Reflections on the San Damiano Crucifix - July 2006
July, 2006 Reflection
Peace and Goodness - Dear brothers and sisters!
In this summer time of vacations, let us take a break from all the things we are doing and give ourselves some time to allow the spirit to grow, because, free from all the busyness, we can stop at the foot of the cross of Christ, take off our watch and be like Mary, with Jesus. Let us take advantage of this time to try to find in Christ the true restorer of all things: He is the only one who gives peace to the heart, who makes all things new, regardless of how things seem externally. Let us let his gaze renew us on the inside. But in order to do this, it is necessary for us to fix our gaze on him so that his light enters our life.
In learning the art of being, this time we will be helped by various characters from the icon of the San Damiano crucifix who stand under the cross. Everyone with his story, dreams, needs, can put everything there, to drink from the blood of salvation in order to be restored. Let us allow the stories of these characters to speak to our lives. Let us allow their experience to illuminate our lives so that we, too, can say My Lord and my God! In particular, let us allow Mary Magdalene, the beloved of the Lord, so dear to Francis and whose liturgy we celebrate today, to guide us, to taste, as she did, the drunkenness of the benevolent and merciful love which Jesus gave his life for us.
The Characters under the Arms of Jesus
The painter of the San Damiano cross wanted to represent various characters close to Jesus, the most important ones in the story and in the mystery of the Passion. It is easy to recognize their identity because the artist wrote their names under their feet. From the left to right there are Mary, John, Mary Magdalene, Mary (the Mother of James) and the Centurion.
Each person has his own role and precise meaning, which the author expresses through position, body gestures, facial expression, dress and colors. Seeing them so close to Jesus, we can quickly realize that His ardent prayer was fulfilled: Father, I want those whom you gave me to be with me, so that they might contemplate my glory. Furthermore, these characters are immersed in light. The light of Easter touched their lives, it entered inside them completely filling them up and allowing them to participate in the great mystery that was fulfilled around them. They have become children of light. It is also important to note that these characters are all the same height. This detail helps us realize that it is not important to note the particular holiness of each of us, but the fact that Christ is everything in everyone and that in the eyes of God no one is more or less important, we all have the same dignity and value as a child of God.
It is also important to note that each of the characters is similar to one another. They all have the same large eyes, small mouth and oval face. If we look at Jesus, we see in him similar features, too. This resounds in the words of Paul: Those whom God always knew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. As the Son is in the image of his Father, so we are modeled in the same image of the Father. Also, it is in Christ whom we look to for our true identity, our true face. To look at him is to discover the same lineage. The only difference is that in Jesus everything by now has reached perfection and harmony, we, on the other hand, must walk until this conformity to the Son is realized concretely in our life.
To the left of Jesus, we see Mary Magdalene. Thus is fulfilled the word of Jesus: Those who are last shall be first. She is a very important woman in the Gospel: she is the sinner about whom Jesus said: Her sins are forgiven her because she loved much, and whom Francis venerated much, to the point of requesting that a small chapel be dedicated to her in every hermitage in which he retreated to pray. She is among the women who follow Jesus in his painful Passion and on the morning of Easter she will be the first to see, with her surprised eyes of one who loves and believes against every hope, the Risen Lord. Her dress is a brilliant and vivacious red, symbol of an intense and sincere love. This color is appropriate for a woman who, after having loved much, had to re-learn to love in the proper way, to re-order that affective need that was in her so that her love that takes becomes a love that gives. The expression on her face and the movement of her hands demonstrate the admiration and surprise for what her eyes see and for the happy privilege reserved just for her: to be forgiven for her many sins and to become the first witness of the Risen Lord. It is noteworthy also that Mary Magdalenes head is touching that of Mary, the mother of James. This particular shows us that they are not only conversing, but that they are exchanging a secret. If one considers that Mary Magdalene has her left hand to her mouth like Mary, mother of Jesus, we can deduce that she, too, is in a state of admiration and surprise. The cause of that surprise is the incredible experience that made her life beautiful - that gave her back her life to her - like the Prodigal son, the story which Luke narrates.
Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus expelled seven devils, is identified with the prostitute of whom Jesus says he loved much. What power is the love of Jesus in the person of this woman who until recently was possessed by a multitude of devils and now is very close to Him in glory! She who accompanied Jesus in his journeys and unto Calvary; who was the messenger sent to the Apostles to tell them: I saw the Lord., she was unquestionably at the Last Supper with Jesus mother and the other women and now she stays at the foot of the cross like one who can never separate herself from her beloved, even if this means following him to Calvary.
Mary, Mother of James
Next to Mary Magdalene is Mary, the mother of James. She, too, is close to Jesus, as she remained faithful to him until the end, listening while stupefied to the words of Magdalene and letting herself be taught by her. Here she represents all those who follow Christ and listen attentively to his words, desiring with the entire heart to put them in practice. She is the mirror of so many faith-filled Christians in history, humble and forgotten in history, who God will never forget and who one day will receive their crown of glory. This woman listens with attention and confidence to the secret that Mary Magdalene reveals to her, allowing these words to warm and enlighten her heart. The gesture of her hands expresses an admiration with no limits for Jesus, who gave his life for us when we were still far away.
The Small Characters: The Two Small Men
On the far sides of the two groups of characters, in front of Mary and the Centurion, stand two small men. Both are turned towards the Crucifix and have their gazes on Him, their legs and arms are in movement: the knees raised and their hand on the hip. The one on the left has a similar uniform as the Centurion, so we must conclude that he, too, is a Roman soldier, and he has in his hand the lance with which he pierces the side of Christ and has his name, Longinus, written at his feet. The character on the right assumes the same position as the one on the left and he has a beard and is wearing a short tunic according to Jewish custom. According to tradition his name is Stephen, assistant to Longinus.
They represent those who condemned and crucified Jesus. We must ask ourselves the meaning of their short height. It simply means that their role was little. The reduced height is evidence that the true protagonist of the entire episode of death is only Him, The Lord Jesus. It is Jesus, in fact, who freely gives himself to their hands to bring to fulfillment the divine plan of our Redemption, as he himself declares in the Gospel: I offer my life, in order to take it back. No one takes it from me, but I myself give it, because I have the power to give it and the power to take it back.
These two characters placed at the foot of the Crucifix represent the two peoples: the Jews and the pagans, different and divided, yet both called to salvation through their conversion to Jesus. Only by adhering to Jesus, can they achieve the same height and size as the others, already participating in Redemption.
But let us contemplate the Prodigy! Those who crucified Jesus now have their eyes fixed on him, as it is written: They shall turn their eyes towards him who they inflicted. By killing him, they discover that Jesus is the Son of God, their eyes open, they have faith and life. How awesome is the victory of love!
The Characters at the Foot of the Cross
At the foot of the cross are two more characters. There were most likely other figures who were erased: the result of centuries of faithful who repeatedly kissed the base of the icon. Who are these characters? Let us note first of all that they are placed within the outline of shells; they are, therefore, within the Kingdom. Also, they have haloes, but they are not in a position to see Jesus. Finally, they are within the Kingdom only with the upper part of their body, in an incomplete way. In their position they can see Jesus only in an imperfect manner, in a confused way, as in a mirror ... but soon will see him face to face, in which we will be able to see him as he is.
We Christians can, therefore, recognize ourselves in these characters, already signed with the seal of the Spirit in Baptism, called to the Kingdom and his glory, but still in exile, because we are still pilgrims in this world. However, we know as St. Clare says that we remain strangers in this world, and our real home is of the Fathers: the life for which we were created and that eternal life was promised. And, the icon seems to remind us of that. Let this be certainty for our peace.
For Personal Prayer:
I put myself in front of the Lord, I keep silence inside and I listen to the Word of truth that through this icon the Father wishes to reveal to me.
I let myself be struck by the depth of the experience of these characters and I ask myself which of these characters enlightens my personal story and my faith in Christ? Remembering my story, in which character do I see myself and why? When have I ever put on the red clothes of Mary Magdalene? Can I make sense out of faith that Mary Magdalene had, giving witness to the wonders that Christ worked in my life? When have I ever been short and mediocre like the two minor soldiers? When, like Mary, the mother of James, have I listened profoundly and intently to the experience of Christ lived as a brother or sister so that he could hear through me the word of life?
And now, with our gaze fixed on the cross, let us allow ourselves to be submerged in this great mystery of death that opens itself to life illuminating all our littleness. Let us say the prayer of Francis: Almighty, eternal, just and merciful God, grant us, in our misery [the grace] to do for you alone what we know you want us to do, and always to desire what pleases you. Thus, inwardly cleansed, interiorly enlightened, and inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit, may we be able to follow in the footsteps of your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, And by your grace alone, may we make our way to You, Most High, who live and rule in perfect Trinity and in simple Unity, and are glorified God all-powerful forever and ever. Amen.
(St. Francis Letter to the Entire Order)
Let us listen to Francis, true lover of the cross, and fix our gaze on Christ:
Oh all of you who pass along the way look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. For many dogs have surrounded me a pack of evildoers has closed in on me. They have looked and stared upon me. They have divided my garments among them and for my tunic they have cast lots. They have pierced my hands and my feet they have numbered all my bones. I have slept and have risen and my most holy Father has received me with glory.` See, see that i am God, says the Lord. I shall be exalted among the nations and I shall be exalted on the earth. All you nations clap your hands, shout to God with a voice of gladness. Give to the Lord, you families of nations, give to the Lord glory and honor, give to the Lord the glory due His name. Let the whole earth tremble before His face, and say among the nations that the Lord has ruled from a tree.
(St. Francis Office of the Passion)