareth.” Beneath it is a black plaque ith gold letters REX IV DEORV. All four Gospels mention that an inscription reading “King of the Jews” (REX IV DEORV) was placed on the crucifix above Jesus’ head. Only St. John the Evangelist notes that Pilate wrote this inscription and that it read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”


The Gospels imply that written notices of accusation were commonly placed on all crucifixes so that passersby could know what crimes the dying criminal had committed. Perhaps the condemned person’s name was commonly added to these accusations, so that people would know that the area was now rid of such a menace.


Pilate did not realize that he was summarizing both the humanity and divinity of Jesus in the accusation that he wrote. “Jesus of Nazareth” referred to the human origins of this carpenter from the unpretentious town of Nazareth. The claim that He was “King of the Jews,” which Jesus did not refute, thrust Christ into direct opposition to both Jewish religious leaders and Roman politicians. This man, who had no earthly wealth or glorious following, bore no resemblance to an earthly king. He Himself told Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate washed his hands of Jesus’ blood. What was he thinking when he wrote that accusation? Could he have wondered, however fleetingly, if Jesus might actually be, not from Nazareth, but from “another world?”


When we die, what one phrase below our name will identify us to passersby? May it be one that reflects that we are sons and daughters of “The King of the Jews.”

MAY 2007: Littleness

One of the immediately striking points about the San Damiano Crucifix is the large Christ and the much smaller other figures. The viewer can not help noticing that the biggest figures other than Christ are the size of little children, next to Him. And that is intentional. Jesus told us that we must become like little children to enter the Kingdom of God. All those pictured with Him on the San Damiano Crucifix are painted as living out that prescription. Even the angels, who are often portrayed in popular art as huge and powerful, are, on this crucifix, small and childlike. They, too, know that they are children of God. 

The greatest saint of all, the Mother of the Lord, is the size of child on this Crucifix. So are the great evangelist St. John, the great penitent Mary Magdalene, and the great model of the unknown faithful, Mary of Clopas. If these great ones can recognize their littleness in the presence of the Savior, ought we not do the same? Lord, make my heart humble and meek so that I may be Your faithful child. Amen.


The San Damiano Crucifix shows the death of Christ, but no one is weeping. All portrayed on the crucifix are smiling with the exception of the somber face behind the centurion. Why is everyone happy? Because they know that Jesus' death brought us eternal life. His death is a sign of His love. It would lead to His glory in His resurrection. His dying was the ultimate emptying of Himself that brings us the fullness of life. If Christ had not died, where would we find hope when faced with death? How could we embrace serenity in the midst of terrible affliction? How would we understand the depth of Christ's meaning in "No one can be My follower unless He take us His cross and follow Me." Good Friday is a time of grief in watching Christ suffer yet it is also a time of great joy in realizing that He chose this suffering out of love for us. How important do we have to be, to have God die for love of us? How can we look at a crucifix and not feel great joy?


The shape of the Crucifix of San Damiano resembles the shape of a Romanesque church built in the 11th and 12th centuries. This is the time period in which the Crucifix of San Damiano was painted.

A Romanesque church was built in the shape of a cross, with the point of entry being at the base of the cross. The faithful would walk into the church through a hall and then enter the main body of the church which was considerably wider than the entry hall. Here, in the center, stood the altar around which the faithful stood to pray. Extending behind the altar and on either side were additional wide halls in which were located chapels or side altars.  However, the primary Mass was always celebrated on the altar in the center of the church.

The San Damiano Crucifix is bordered with shells as if by a wall, but this border is missing at the foot of the crucifix. There the faithful can "enter in" to contemplation of the crucifix, just as they would enter a church. As one approaches the heart of Christ, the crucifix expands to accommodate the faithful who are sharing their faith beneath the outstretched arms of the Lord. This is where they would be standing in a church, around the altar where the Body and Blood of the Lord become the life giving Food and Drink of the faithful.  At the top of the cross and on either arm cluster angels, as if to indicate the holiness of the icon, but the main focus is in the center of the crucifix, where Christ's Heart is pierced for love of us. The artist is telling us that the Christ on the Crucifix of San Damiano is the Christ consecrated on the altars of our churches. We come to Him, to worship, to contemplate, to love, to share our faith with others. He is the center of our lives.


We associate red with the color of love. Since Valentine's Day falls during this month, we'll be seeing more red than usual in department stores, on cards, on television, and even in people's clothing. The seat of love is traditionally thought to be the heart, and so hearts are shown in fleshly colors of red or pink. If red is the color of love, the San Damiano Crucifix, with its predominance of red, shows us how much Christ loves us. It is as if the Crucifix is proclaiming, "I surround you with love, My people. You are never far from My love." How could it be otherwise when God's name is Love?


At the top of the San Damiano Crucifix is a red circle in which the risen and ascending Christ appears to be running into heaven, His stole billowing around Him from the rapidity of His motion.  In His left hand He carries a cross-topped staff, a reminder of His death on the cross and a symbol of our crosses, too.

In the ascending Christ, the iconographer has painted a visual message of how one attains union with God. The spiritual life is like this image of our Lord, apparently static,  yet simultaneously moving. If we bear our crosses with faith and keep turning toward God, we are actually moving in His direction, perhaps more rapidly than we imagine, even if we feel that we have stalled in our spiritual progress.  

The spiritual life is never a treadmill. We either backslide or else we move forward. Our trials (crosses) are our tickets to glory! If we bear them well, carrying them as long as God wishes, their fruits of patience, faith, hop


When we contemplate Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix, we are immediately drawn into His serenity. Abandoned by most of His followers, He is dying a slow and painful death. Yet His face reflects complete serenity.

When Saint Francis gazed upon that Crucifix, in his anguished prayer for God's guidance, the serenity of Christ must have beckoned him into having a similar, peaceful trust in God's Will. When we face life's adversities, we might take some moments to contemplate this crucifix and find in the face of Christ the peace He wants to give us. Whatever we are facing, God is in control.



The San Damiano Crucifix is a symbol of hope for everyone who aspires to holiness. Why? Not only because it so clearly portrays a peaceful, crucified, royal Lord Whose death brought us the grace to become holy, but also because the crucifix is so populated with ordinary people whose sanctity comes through their being spiritually close to Jesus in their ordinariness. We might consider the Blessed Mother to be extraordinary, and, of course, she was extraordinary in the area of grace. She alone of all humans was preserved from original sin and always cooperated with God's grace. But her life was certainly ordinary. She performed her daily duties, helped those in need, and remained in relative obscurity in the shadow of a very famous (some would say infamous) Son. The other saints pictured on the crucifix are ordinary, too. Even St. John the Evangelist, the most extraordinary of the ordinary, was a fisherman before he became an Evangelist.


As we meditate on the San Damiano Crucifix, we realize that sanctity is only achieved in the ordinary, day-to-day living out of our lives. All those pictured on the crucifix lived through some drastic events. Some witnessed the betrayal and death of a beloved friend. Others had a conversion experience that made them realize that God had to be first in their lives. Some underwent persecution for their faith. But haven't we all experienced similar things and more? What we experience does not make us holy. How we respond to it, can. We become holy by remaining close to Jesus, trusting Him, learning from Him, loving Him and all others, and doing what He said. Christ's outstretched arms on the Crucifix are open to embrace all who want to throw themselves into that embrace. Every ordinary person is welcome!


October 2006: The Size of the Crucifix


Most people are familiar with various sized reproductions of the San Damiano Crucifix.  Most have no idea that the original crucifix is life size. When a person kneels before it in the Basilica of St. Clare of Assisi, one is immediately struck by the full size image of Christ. One can almost believe that he or she is kneeling at the foot of the cross on Calvary.


That sense of being on Calvary is precisely what the iconographer desired. Christ is man-sized. He hangs before the viewer in pain yet glory, in destitution yet with the regal bearing of a king. Clustered around Him are smaller human figures, dwarfed by their Lord. The relative sizes of these viewers indicate the degree of their holiness. Spiritually, we are all dwarfed by the Lord, even the greatest of saints, His Mother. But compared to her and to Sts. John, Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of Clopas and the Centurion (other than Christ, the largest figures on the Crucifix), we are spiritual midgets. They had the courage to be with Christ at the foot of the cross, but we run from our crosses and often from Him on His. When the faithful kneel before the original San Damiano Crucifix, they feel small in its presence, even though their bodies are about the same size as Our Crucified Lord’s. Is this because the Crucifix is elevated above us? Or does our sense of littleness come from within our souls which now suddenly realize how much our spirituality must grow if we are to be a reflection of Him? How good to be dwarfed by the Crucifix of San Damiano! How beneficial to realize that Our Lord alone is God and we His creatures in need of His salvation!

September 2006: Household of Christ

When a person is dying, those generally with him or her are family members or, perhaps, one or two very close friends. When we gaze at the Crucifix of San Damiano, and consider it in light of Scripture, we realize that the only close family member with Jesus, upon His death, was His Mother, Mary. Scripture tells us that St. John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene were also present on Calvary. Mary of Clopas may have been there as well. The Crucifix of San Damiano shows these four figures as well as a fifth, the Centurion who built a synagogue and whose son Christ cured. Perhaps this was the same Centurion at the foot of the cross, and perhaps not. But in any case, behind this Centurion's head is another smaller, frowning face with other heads behind it. These are the household of the Centurion. Scripture tells us that, when the Centurion believed in Christ, so did all his household. The San Damiano iconographer has painted all of this household as being present to Christ at His death.

Does this mean that these folks really were there? Not likely. What it does mean is that Jesus considers all who believe in Him--from His perfect Mother on down to us sinful others--as being part of His household. We are so intimately bound to Him that He considers us as so loving Him that we would have been with Him in His last moments.


Transfiguration means "to change the form or appearance." What is becomes altered into something totally different.

The account of the Transfiguration of Christ appears in three of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). John the Evangelist seems to refer to it when he says, "And we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (1:14). Saint Peter also seems to allude to this event:  "we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, "This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain." (2 Peter 1: 16-18)  

On Mount Tabor, "he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light" (Matthew 17:3).  The Apostles Peter, James, and John went up Mount Tabor with an ordinary looking Jewish carpenter and were blessed with a vision of God. We see a similarly transfigured Christ on the Crucifix of San Damiano. Crucifixion was bloody and gruesome. Yet Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix is pierced but never defeated. He is dead but fully alive. Christ's body is not bruised and filthy with blood. Rather it glows with light. His loin cloth is not stained with mud and dust; it is as brilliantly white as the iconographer could make it. We gaze at a man dying in agony and see instead a serene and resurrected Messiah.  

The genius of this Crucifix is in the many Scriptural passages which it symbolizes. The Transfiguration has to be one of them. It is easy to fall before the Crucifix of San Damiano and cry out as Peter did, "Lord, it is good for us to be here." When we do so, we may interiorly hear the voice of God speaking to us, "This is My Beloved Son. Listen to Him."  


Crucifixes portray Christ differently. On some, He is weakened, dying, or dead. On others, His limp Body seems to almost fall from the cross. In some depictions, Christ's Body actually bends the cross earthward as if the weight of the world's sins, which He bore, is too much for even solid beams to hold. But on the Crucifix of San Damiano, Jesus stands solidly and surely. He does not seem pinioned to the cross as much as He seems to be standing in front of it. The cross almost becomes an indifferent backdrop, even though Christ's wounds are spurting blood as if He were nailed to the beams. However, His wounds could be spurting blood even if Christ were not nailed to the cross. Saint Francis of Assisi, St. Pio of Pietrelcina, and others who bore the stigmata had never undergone physical crucifixion, yet their wounds were real.  

The iconographer's portrayal of a solidly standing Christ shows both Christ's strength and His gentleness. Death and sin have not overcome Him. He has overcome them. They are behind Him as surely as the cross is. When we are weak and burdened, we can look for strength to Our Lord Who has been to the cross but not been defeated by it. Christ's graces can strengthen us when we are pinned to our own crosses. Jesus can teach us how to become victorious over our crosses rather than defeated down by them.


The Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus generally occurs in June. This year it falls on June 23. While the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was instituted in the Church long after the San Damiano Crucifix was painted, the Crucifix embodies the message of the Sacred Heart devotion. The Sacred Heart of Jesus shows the pierced heart of Christ, surrounded by a crown of thorns, surmounted with a cross engulfed in flames and pulsating with light. The flames and light indicate the burning love which Jesus has for us all, a love so strong that it sent Him to the cross and caused His Heart, symbol of His Love, to be pierced for love of us.

The Crucifix of San Damiano portrays a Christ Who is "all heart." His body glows with the fire of His love for us and His image is surrounded by the same glow, the same light. The Crucifix says, "My Love radiates from Me and envelopes all of creation." What the Sacred Heart of Jesus says in its symbolism of pierced, thorn encircled heart, the San Damiano Crucifix says in its full image. When we ponder Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix, we see Love, crucified and yet ever alive, for us.


May is the month during which the United States celebrates Mothers' Day.  We don't think of motherhood when we first gaze at the Crucifix of San Damiano, but motherhood is very much a part of this icon.  After the dominant figure of Christ, the figure we notice next is that of His Mother, dressed in deep, rich burgundy and blue, under the left arm of the crucifix.  She, of all people, should be overcome with grief, and yet she is smiling, gazing at, and pointing to Christ, for she understands that His death is our life.  She, Mother of the Redeemer, understands that her Son's willing sacrifice has saved all her other "children" whom He has bequeathed to her from the cross.  We see some of these "spiritual children"  clustered around the cross and below the feet of  Christ.  We are here, too, as we gaze at Our Lord.  As the figure of Christ draws us into our Lord's sacrifice and victory, so the image of Our Mother, in her peaceful joy, brings comfort.  She is with us in our own sufferings, and she is filled with peace and joy despite them.  Why? Because she knows that, if we give those sufferings and trials over to God, they shall bring us victory and life.  As Mary draws our gaze to her Son, she seems to say, "Understand that your 'death'--to self, to this world, and even to physical life--'is swallowed up in victory' because of His victorious death.  I have birthed not only Him but, through Him, you.  'Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.'  I am your Mother.  All will be well."


The crucifix of San Damiano has an aura of peace. In Christ and in the haoled figures beneath and around the cross, we see no anguish or struggle, no grief or shock, indeed, no pain even though Christ's wounds are spouting fresh blood. It's no coincidence that the halo, which symbolizes holiness, illuminates a peaceful person. When we know that Christ loved us enough to die for us, we wish to follow Him wherever He leads. Trusting in Him brings us peace.

We can reflect on the last days of Our Lord and imagine the anguish felt by His closest followers as death closed in on the One they loved. The Gospels record the confusion and despair of His apostles, all of whom, with the exception of John, abandoned Him. Yet on the San Damiano Crucifix, where Jesus is both dying and rising at the same time, all His followers are at peace. The change from despair and confusion to peace comes with a heartfelt belief in the power and wisdom of God. Then, despite the turmoil of the moment, we can look forward to the glory that God will bring from the time of trial. Peace comes from understanding that, in God's plan and with His grace, the cross precedes the crown, pain evolves into joy, and death yields to resurrection. At this season and at every season, let us embrace our faith with peace.


The San Damiano Crucifix is bordered by shells except at the very bottom which has only a layer of what appears to be earth or rock. It is through this opening that we, the viewer, enter into the message of the Crucifix. It is almost as if the artist left a breach in the wall through which we may pass. We enter right below the blurred saints whose images have been erased by centuries of kisses from reverent pilgrims. They are positioned below the feet of Christ. Thus, we enter this prayerful image at the lowest possible point, coming into the scene through earth and rock, a reminder of our origin from the "dust of the earth" (Genesis 2:7) and our mortality of returning there. "Remember that you are dust and unto dust you will return" we hear on Ash Wednesday. The reminder recalls God's words to Adam when he and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden due to their sin (Genesis 3:19). The opening at the bottom of the Crucifix also reminds us of Jesus' words to take always "the lowest place" when invited to a banquet (Luke 14:8-10). The icon which beckons us is rich spiritual fare. We humbly enter its message at the lowest place so that the Lord can beckon us to "come up higher" into the spiritual realm of union with Himself.


February 2006:  Christ's Broad Shoulders

The image of Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix is not exactly realistic. His arms and legs are very thin and yet His neck and shoulders are broad. Did the artist lack a sense of proportion or was the proportion exactly what he wanted to portray?

Christ's shoulders are broad and strong. These were the shoulders that carried the cross, and not just a cross but a cross laden with all the world's sins. They are also shoulders who carry the lost sheep back to the fold (Luke 15:5), and how many lost sheep has Christ borne since time began? In the Old Testament, God carried His people. Deuteronomy 1:31 says, " the LORD, your God, carried you, as a man carries his child, all along your journey until you arrived at this place."

Christ's shoulders are painted broad and strong to remind us that He carried us and our sins to the cross. The broad, strong shoulders of Christ are a pictorial image on the breadth and strength of His Divine Love.


In the San Damiano Crucifix, the Blessed Mother, who is the first figure under the right arm of Christ, is not looking at Christ. She is looking at St. John, the figure next to her.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to St. John, "Behold your mother," and to Mary, "Behold your son."  John states, "From that time the disciple took her into his home."  (John 19: 26-27).  When Jesus entrusted Mary to John, He was entrusting her to the Church which John symbolizes, the Church fathers say.  In the icon of San Damiano, the Blessed Mother is looking at John, already assuming her role as Mother of the Church.  Because she is Mother of the Church, and because the Confraternity of Penitents are part of the Church, Mary is certainly our Mother as well.  We can entrust ourselves to her, for her protection and her prayers.

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