A wooden crucifix hangs on the back wall of our simple sanctuary at the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon. It hangs off-center above the light wood altar. The year when the Solemnity of the Triumph of the Holy Cross was celebrated on Sunday, I decided to emphasize the only cross in our worship space. In the early morning on Saturday, I retrieved our longest ladder from a storage space. I set up the ladder to hang a piece of red fabric behind the crucifix. In our very simple chapel a strip of long colored fabric behind the dark cross easily highlights the liturgical seasons.
I stepped up a few rungs on the ladder and took the cross off the wall and placed it on a side table. I then stepped up on the highest rung of the ladder to hook the fabric on a couple of hidden nails on the wall. Retrieving the cross, I climbed back on the ladder and hung the cross back into its regular position, now over the red material. The fabric seemed to catch the light shining on the cross; it was the perfect way to give a focus to the solemnity.
I started my descent down the ladder and all of a sudden the wooden cross fell to the floor. In a split second the carved wooden Crucifix was now in several pieces on the hardwood floor of the sanctuary.
After enduring a few minutes of panic, I considered blaming the accident on the heavy music vibrations from the nightclub located on the other side of the sanctuary wall. Instead, I had an idea about how to replace the broken crucifix for the time needed for its repair by putting something else in its place. We hang a large painting of the face of Christ, normally found in our rectory, in the sanctuary on Good Friday. It is an explosively dynamic portrayal of the Crucified Christ in red, orange, yellow and blue paint.
When our parish gathered for Eucharist that weekend, the bright, bold painting certainly caught their attention for the solemnity. I never told members of the parish of the accident. Seeing again the face of Christ, many members began to connect the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection to the faces of people living in poverty. As I listen now to the sacred texts now for the closing weeks of another liturgical year, I see the importance of getting the cross off the wall and embracing its life-giving message in the midst of daily life.
Jesus confronts us with the shattering news that prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the Kingdom of God before the rest of his followers. Jesus reminds us that we cannot come to him unless we are willing to change our ways so to live with honesty and love. Jesus asks us to change our minds about following him because it is never too late. This message embedded in Matthew’s Gospel tells us that we cannot stand apart from the dying and rising of Jesus, but we must live this pattern every day.
I witness people facing up to their heroin addiction with a choice for sobriety or to face certain death. I hear the confession of a sex addict who has never known true intimacy in his entire life, the cross he carries into his next one-night stand. Jesus invites us to change our minds, our actions and follow the will of the Father. The cross is not just a piece of fine art hanging on a clean wall in the comfort of a small chapel. People living in poverty become the message of the cross for every person who enters our worship space.
One of our staff members found an artist who spent the next week repairing the cross. I found all the lost tiny pieces of wood that splintered from the corpus. I cannot help but think of the lost being invited to the banquet feast as I searched the floor. The servants invited everyone to the feast whether or not they were prepared. People were invited to feast on fine wine and good food that is still served to us who decide to follow the Christ. So many people are starving for this invitation because so many people feel so isolated from faith and the church. Not only did I pick up the fragments of wood, I began to see our stray people more clearly. I see many lost teens in our neighborhood. They come because the system of foster care and adoption fails many youth when their families of origin beat them or emotionally abuse them. I read recently that only one-third of parents whose child has disappeared even bother to report the child missing or lost. The Kingdom is ready for everyone.
Jesus tells his followers not to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees. They put heavy burdens on others and do not lift a finger to help. Jesus reminds his followers that only the humble will be exulted. I fret and worry about the many people at our chapel door all week long. These are the people who are living out the message of the cross. This cross of humility is always before my eyes and gets caught in my heart. This cross is not an artist’s rendition of something that happened years ago. This cross is when people come to us daily needing medication for mental illness, diseases and broken bones. This cross means people have not showered for several months, have no families and often do not care whether or not they live. This cross screams out from frustration, urinates on our doors and eats meals from trash cans.
The life of Christ is not contained in wood, plaster-of-Paris, or bronze. We must love God with our entire heart, mind and soul. Jesus tells us that this cross of love must be lived for our neighbor. To extend ourselves in love and commitment to all people we call our neighbors is hard work. The real freedom of the cross of Christ is to live for other people and not count the cost. We must all see the reality of Christ living among people and not get stuck on an artistic image that does not affect our lives.
Jesus tells us that we are worth our daily wage. We are invited into the Kingdom of God even though we may be stubborn at first and only desire Christ in the eleventh hour. We so often take years to make the real decision to follow Christ and come to live the cross in every aspect of our lives. These reminders help every worshipping assembly live out the message of Christ Crucified. I prayed all week that our crucifix could be put together again and I prayed for people who remain weary and beaten down by life.
The artist put the pieces of the broken crucifix back together. He returned the piece of art to us perfectly assembled and polished clean. I hung the cross back in its place and no one suspected the accident.
I view the repaired cross hanging on our wall with greater respect for people who cannot always put their lives together. They live the reality of Christ’s dying and rising. The gospels teach a new understanding of the cross being lived off the wall. Now when I see the repaired piece of art, I pray for the people who teach me the genuine meaning of the celebration, the Solemnity of the Triumph of the Holy Cross.