I must confess that I have never found the image of the cross to be a compelling symbol. Not even an empty cross can disguise the ugliness of this implement of torture and execution. So, Good Friday’s use of the cross to summon up images of Jesus’ passion leave me cold. There’s more than enough horror and sorrow in the stories handed down to us without resorting to the instrument of Jesus’ execution. When I think back upon the executions of compassionate heroes like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, I cannot imagine using the pistols with which they were shot to illustrate their compassion. The forces of Empire used crucifixion to terrorize people. Historians tell us that there would have been hundreds of corpses rotting on trees outside many of the conquered cities of the Empire. That the instrument used to inflict terror should have become the symbol of Jesus who embodied a Way of resisting persecution which refused to take up the sword is a bit like using a suicide vest as the symbol for United Nations Peacekeepers.
The symbol of the cross on Good Friday always reminds me of how I felt the very first time I visited Rome. I remember thinking how odd it was that a non-violent, revolutionary, peasant from Galilee should have inspired the creation of the fortress-like Vatican complex. I was doing the obligatory tour of St. Peter’s Basilica and I was beginning to believe that Rome held no treasures that I wanted to see, when out of the corner of my eye, tucked away to side of the main entrance, I caught a glimpse of a marble statue. At the time, I knew little or nothing about art and if the truth be told, I was growing weary of the endless cathedrals and museums, so it’s no wonder I missed the marble on my way into the Basilica. There was something about the image that drew me in. I overheard one of the guides tell her group that the sculpture was created by Michelangelo when he was just 24 years old. At the time, I was barely 20 and I could not imagine the skill of the artist who was able to capture an image of everything I had ever imagined about the tragedy of Jesus’ death.
The Pieta, somehow the English translation, The Pity, just doesn’t capture the passion which is depicted in Mary’s cradling of her tortured son. We’ve devalued the word pity. The word pity means, the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others. The Pieta, The Pity, The Compassion, The Commiseration, The Condolence, The Sympathy these are all different ways of saying, the tender act or of sharing the pain of another. Compared to the coldness of the cross, The Pieta’s delicate portrayal of the death of Jesus inspires such compassion in me. The kind of compassion that I can well imagine oozed from Mary’s being as she tenderly held her son.
It is not easy to gaze upon The Pieta, there is nothing easy in that marble likeness of suffering. If you let it, The Pieta will reduce you to tears. Mary’s compassion was not easily given. It took courage to stand at the foot of the cross. It took courage to linger. It took courage to tend to the needs of her fallen child. The kind of compassion that our world needs now. It is not easy to see what is happening in the world. If we let it, it will reduce us to tears. Maybe we do need a cross to symbolize suffering. Maybe the true horror of Jesus something needs to be looked at for what it is, so that we can begin to summon up the courage we need to be LOVE in the world.
On this Good Friday it is the compassion of a loving mother that gives me hope. When so many people are suffering and dying, it is the tender embrace of one human being of another that gives me hope. All over the world The Pieta is embodied in the compassion of health-care workers, who day after day, don inadequate protective gear to tend the sick and the dying. The passion of Jesus lives and moves and has being in everyone who summons up the compassion that lives in them to tend to the needs of others. On this particularly, dark Good Friday, when we long for the release which resurrection brings may we find hope in the compassion that lives and breathes in with through and beyond every, nurse, doctor, orderly, chaplain, cleaner, cook, first-responder, scientist, and physical-distancer.
I can well imagine the tears Mary shed over Jesus; before and after his death. I can also imagine the tears that are being shed all over the world on this Good Friday. May the ONE who IS LOVE, continue to live, and breathe, in us, through us, and beyond us, so that together we can nurse our world back to health. Every Good Friday, I make a point of reminding people that Christ dies over and over and over again, each and every day.
Let us not forget that CHRIST rises over and over and over again, each and every day. In every act of compassion, LOVE is born again, and again, and again. May we always remember to look for those Pieta moments, for in those acts of compassion we can be assured that the darkness shall never overcome us. This too shall pass, and when it does, let it be said of us, that in us the passion of CHRIST lives and moves and has being. Now and always. But for now, let us keep watch and wait. Let us reach beyond our fear. Let us be the passion of CHIRST. Amen.