Reflections on the San Damiano Crucifix - Easter 2006
Easter: April 16, 2006
Dearest brothers and sisters in the Lord,
‘Peace unto you” – this is the wish that Jesus granted his followers, appearing to them on the evening of Easter and it is the wish that we Poor Clares grant to you on this wonderful day. The Gospel speaks to us of an empty tomb, of a boulder rolled away from the opening of the tomb, thereby breaking chains and defeating slavery. This is why on this most solemn day of Easter eyes no longer have a reason to cry, even if many situations would cause us to feel the opposite - the Resurrection of Jesus has dried up every tear.
This Easter, then, let our sin be defeated, let our fears be shattered and let it allow us to see sadness, pain and even death in the proper perspective: that of the “third day”. From that perspective, all sufferings - ours and those of the world - will be like birth pains which allow new life to enter – that of the resurrected. Let the Lord help us to bring forward his Resurrection in the world and inside us. Let him give us the strength to throw open all the tombs in which sin, loneliness, sickness, betrayal, suffering, and indifference are buried inside us and in which we have buried the one standing beside us. Let it yield our understanding that Easter is the decisive event, because with the death and resurrection of Jesus our destiny has been turned upside down.
So - courage! Easter tells us that our story has a sense, that the road we are traveling on is not a broken pathway, that our existence is not suspended in emptiness. Let us not adapt ourselves to mediocrity and resignation. Let us not turn off the great passions. Courage! Easter gives to us the certainty that God is not only ‘totally Other’ in which we navigate, but also ‘totally Inner’ who lives within our heart. If things are truly thus, together with courage to exist, let Easter give us the desire to walk. And in this walk of ours, let us allow the crucifix of San Damiano, icon of Risen Christ, be light to us.
The Resurrected Crucifix
In this icon, the Lord Jesus, who, with his great height takes up the entire image, is represented as the defining moment of history: his Easter of Death and Resurrection. The image that he represents is that of ”Triumphant Christ". On the cross is not hung a cadaver without life, but, rather our Savior and King stands out in all his majesty - the glorious and living Jesus.
The colors used to paint the cross present this mysterious and dramatic contrast: the black background of the cross, evoker of death, is dominated by the living red, sign of life and love. And the entire icon is closed in by a golden outline, festive symbol of light and eternal glory.
The body of Jesus
The body of the Crucifix dominates the entire image with light. The figure of Jesus shows itself upright, without any sign of relaxation of his arms and legs from suffering and death. The arms wide open and slightly flexed show themselves in an act of total offering and completely open towards God and humanity. It is the supreme moment of freedom and of love. Jesus had said to his disciples and to all those who believe in him: " No one has love greater than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15, 13) and " Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest." (Mt 11,28). On the cross his prophetic words are fulfilled in a definite way.
Another detail: the torso of Jesus is slightly bent and seems to be almost dancing, as if he wanted to free himself, suspended from earth, ready to leap towards Heaven - a dance that shows him leaping beyond death, free from the nails that cannot keep him imprisoned on the cross.
The crown of glory
Jesus’ crown of glory gives meaning to the entire icon. Here, the mystery of the Passion of Christ is not forgotten or hidden, but it finds its sense and fulfillment in glory. Jesus is now glorified. It is in light of the crown that we must read the entire icon because only in this way can we understand the true significance of this crucifix.
Inside the halo of Jesus, are embroidered the lines of the Cross, but it is a golden cross, immersed in light, making evident the inseparable tie that exists between death and life, between suffering and glory, summarizing the entire life of Jesus: his humiliation and his exaltation. Saint Paul says: " though he was in the form of God... he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him... " (Phil 2,6-11). This crown is full of consolation for us because it gives sense to every suffering: it reminds that every crown of thorns can be changed into a crown of glory. It announces the victory of life through death.
The vestments of Jesus
Jesus is naked, covered only by a loincloth tied to his hips. It is very important to point out what Jesus is wearing, because through his vestment we can know what function He exercises in this icon. It is a loincloth of linen hemmed in gold, tied with care at the waist. The linen and gold were used as typical priestly vestments by Jewish high priests of the Old Testament. Jesus then, by wearing this loincloth acts as a priest. He is the new priest but at the same time he is the victim of sacrifice: on the cross, the new altar of God, he becomes the true mediator between God and man by offering himself, Lamb without blemish, in remission for our sins.
Another detail: John chapter 13 says: " he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist ... and began to wash the disciples’ feet” Christ, Master and Pastor, on the cross fulfills what he had anticipated in the last supper by washing the feet of the 12 apostles. Christ presents himself as a servant and it is when he is on the cross that he completely fulfills his being in service of God and man!
This vestment in the color of gold, thus, announces the priesthood and the royalty of Christ where being king, for Jesus, means being a ‘servant’ and washing the feet of his brothers.
Jesus in the medallion
The medallion situated in the upper part of the icon presents Jesus in a strange position: the ascending movement of his right leg suggests his Ascension. It is the fulfillment of the Passion: The Risen Crucifix enters into the glory of the Father and prepares a place for his followers, as he had promised in the last Supper: " And If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be." (John 14, 3). A place and a joy that no one will ever be able to take away from us.
In his left hand he his holding a cross, instrument of his victory. But now this cross is gold and it becomes the ‘Royal Scepter’. If we look closely at the face of Jesus, we discern a large smile: his trial has come to an end and he emerged as victor. His face looks outward and his right hand is held up to Heaven: towards that sure place where he will soon go. In this scene everything is in movement: his legs, arms, fingers, eyes, and clothes. Everything speaks of life and victory, everything invites to an eternal feast, and everything evokes hope, courage and patient waiting of that which will come.
Under both his legs are painted door-knockers, sign of Jesus’ descent into Hell to “free his loved ones who were prisoners”, to take them with him, to resurrect them, and bring them with him into the breast of the Trinity. In this medallion it is proposed to us much more than only contemplation and the mystery of the Ascension. The Crucifix of San Damiano, while showing all this movement, offers us a synthesis of the story of salvation revealing to us the most profound of the Paschal Mystery.
Descending to the dead for Christ means to be united to every suffering, by now no sin is alienated to such a point as to limit the mercy of God and to impede the climb. Suffering is no longer a prison, but is a “pathway”! It is necessary that each of us learns to journey through this path, to enter into the mystery of each person’s identity as child of God. May the Lord give us the courage to go down to the dead to know the truth – that God freed us and how God freed us and penetrate the mystery of love and mercy that is at the origin of Easter.
FOR PERSONAL PRAYER
Hell is a place of death, sin and suffering; the place in which man is not in fullness, but contradicted, humiliated, nothing. And it is there where Christ descends for me before resurrecting and ascending. What are the Hells in which Jesus calls me to descend to celebrate Easter with him?
The Lord descends to Hell to meet with all people, with his pain and sin, to take with him death and conquer it with his tenderness and compassion. And this descent is motivated by God’s love – mad love for us. Will I allow Jesus to meet me in my Hell? Will I allow myself to touch this love?
If the Lord descended into Hell, to the point of justifying all sin in the world, we, too are called to descend into hell, and imitate what Christ did with all sinners - in love and without judgment. Am I capable of looking on with compassion on the weakest brothers and sisters, or am I scandalized
by their sin?
Every cross is illuminated by the Resurrection. Am I animated by the certainty that it is inside death, and not after, that new life is already born?
Let us fix our gaze on a love so grand and on a life-force so invincible and let us follow the teaching of Francis and Clare who, stupefied by so much love prayed in this way:
"Look, brothers and sisters, at the humility of God and open your hearts before him: humble yourselves so that you will be exalted by Him. Hold back nothing so that He will totally embrace you who offers himself to you." (Letter to the entire Order)
Oh sublime humility and humble sublimity: that the Son of God is so humble for us. (St. Clare letter to Agnes)