Pausing at the cross of Jesus

04.14.2017 | Catherine Gines Taylor

Catherine Gines Taylor is a Maxwell Institute visiting scholar. She specializes in late antique Christian art history and iconography. She composed this post in honor of today, Good Friday. 

We are the body of Christ. We become part of that body as we are joined or initiated into covenants with Christ, taking upon ourselves his name in baptism, becoming united with the saints. Colossians 2:12 emphasizes this relationship: “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Col. 2:12)

Every year during Holy Week, my thoughts turn to assessing this relationship, which inevitably leads me to the cross of Jesus. This year those thoughts were accentuated as part of my contemplative and informal practice during the Lenten season. The tendency to become more sensorially aware of my worshipful studies and meditations is heavily influenced by my academic background. As an art historian of late ancient Christian art, I have spent many years looking and thinking about ways early Christians depicted the passion of Jesus.

The earliest public image we have of Christ crucified is a carved relief panel on the doors of the Church of Santa Sabina in Rome. The panel dates to the early fifth century and features Christ crucified between the two thieves. Each of the three figures is dressed in a loin cloth with their arms outstretched onto shallowly carved crossbeam blocks. Christ is depicted with long hair and a beard while the two beardless thieves are smaller in stature. Their size differences were meant to indicate a hierarchy of scale with the largest figure identified as the most important. The crucifixion scene is set against a wall of rectangular bricks with imposed pediments and wooden beams. The wall appears behind the figures, indicating that the scene occurs beyond the city’s boundaries.

The doors to Santa Sabina are carved from cypress wood with each panel delineated by an ornamented border. The crucifixion panel is set into the upper left corner of the left door. Other panels there include the women and angel at Christ’s empty tomb, Christ appearing to the women, and the resurrected Christ appearing to the disciples. The remaining panels for both doors include a mélange of other Old and New Testament scenes, including events from the passion narrative like Peter’s denial, and Pilate washing his hands as Jesus is led away.

Scholars have recently noticed parallels between the Santa Sabina crucifixion scene and earlier images of the Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace from Daniel 3. (See Allyson Everingham Sheckler and Mary Joan Winn Leith, “The Crucifixion Conundrum and the Santa Sabina Doors,” in The Harvard Theological Review vol. 103, no. 1 (Jan. 2010), 79-83.) Whereas the three Hebrew boys raise their hands in an orant prayer position, Christ and the thieves raise their arms on the cross. Both sets of images point to the act of martyrdom and provide clear salvific parallels with each other. An early Christian father, Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160-220) made this connection: “We, however, not only raise our hands, but even expand them; and taking our model from the Lord’s passion, even in prayer we confess to Christ.” (Tertullian, Or. 14.) There is an early Christian interpretive lesson in this beautiful image. In our mortal experiences of joy and grief, abundance and scarcity, life and death, we can lift our arms, eyes, and words toward heaven. We can also extend them to each other.

Santa Sabina’s image-laden doors lead into the nave, or main body of the church. “Nave” comes from the Latin word Navis, the word for ship, and provides an apt visual metaphor for the location of the initiated and gathered saints within the basilica. It is easy to recall associations images like Noah’s ark and the ship in which Jesus’ apostles were often found on the Sea of Galilee as salvific sites. Those who gathered into this space to share their experiences together were safe from the tempests of the world. Church doors are not only decorative iconographic representations of scriptural narratives, they mark the physical and metaphorical thresholds between the exterior mortal world and the realm of the spiritual. Doors necessarily create boundaries, but they also open as passageways and entryways. The doors of Santa Sabina can be read symbolically and literally as the way into the body of the church. Entering into the body of Christ, by way of covenant, allows access to eternal life given by the merits of Jesus. The Gospel of John underscores this deep compassion when Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (Jn. 10:28 NRSV)

As compelling as these iconic images are, it is not just within the ancient world where we may find this kind of meaningful engagement with visual representations. Recently, I found myself in the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. Our Catholic neighbors do a fine job of animating the space of worship with heightened sensorial experience. The cathedral contained lit candles, stained glass aflame with vibrant and illuminated narrative scenes, the smell of wood polish and incense was in the air, and fresco paintings covered the walls and apse of the church. The latin floor plan for many cathedrals creates a space that is formed as a cross. Often the altar for the Eucharist or sacrament is at the center point where the nave and the trancept meet. To be in the cathedral is to be at the finite architectural intersection of the cross. I couldn’t help but notice the cross-centric nature of the Cathedral, particularly as a viewer gazes into the apsidal end of the church and slowly lifts their eyes to the orant image of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross. Christ is depicted on the cross under the overarching figure of God the Father with the Holy Spirit depicted as a dove, with angels abiding in the heavenly realm above. At the base of the cross a mother pelican plucks into her breast for blood that will feed her fledgling chicks. Below that, the orant figure of Mary Magdalene gazes up, she waits, she pauses, she prays at the foot of the cross. We know that Mary Magdalene was at the cross at Jesus’ death, she accompanied his body to its tomb, she is the first witness to Christ’s resurrection. All of this colors the way I understand and think about the sacrifice of Jesus, but this image is particularly poignant to me because Mary Magdalene is suspended in this moment. This is the moment where she waits at the cross.

Images of the crucifixion are late-comers to the early Christian iconographic world because of the ancient stigma associated with this ignominious death. (See Sheckler and Leith, “Crucifixion,” 75-76.) Deep tensions persisted between the reluctance to depict the crucifixion in visual imagery and Paul’s instructions to Christians to “proclaim Christ crucified.” (1 Cor. 1:23 NRSV) This tension remains with us today.

As the body of Christ, we are partakers of both Jesus’ death and his resurrection. As Easter approaches, it is comforting and natural to passingly glance at the agony and spectacle of the cross only to ease ourselves into the accounts of empty tomb and startlingly resplendent resurrection appearances. Even as a child I wondered why we often moved so quickly past the cross of Jesus. We read scriptural passages that iterate the last hours of the Savior’s life and we find the scene narrated in some detail in modern talks and lessons. However, the crucifixion of Jesus tends to lose its singular focus as we move toward discussions on the Atonement and the Resurrection. Death is a topic with which we are less at ease. It is the moment of disconcerting separation from what we consciously know and experience; it is the liminal moment between our physical mortality and our spiritual eternity.

Our human tendency is to move past this moment quickly, to anticipate the resurrection—for that is our hope, that is our desire. But there is something very human about taking time at the foot of the cross, where we pause to consider the reality of mortal grief and suffering. Suffering is something we understand, something with which we are well acquainted. Although many of us have experienced the death of a loved one, we are naturally less familiar with the very experience of death in the same way that we are at home with suffering as it comes into our lives. But suffering is one surprising way that we find God’s glory revealed in us.

Paul understood this grand paradox in describing the glory we find as heirs with Christ, “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:17-18 NRSV) Suffering, in and of itself, is not the beneficent act. That weighty glory is accounted to Christ for making himself the sacrifice of God the Father, the gift of his son for all of his children. The wonders of Christ risen are acknowledged precisely because the world was left bereft, for a time, at this sacrifice, at his death.

It seems to me the cross is the site-specific crux for humanity. It is the site where the consequences of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the promise of the Tree of Life meet in Jesus. It is the place where God—made flesh, knowing and accomplishing all—relinquished his life; it is where he died. This rarest and most beautiful moment is stunningly awful to me.

This Good Friday, as a Latter-day Saint, take time to be still and experience deep compassion for the suffering of the world, for the grief of a friend, for loss that you feel individually within yourself. It is natural and glorious to spend time with this mortal experience. Jesus himself showed us that.