My eldest daughter, chubby cheeks and wispy hair, toddled up to me with her children’s Bible clutched in her grubby hands. She was two and a half. I pulled her considerable weight onto my lap while her baby sister dozed to sleep in my other arm. She opened the Bible and the first image we saw was that of the Crucifixion.
I cringed. She didn’t. “Mama, s’dat Jesus?” I nodded and tried to turn the page. I don’t know what I was looking for, other than I wanted to protect my child from that. The detailed image of our Lord nailed to a tree was not the way I wanted my daughter to think of Jesus. I never avoided it at Mass, per se, but I focused on other images when trying to keep her quiet.
But she was adamant. She kept her gummy hand on the page so I couldn’t turn it, not without ripping it, or (heaven forbid) waking her sister, or both.
“Mama, s’Jesus hurt?” I nodded again, tears clogging my throat. The crucified Jesus was one that moved me every time, but I didn’t want my daughter to focus on that. She’s too young for that! Too innocent! “Let’s find the picture of Jesus with the lambs, sweetie! You like that picture, don’t you?” I managed to croak out this utterly unconvincing plea while I bounced and shushed the wriggling baby back to sleep. I tried to turn the page again.
“Mama, Jesus die for me?” This was familiar territory, of course. She hadn’t come up with this on her own. Usually, however, in our Bible readings we spent a lot of time on the parables, did a quick skim over death and spent the rest of our efforts rejoicing at the resurrection. Emotion overcame me, and I heaved great big silent sobs, avoiding her seeking, searching eyes.
In that moment, I realized that all I wanted for my daughter was the joy of the Resurrection. I didn’t want the pain, or the sorrow, or the anguish of the preceding Passion. I didn’t want her to feel culpable, implicated in the death of the Word Incarnate.
That, by the way, is what the world offers us, every day. Joy without pain, and contentedness without struggle. Wealth, beauty, power, money: all these things and more will be your Joy! Who needs the Cross when you can skip right over it and enjoy the bounty here and now?!
Lies. The world offers us a daily dose of lies. And I was unintentionally offering the same ones to my daughter.
So I shakily took one last deep breath. I opened my eyes and awkwardly wiped my tears on the shoulder of my stained t-shirt. I looked down at my daughter who, oddly, looked more curious than upset. I smiled a watery smile and I said, “Yes, baby. He died for you and for me, for Daddy and for Baby Sister. Jesus died so that we could all live forever with Him in Heaven.”
Her brown eyes solemn, those impossibly long lashed blinking slowly, she nodded and looked from me back down to the Bible. “S’okay, Mommy. Don’t cry.” She turned the page. “See? Jesus not dead anymore.”
And it was okay. Because I had spent those painful few moments at the foot of the cross, it was okay to then move on and be happy in the Resurrection. My daughter, inquisitive and as yet unafraid of her capacity for pain or fear, knew that instinctively. She snuggled back against me, warm and comforting, comforted.
I know many people prefer the simplicity of the cross. I can sympathize, but I humbly suggest that it’s not enough. The cross alone, powerful symbol though it is, is still only a symbol. If there is one thing all Christians can agree on, it’s that Christ was not a symbol. He was the Son of God who came to Earth and suffered greatly at the hands of other men and women. He had real wounds and suffered a real death. It follows then that this great and awesome act of love, the crucifixion, isn’t something to fear or hide from, but something to revere and meditate upon.
I’ve heard it said before that the crucifix is a gruesome sight. I suppose that might be true if you didn’t know the story of the cross, and the Love that put Jesus there. We do know, however, that Jesus was a study in contrasts: a king born in a stable, a carpenter who taught theology to rabbis and chief priests, a man who is also the Son of God. Why then should His death be any less of a paradox? Jesus was bruised, beaten, mocked, defiled, killed, and yet He turned the Crucifix into a symbol of hope and joy for billions of people through the ages and around the world.
“When you are alone in your room, take your crucifix, kiss its five wounds reverently, tell it to preach to you a little sermon, and then listen to the words of eternal life that it speaks to your heart; listen to the pleading of the thorns, the nails, the precious Blood. Oh, what an eloquent sermon!” – St. Paul of the Cross
Jesus showed us His love through the crucifix. As Catholics, we are a people of life, but we get there honestly. We know that we have to come through the Passion and the Crucifixion first to fully experience life’s true, everlasting Joy. Now that I understand that, I won’t turn away from it, and I don’t hide it from my children anymore either. And do you know the strangest thing? My children, who have nightmares over episodes of Blues Clues and Sesame Street, they’re not even remotely afraid of the crucifix. I think they know the whole story – love conquers death – better than I did until I was grown.