Reflections on the San Damiano Crucifix 2008-2009

Christ's Feet and Legs

Christ's feet and legs on the San Damiano Crucifix do not resemble those of a man who trekked the desert hill country of Palestine. They are remarkably unmarred feet, not muscular as they would have been but soft and tender. They are the feet and legs of a newborn baby.

Could the iconographer have intentionally portrayed Christ this way to remind us of His humble, human origins in the womb of Mary? Is the iconographer showing us that the Babe in the manger at Bethlehem is the Lord of the cross? We sometimes gloss over the fact that Christ's life was a continuum, just like every human life. He was conceived, born, matured, became a child, teen, adult, just like all the rest of us. At every stage, He was both fully God and fully man. He deserves our love and reverence however we relate to Him.

Christ's Beard

Most depictions of Christ in religious art show Him with a beard and mustache, although some depictions show Him beardless. Traditionally people believed that the beard was customary for Jewish men of Christ's time. Current research indicates that this may not have been the case. It seems that some Jewish men wore beards but others did not. Rabbis were bearded, and Jesus is called "Rabbi" by His followers. But it is unclear whether or not Jesus actually WAS a Rabbi. The term may have been one of respect more than one of actual status. St. Francis, for example, called Saint Anthony "my bishop" but Anthony never was a bishop. The title was Francis' way of showing Anthony respect for his faith and knowledge.

Jesus' beard is quite evident on the San Damiano Crucifix. The two times that Christ is portrayed on the crucifix (as crucified and as ascending), He is bearded. However, not every man portrayed on the icon is bearded. Saint John the Evangelist, who is standing below Christ's right arm, is beardless as is the smaller figure of the Roman Centurion, also on the right. All of the angels on the crucifix are beardless, despite the general misconception that angels are male (they actually are pure spirits so do gender does not apply to them).

Isaiah 50:6 reads, "I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting." This passage on the suffering servant, who is obedient to God by sharing His message of hope with the world (see verses 4 and 5), is often applied to Christ. The Gospels tell us that Jesus was scourged ("I gave my back to those who struck me"--see Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15, John 19:1), spit upon, insulted, hit, and slapped ("I did not hide my face from insult and spitting" -- see Matthew 26:67-68, 27:27-31, Mark 14:65-66, Mark 15:16-20, Luke 22: 63-65, John 18:22, 19:2-3).  Christ's beard links the passage from Isaiah with the Gospel accounts of Christ's Passion. The iconographer is showing that Christ is the suffering servant whom Isaiah predicted would come.

Halo and Crown

In the San Damiano Crucifix, Jesus is portrayed as a crucified and victorious king. The kingly image is evident in the gold edged loin cloth He wears and in his regal bearing as well as in the awe and homage with which the other figures on the crucifix view Him. In this representation, Jesus is not crowned with thorns as in most depictions of the crucifixion, but He is wearing a crown. The halo that surrounds His head is more than an aura of light indicating His holiness. It is a flattened, golden king’s crown, complete with gems. When the viewer looks at the halo, it appears to be a cross studded with gems in the center of a circle of light. But if one studies a king’s crown, one will notice that the crown is often made of four intersecting strips of gold that are bent to form a crown shape. If the crown were flattened, it would look like what surrounds the head of Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix. Christ’s halo indicates that he is both God and King and that He deserves both our allegiance and our homage.

The Three Knots Knot

The loincloth of Jesus on the San Damiano Crucifix is tied with a knot consisting of three equal sized knots, making it an  intriguing symbol of the Trinity. The two lower knots are joined and from them proceeds the upper knot, just as the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The knots are positioned right below the circular belly (or "womb") of Christ which can be imagined as the world or the universe or the source of all life. The entire configuration suggests that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son while hovering over and being intimately involved in all creation.  The belly button on the upper boundary of the belly ("womb") is at the very center of the San Damiano Crucifix, indicating that life, proceeding from the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is at the center of God's plan for humanity. In contemplating this small section of the San Damiano Crucifix, the viewer comes to understand that God is Trinity, God is Creator, and God gives life. 

Interaction vs. Solitude

The San Damiano Crucifix presents a contrast between solitude and interaction. All of the figures on the crucifix, with the exception of Jesus, are engaged in talking with one another or in gazing on Christ. They are either focused on another human being or on Jesus. Jesus, alone, is alone. He overlooks the entire scene and rises above it, figuratively and literally. Jesus is the solitary figure Who is surrounded by active others. He is serene and inactive physically while the other figures show signs of movement. In His solitude, Christ calls us to contemplation. "Come off by yourselves and rest a while," He once invited His followers. While we must immerse ourselves in the world because of the work God has called us to do, we also must seek the solitude of being alone with God. The San Damiano Crucifix reminds us that the solitude is the more important of the two (work and contemplation) because, unless we take time to be alone with God, we may be busy about business that is ours but not His. He is the One Whom we must contemplate, listen to, and serve. He speaks to us in the silence, in the solitude. Let us take time to be alone with our Lord.

Differing Faces of Angels

At a quick glance, all the angels on the San Damiano Crucifix appear to look alike. But gazers who study their faces can readily see that each angel has a unique look. The angels are not carbon copies of each other. Rather, each one's face is unlike any other on the crucifix. Why did the iconographer depict the angels this way? Angels often have a nebulous quality about them, as if they are clones of one another. Yet it seems that the iconographer was trying to capture a different truth--namely that each angelic being is a unique spirit, with unique traits, abilities, and qualities that set each angel apart from all the others. We don't often think of each angel as specializing in certain gifts and ways of ministry, yet Scripture tells us that some angels are messengers, others healers, others warriors. If each angel possessed in full all the spiritual gifts, then the angels would not be angels. They would be gods. The San Damiano Crucifix reminds us that angels, like human beings, are all unique creations but they are not gods. God has center stage on the Crucifix in the image of the Crucified Christ.

The Poverty of Christ

One striking facet of the San Damiano Crucifix, as well as any other crucifix, is the poverty of Christ. We are so accustomed to gazing at a crucifix that we tend to overlook Jesus' obvious poverty at His death. On the cross, Jesus died totally stripped of every bit of clothing and of all dignity. With a delicate sense of reverence for Christ's purity, artists have painted or sculpted loin cloths on images of our Crucified Savior, but historically loin cloths were lacking. The sense of Christ's poverty is accented on the San Damiano Crucifix because all of the other figures on the Crucifix are amply clothed. For long hours, Saint Francis meditated before the San Damiano Crucifix. Certainly this meditation must have helped St. Francis more clearly understand that he was to imitate Christ in the utter poverty displayed in the image. That poverty was manifest not only in lack of clothing but in the derision and mockery Christ suffered, in the abandonment of most of His friends and followers, and in His total subjection to others over whom He would have rightly held greater authority. The poverty of the San Damiano Crucifix must have helped Saint Francis to embrace poverty with love and humility.

Calm

Gazing at the San Damiano Crucifix can bring peace and calm to the gazer. Saint Clare instructed her sisters to "gaze" on Christ. Since the San Damiano Crucifix was hanging in her monastery, the sisters practiced this "gazing" on the San Damiano Crucifix. Clare advised the sisters to "gaze," "consider," "contemplate," and "imitate" Jesus. What happens if we practice this with the San Damiano Crucifix? First, one is embraced by the calm balance of the icon. One considers the great love and sacrifice of Christ and realizes that His suffering was an act of His loving Will. As one contemplates the icon, one is drawn into the figures, most smiling and peaceful. When one leaves the contemplation to go and imitate what one has contemplated, that peace and calm accompany the gazer. Some crucifixes leave the gazer with a sense of sorrow, horror, or pity, but the San Damiano Crucifix is meant to bring a sense of peace to the person praying before it. Saint Francis was committed to peace. Perhaps his many hours of prayer before the San Damiano Crucifix helped to reinforce his focus.

Resurrection

The San Damiano Crucifix is an early “Resurrection Crucifix.” Unlike modern Resurrection Crucifixes which portray only the resurrected Christ, the San Damiano Crucifix portrays Jesus as both crucified and risen. The viewer of this crucifix sees not only Christ’s resurrection but also his or her own personal resurrection. It is as if those holy people, clustered under the arms of the cross, are whispering  to one another, “See. Our Lord shows us that death is not the end. He is risen and so shall we be.” No wonder they are smiling as they see Christ’s glorious body thrusting upward from the earth like the column of fire that led the Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land. The death of Christ was not the end of the story. Rather it was a necessary chapter before the end of an endless book.

Sacrifice

Sometimes the most obvious is overlooked as we ponder the detail. The San Damiano Crucifix starkly portrays the immeasurable sacrifice of Christ Who, though God, lowered Himself to become man and to die on a cross. In the majestic figure of Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix, we sense, even if we do not believe, that the Crucified is larger than life, more powerful and regal than all the other combined figures on the image. In the serenity of Christ's countenance, we sense that Jesus alone is in control of what is happening. Christ's outstretched arms appear to be relaxed, as if He were extending them in an embrace rather than having them pinned to a beam. Christ stands tall, as if He could walk right off the cross to which He is nailed. We sense that His sacrifice was never forced from Him but was His to give freely and with love. Meditation on the San Damiano Crucifix leads one to the true spirit of sacrifice, namely that giving must be granted with generosity and grace. 

Peace

Peace is the prevailing theme of the San Damiano Crucifix as well as its paradox. In reality, we have a crucified Christ hanging until His death. Yet, defying human emotions, He is serene. Beneath the cross stands His Mother, beloved disciple, and faithful followers. Yet instead of weeping in anguish, they smile shyly and are at peace. We who gaze on the crucifix experience the same peace. We sense not terror or agony but love, joy, welcome. The power of the crucifix transforms the pain of trial, suffering, derision, and death into serene victory because Love is suspended there, Love is loving us there. In the midst of the most horrendous situations, the Love of God can bring peace. May God help us to seek and see His Love.

Mother, Son and God Triad

The San Damiano Crucifix portrays a tender triad between Mother, Son, and God. Jesus is, of course, both God and Son. Beneath the left arm of the cross stands His Mother Mary and the beloved disciple John. From the cross, Jesus said to Mary, "Behold your son," referring to John, and to John, "Behold your mother," referring to Mary. Jesus was, in effect, saying, "Mother and John, do not consider Me as  son any longer--rather consider John as son," and, through John, all the rest of us. In this way, we, a multitude of poor and ungrateful sinners, replaced Mary's single, sinless son as Jesus asked her to give us the same loving care that she always gave to Him. And she, obedient and preserved from sin by Our Lord's grace, does as Jesus asks.

Jesus' giving of John as son to Mary was another way of Jesus saying to Mary, "No longer will you be able to mother Me as your son. I am going to My Father where human mothering is no longer necessary. Instead, from now on, you will mother humanity as you once mothered Me. Now you will relate to me not primarily as Mother to Son but as woman to God."

Did Mary's maternity toward Christ cease with His death?  Not at all. But her response to Him is no longer one of nurture or encouragement but rather one of support and petition. Mary intercedes for us with Christ, her son, as her God and she dispenses graces from Him back to us. Thus the first person we see on the San Damiano Crucifix, other than Christ, is His Mother who is His gift to us and our helpmate before Him. May God be praised for His goodness to us in giving His Mother to be our own.

Halo: Poor and Rich, Weak and Strong

Christ's halo on the San Damiano Crucifix is distinctive. Not only is it large but it also differs from the other halos on the icon. The other halos are red outlined circles of golden light. But Christ's halo has no outline. Moreover, it is not a uniformly burnished orb as are the other halos. Why does Christ's halo contain so much shadowing and uneven color of gold mixed with brown tones? And why is it embroidered with a golden, jewel-studded cross? The color variations are not the result of the iconographer's lack of skill or paint. Nor are they due solely to natural shadowing which occurs because the halo and head of Christ protrude from the actual icon (although that protrusion is not apparent in photographic reproductions). The embroidered, jeweled cross is not just a "nice touch." The colors and shading of Christ's halo suggest a mound of straw which would be reminiscent of Our Lord's being laid in a straw-filled manger as a newborn. The embroidered jewel-studded cross would be something one would find on a silken pillow, a luxury for kings and nobles. The halo of Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix shows that this Man was born poor, powerless, and homeless but that He is, nevertheless, both a wealthy King and our all-powerful God Who sacrificed Himself on the Cross for our sake.  May He, our King, our Brother, and our God, be forever praised.

The Swine (Pig)

At the position of Jesus' mid-calf and to its right, is a curious figure which is generally overlooked in commentaries on the symbolism of the San Damiano Crucifix. The small figure is located right at the break of the black border around Christ, which signifies death or the tomb. Below this curious figure there is no black border, only a gold border and a short length of red border (which will be discussed in another article). Above the figure the black border, or death, begins. The figure is difficult to distinguish, but, if viewed from the side, the figure is clearly a hog, pig, or swine. It is of the pinkish or whitish variety with a streak of black across the shoulders.

In medieval times, swine were common. They roamed the streets, consuming garbage, and were also raised in herds. Medieval minds viewed swine as a symbol of avarice. So it seems that the iconographer incorporated the swine on the Crucifix of San Damiano to recall the avarice of Judas in taking the thirty pieces of silver in ransom for the blood of Christ. Had the artist intended that message only, he would have drawn a silver piece, but he drew a swine. Why? Because the swine also recalls the miracle of Jesus, recorded in Matthew's, Mark's, and Luke's Gospels, in which Jesus cast demons out of a possessed  man and sent them into a herd of swine which then raced over a cliff and plunged into the sea to drown. The impulsive, propulsive power of demonic possession was demonstrated in the destruction of the herd of swine. The iconographer seems to be saying that the same impulsive,  propulsive power consumed Judas, turning him into a traitor. But just as Jesus had power over the demons in the Gospels, so He had power over the demonic force in Judas, had Judas turned to Jesus for help as did the possessed men in the Gospels.

Swine were unclean to Jews, and Jesus commented that we must not "throw our pearls before swine or else they will trample them and then turn and tear you." Isn't that what Judas did--trample the teachings of Christ and then turn on Him? However, the swine also recalls the parable which Jesus told about the prodigal son, who went off and squandered all his father's money until he had nothing left. Then he took a job feeding swine until he realized that he would be better off to go home, repentant, where he could eat real food in his father's house. The father welcomed back the son, who had lived like a swine himself in his avarice and forgave the boy for his sins.

All of these images--avarice, betrayal, forgiveness--are recalled in the image of the swine on the San Damiano Crucifix. The iconographer seems to be saying that, no matter how bad we become, we can be welcomed back into the Father's house, Judas included, if only we repent. That is why the rooster, which symbolizes Peter's betrayal, is a short distance above the swine on the Crucifix. Peter betrayed Jesus, too, but, unlike Judas, he was repentant. Like the prodigal son's father, Jesus forgave the one who betrayed Him and welcomed him back into the family. He would have welcomed back Judas, too, if Judas had repented.

The Sunken Hollow in Christ's Belly

The iconographer who created the San Damiano Crucifix has painted a curved line on the belly of Christ, to suggest an impression or sunken place on His belly. This could indicate Christ's labored breathing where so much breath is drawn in that His belly sinks. The line gives the impression that Christ is alive but struggling, something that certainly took place on Calvary.

The curved line can also indicate death as the belly deflates when breathing stops. This impression would tie in with the San Damiano Crucifix as it portrays a dying, dead, and resurrected Christ all with the same image.

The curved line can also suggest the impression left by one's head on a pillow. St. John the Evangelist rested his head on Christ's chest at the Last Supper (John 13:25). Since the Apostles took this meal in a reclining position, it makes sense that John could have laid his head on Christ's belly much as little children sometimes do when resting against their parents. Like little children, we are to rest in Christ, too, as lovingly as John did. He Who suffered, died, and rose for us is to be our sweet resting place. May we follow His invitation to rest in Him.

Exaltation of the Cross

God is a God of economy. All of our experiences build on one another and serve to bring us closer to God or farther from Him. Yet in everything, the Holy Spirit is seeking to draw us into His eternal embrace of love. Those who follow God come to see how, even in their darkest and most sinful moments, God was at work to bring them back to Himself. The San Damiano Crucifix is part of St. Francis' journey back to God. His prayer before this Crucifix asking, "Lord, what would You have me do?" was answered with, "Go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruin." The image of the Crucifix of San Damiano must have been impressed in Francis' mind and, while he meditated before many other crucifixes in his lifetime, he must have particularly loved this one.

On or about September 14, 1224, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Francis was in morning prayer on Mount LaVerna, a good distance from Assisi and the Crucifix of San Damiano. Saint Bonaventure relates what happened:

“. . . he saw a Seraph having six wings, fiery as well as brilliant, descend from the grandeur of heaven. And when in swift flight, it had arrived at a spot in the air near the man of God, there appeared between the wings the likeness of a man crucified, with his hands and feet extended in the form of a cross and fastened to a cross. Two of the wings were raised above his head, two were extended for flight, and two covered his whole body. Seeing this, he was overwhelmed and his heart was flooded with a mixture of joy and sorrow. He rejoiced at the gracious way Christ looked upon him under the appearance of a Seraph, but the fact that he was fastened to a cross pierced his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow. He marveled exceedingly at the sight of so unfathomable a vision, knowing that the weakness of Christ's passion was in no way compatible with the immortality of the seraphic spirit. Eventually he understood from this, through the Lord revealing it, that Divine Providence had shown him a vision of this sort so that the friend of Christ might learn in advance that he was to be totally transformed into the likeness of Christ crucified, not by the martyrdom of his flesh, but by the enkindling of his soul. As the vision was disappearing, it left in his heart a marvelous fire and imprinted in his flesh a likeness of signs no less marvelous. For immediately the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet just as he had seen a little before in the figure of the man crucified. . . . Also his right side, as if pierced with a lance, was marked with a red wound from which his sacred blood often flowed, moistening his tunic and underwear." (St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Major Life of Saint Francis, Chapter XIII)

It is, perhaps, not so curious that angels (seraphs) bore Christ to St. Francis when one realizes that Christ is surrounded by angels on the San Damiano Crucifix. Moreover, Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix is both "fiery and brilliant." Through the vision on Mount Alverna, which ended with Francis receiving the Stigmata, was God trying to show Francis that the journey begun in San Damiano  would culminate in his being conformed to the image that had spoken to him? Was the house that was falling into ruin not only San Damiano or the Church in general but Francis himself? Jesus on the Crucifix of San Damiano is gazing at us, beckoning us to be conformed to Him in every way. Just as an irritating grain of sand precedes the formation of a precious pearl, so crucifixion must precede resurrection, death precede rebirth, and ignominy precede glory. In the crucified yet resurrected Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix, all of these are present at the same time.  The same was true of the vision on Mount LaVerna. Could the Crucifix of  San Damiano have been God's first step in creating a saint worthy to receive the wounds of Christ?

Hints of the Transfiguration

 

We commemorate the Transfiguration on August 6. The San Damiano Crucifix can be viewed as a mirror of both that event and the crucifixion because the crucified Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix is radiant and kingly as He appeared during the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. While only Peter, James, and John were privileged to see Jesus on Tabor, we all can view Him here on the San Damiano Crucifix. Christ's luminous body seems to say, "This is how each of you will look when you are totally filled with My Light of Grace." On Tabor, Jesus was conversing with Moses and Elijah.  On the Sam Damiano Crucifix, He is flanked by individuals who are speaking about Him rather than to Him. There are onlookers, too, only these are angels and human witnesses to the crucifixion. The arrangement of the figures on the crucifix, and the luminous nature of Christ, seem to indicate that the artist who wrote this icon wanted the viewer to Christ's glory was revealed in the Transfiguration, and also was revealed in the Crucifixion. Is God more glorious in His heavenly radiance or in His human degradation? Saint Francis must have pondered this question in his times of prayer before this icon.

Rooster--Sign of Betrayal

Between Christ's ankle and knee, in the black border surrounding the San Damiano Crucifix, is a very small, crowing rooster, a symbol of the apostle Peter's denial of Christ during the Passion. The rooster reminds us that Jesus told Peter, "Before the cock crows twice, you will deny Me three times" (Mark 14:30). While Peter insisted that this would never happen, it did indeed happen, and Peter "went out and wept bitterly" as soon as the cock crowing the second time reminded him of Jesus' prophecy (Mark 14:72). By this time, Jesus was on the path to Golgotha.

The rooster reminds us of our own betrayals but also of those who have betrayed us. He reminds us that God knows about these before they happen and that, in His Providence, He permits them for a greater good. In Peter's case, Peter's denial fostered in the future first Pope a humility that he did not naturally have. For us, denials and betrayals will serve other purposes in God's eternal plan. The small size of the rooster, overpowered by the majestic Christ and the other figures on the icon of the Crucifix, indicates that, while these betrayals may seem monstrous to us, they are really rather insignificant to God. God is not so much concerned with betrayals and denials as He is with the fruit He wishes to bring from them. 

The rooster also reminds us that denials and betrayals look different depending on whether one is the betrayer or the one betrayed. On July 4, the United States celebrates Independence Day. The colonists who rebelled against England in 1776 and set up a new nation were considered traitors by their native land. After all, they refused to pay taxes and wanted to govern themselves, but who had sent them to the colonies in the first place and provided for their needs but England? The colonists themselves felt justified in their rebellion precisely because the taxes to them seemed unfair and because they had no voice in their government while England, who governed them, was too distant from their problems, being an ocean away.

In a similar way, Peter was trying to preserve his life when he cried out, "I do not know the Man." Suppose that he had been braver and admitted that he was a follower of Christ. Then he might have been seized and slain on the spot, thus depriving generations of Christians of his leadership, healings, exhortations, and teachings not to mention the witness of his future martyrdom in Rome. God uses all things to advance His Kingdom, even those that are or seem to be evil. Because He is God, God can bring good out of evil. The rooster is a reminder that even evil can serve God's plan for good.

The Hidden Heart of Christ

When one compares the image of Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix with His image on other crucifixes, one notices substantial differences. One of them involves the wound in Christ's side. In some crucifixes, the wound is gaping and large, but in the San Damiano Crucifix, the wound is so small as to be almost invisible.

The iconographer probably wrote the icon in this way for two reasons at least. First, Jesus is both crucified and risen in the icon so the wound needs to be visible without overpowering the resurrected nature of the image. But more importantly, perhaps, the lance that pierced Christ's side also pierced His Heart.  Christ's chest is full, not sunken, in this image, as if to show that His Sacred Heart still beats powerfully with love for humanity. The Sacred Blood that spurts from the wound on the San Damiano Crucifix does not deplete the Blood that flows through the veins of the human and divine Savior. His Blood is an endless stream of cleansing for sinful humanity.

Jesus appeared to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque and showed her His Sacred Heart, afire with love for us. The Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix keeps His Heart Hidden, but the entire message of the image shows how much Christ loves us. We do not have to see His Heart to know His love. The image as a whole shows what we are to recognize.

Mother

May is the month in which motherhood and the Blessed Virgin Mary are celebrated. Mary, the Mother of Jesus and our Mother as well, is part of the San Damiano Crucifix. Standing under the left arm of Christ, she is witness to the Passion and Death of Christ. She who conceived Our Lord in her womb, who nurtured Him at her breast, who taught Him and watched Him grow, who followed Him and ministered to Him in His public life, now stands and watches Him die. Of all those in the life of Christ, she was most intimately joined to Him in His work of redemption. She knew Him from the very beginning of His earthly life, and she stayed with Him through His very last breath. This is the role of Mother--to love, nurture, support, encourage, pray, to be present.

Mary is also our Mother. She is present to us from our conception until our death and, beyond that, will continue as our Mom into eternity. Beneath the left arm of the San Damiano Crucifix, Mary is sharing a secret with the beloved disciple John. Jesus gave her to John and John to her, and, in this exchange, John represents all of us. We are forever connected to Mary in a maternal mother-child bond, fostered by her Son from the cross. Lord, we thank You for the gift of Your Mother and of Yourself. Amen.

Angel Wings

The wings of the angels on the San Damiano Crucifix are quite interesting. Unlike the way angel wings are depicted in modern religious art, these wings look like the wings of sparrows or other birds. They are humble, drab wings, utilitarian rather than flashy. The angel wings remind the viewer that good angels recognize that they are God's creatures, not gods themselves. They may be able to move through space effortlessly as birds seem to do (hence the symbolism of the wings), but they recognize that their power comes from God; it does not rival His. While angels are often depicted in art as larger than humans, on this crucifix, they are smaller than the five humans clustered around the body of Jesus. While not the smallest figures on the crucifix, the angels are, nevertheless, dwarfed by the large image of Christ. The iconographer seems to be saying, "If angels can recognize their place in the divine hierarchy, certainly humans should do the same." May the recognition of our powers and their limits keep us humble as the good angels are.

The Glory of God

The Glory of God is the Passion of Christ.

Glory has many definitions. The internet gives these three among others. Contrast them with Isaiah's words about the suffering servant, which refer to Christ:

Glory: A state of high honor. "He was despised and rejected by others;  a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him of no account." (Isaiah 53:3)

Glory: Brilliant, radiant beauty. "He had no form or majesty that we should look at him,   nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (Isaiah 53:2).

Glory: Rejoice proudly. "Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth." (Isaiah 53:7)

The San Damiano Crucifix reveals the Glory of God as existing in the Passion, Crucifixion, Humiliation, and Death of Christ. Christ dying yet alive, dead yet risen, is the Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix. When we experience difficulties in our own lives, we can look to the Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix for strength to go on. His glory and ours consists in the triumphs that come in the wake of our trials. Ultimately our lives will end in death just as His did. then comes our eternal day. God be praised for showing us that glory really means being crucified for love of Him Who was crucified for love of us.

Love and Lent

Red is a predominant color on the San Damiano Crucifix. Red is associated with love (red hearts, roses) and also with sacrifice (the shedding of blood). When Valentine's Day falls during Lent, as it does in 2008, we can study the San Daminao Crucifix to reflect on the link between love and sacrifice. By his expression and posture, Christ clearly shows that He has made Himself totally vulnerable to others because of His love. He Who is Love has chosen to die for the beloved.  Love is always linked to sacrifice of self for the good of another. Perhaps this is why red is associated with Valentine's Day--to remind lovers that love must be so selfless that it leads to self-emptying for the other. Especially pertinent during Lent is Jesus' invitation to give of ourselves for the good of others.  Whatever we could give  to another, but that we hold back, is an affront to God Who gave His all to us. May He teach us to follow Him by our actions as well as our words.

Symphony of Love (January 2008)

The San Damiano Crucifix is a symphony of love. We see Jesus with His arms extended over the entire human race, the good and the evil. Under those outstretched arms stand some of the greatest saints of all time--the Blessed Mother, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Mary Magdalene. Beneath those arms also stand a centurion (possibly the one who offered Jesus a taste of sour wine as he appears to be holding a thin reed) and a bearded man who might represent the Jewish scribes. These two men are symbols of those who were directly involved in the death of Christ. The scribes and Pharisees called for Christ's death and the Roman centurions carried it out. Yet Christ's arms  open in love to them as well. From the cross, Christ pleaded with God the Father. "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." As penitents, we are to ask the same for those who persecute, misunderstand, or malign us. Our love must be like Christ's--it must extend to all.

© 2016 by The Confraternity of Penitents, 1702 Lumbard Street, Fort Wayne IN USA 46803   www.penitents.org

 

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