Summary: In the icon of the crucifixion we find the same spiritual orientations we discovered in the eastward direction of our prayer.
Monday of 2nd Week in Lent
Spirit of the Liturgy
Over and over again the OT repeats the theme: God is merciful; His people are faithless. Original sin has not corrupted our natures entirely, but it has weakened them so that we find it an uphill climb to do good and avoid evil. Without the grace of God, it is impossible to attain holiness, to gain the eternal vision of God, to become divinized ourselves. In the fullness of time, God chose to intervene, and it is in celebration of that selfless intervention, God acting, as the Holy Father says, in opposition to His own self-interest, that we celebrate this Eucharist. When we look at the image of Christ, crucified, an act as old as St. Paul’s preaching, we are able to “discern the face of Christ, and, in him, [the face] of the Father.” (SOL 122)
Thus “in the icon we find the same spiritual orientations that we discovered . . .when emphasizing the eastward direction of the liturgy. The icon is intended to draw us onto an inner path, the eastward path, toward the Christ who is to return. . .It is the Holy Spirit who makes us capable of seeing, he whose work is always to move us toward Christ.”
And in that work, the Holy Spirit makes us like Christ, who did not come to condemn, but to forgive, to be merciful as the Father is merciful. He had the power to destroy those who were nailing Him to the cross, but because of their hard hearts and stupidity, He forgave them instead. He gave the last drop of His blood, and continues to do so in this Mass, and in return He received, He earned, the praise of the whole universe. We, too, are empowered to give until it hurts, and the graces we receive in return are enough to overflow any vessel, even our empty hearts. This overflowing grace manifests itself in two evident ways–our praise of the Trinity and our good works for the poor, suffering and ignorant. As grace comes into our lives through our senses–bread and wine for taste, wonderful choral and organ music for hearing, icons for sight and incense for smell–so grace pours out of our lives through sensible contact with others: preaching, teaching, preparing food, building with our hands. All of these actions testify to our belief in the Incarnation of the Logos in Jesus Christ, and of Jesus Christ in the Eucharistic species.
I’m going to skip over Pope Benedict’s treatment of the historical changes that came about over fifteen hundred years in imagery and iconography. Let’s not, however, ignore our own history, which I am reconstructing from my own memory of the development of Holy Spirit parish over the past half century. We’ve lived and worked in the parish only for about fifteen years, but I’ve followed as well as I could the development of the two main sanctuaries. I would be grateful to any of you who can fill in the gaps, but I think I do understand the iconography that has given us the unique imagery of Christ in our church building, and a processional cross with a hole in the middle.
When the original church was erected, the Risen Christ hung behind the main altar, which, like this one, was free-standing. There was no crucifix. The processional cross, which we still have and use for Masses in the family center, was the crucifix, and could be used as a focus for prayer. When, about twenty years ago, the parish made a major expansion of the nave, and added the narthex and prayer chapel with their wonderful acoustics, the planners rethought the iconography. By then it was clear that, as the Holy Father’s book emphasizes, the crucifix ought to be the central icon in the sanctuary. It makes real the sacrifice of Calvary which we re-present. So the Risen Christ icon was moved above the baptistry, and this life-size crucifix was brought into the sanctuary. However, we were into audio-visuals, so the crucifix was set, not behind the altar, but offset, so that the back wall, which used to be white, could function as a screen. Thus, what we have here is the result of many pastoral compromises. The General Instruction does not make provision for two crucifixes in the sanctuary, so our processional cross is empty.