“If Christ was not of the very substance of omnipotence, if becomes relatively pointless to point to the paradox of his impotence.”
~ G.K. Chesterton
Early in the first semester of nursing school, I teach a unit on mobility and range of motion. We talk about body mechanics and ergonomics, how to ensure proper positioning for ailing patients as well as proper nursing postures to avoid back injuries. I tell the students that mobility is a continuum: It begins with limited locomotion in infancy, progresses to maximum free movement in youth and adulthood (with occasional interruptions due to injury or illness), and then finally declines with the entropy of natural aging. When we care for patients suffering altered mobility, our job as caregivers is to move them back along that continuum toward their maximum potential – to restore, that is, their fullest possible functioning with regards to voluntary movement.
As a part of that module, we also talk about restraints, which are the exact opposite of promoting mobility. Under certain circumstances – namely for patient safety and/or the safety of the practitioners – physical restraints are warranted, but they’re never easy to implement. People typically choose nursing as a profession because they’re caring and compassionate, and it goes against the grain for nurses (especially students) to impose anything that, on the surface, defies the Golden Rule. “I wouldn’t want to be restrained,” our thinking goes – a notion that also applies to giving shots and inserting loathsome tubes. Still, for the greater good of the patient, for the advancement of his healing and recovery, we are obliged to do such things. And, yes, we’re even obliged to physically confine our patients’ freedom of movement when it is required to bring about a greater good.
This Lent, I’ve been dwelling on the idea of restraints with reference to the crucifixion. Ordinarily we focus on the crucifixion’s Cross and its wood, especially on Good Friday – and rightly so. All through the New Testament, there’s a repeated emphasis on crosses – the Cross that our Lord carried and upon which he died; the crosses that we ourselves take up and bear as followers of the Lord, as imitators of him. “Apart from the cross,” insists St. Rose of Lima, “there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven” (CCC 618). These days, however, I’m more fixated on the nails – in fact, “fixate” is an especially appropriate descriptor here, because that’s exactly what nails do. They fix something in place: God, in this case.
Of the three or four Holy Nails that affixed our incarnate God to the Cross, there are few intact specimens with any substantial provenance. St. Helen is said to have discovered the originals along with the True Cross in the fourth century, but then their history gets a bit murky after that. Tradition has it that the nails are still around, or at least facsimiles with some kind of associative pedigree. You can view and venerate them – all 30 or more – at various sites and shrines around the world.
Years ago, I myself had the privilege of seeing one of them at the Roman Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, and it’s a Holy Nail with an especially solid claim on authenticity. “The true nail, kept at Rome, in the church of the Holy Cross, has been manifestly filed,” notes Fr. Alban Butler and his associates, “and is now without a point, as may be seen in all pictures of it.” It’s in a side chapel containing other Holy Land treasures, including Pilate’s tri-lingual placard that declared Jesus the King of the Jews, a couple thorns from the Crown, and chunks off the True Cross.
As a relatively new Catholic at the time of my visit, I was especially taken with these relics of the Passion, and I recollect even then being particularly impressed with the Holy Nail on display. The wood of the True Cross, I knew, was scattered around the world in innumerable reliquaries, but here was one of the actual bolts that captured God – that restrained him, not for his own good, but for mine. “The fact that He stayed on the Cross until the end…has remained in human history the strongest argument,” writes Pope St. John Paul II. “If the agony of the Cross had not happened, the truth that God is Love would have been unfounded.” That agony was a function of the nails; that salvific demonstration of divine love was facilitated by a fettered restriction to which he subjected himself.
Nowadays, the Holy Nails come to our attention primarily when we’re making the Way of the Cross and come to the Eleventh Station – “Jesus is nailed to the Cross.” However, the reflections associated with that Station are usually directed to the physical pain that accompanied the nailing – the pounding of those spikes into our Savior’s limbs, the gush of blood, the agony, the terror. “These barbarians fastened Him with nails; and then, raising the cross, left Him to die with anguish on this infamous gibbet,” writes St. Alphonsus Liguori in his familiar version of The Way. Then, in his meditation on this terrible event, Liguori requests of the Lord that he “nail my heart to Thy feet, that it may ever remain there to love Thee, and never quit Thee again.” It’s a laudable sentiment and a worthy spiritual goal, but recently the Nails have come to mean something even more to me.
I was sharing with Jim, my ersatz godfather, about a delicate and complex problem I’d been contending with. “I feel powerless to do anything,” I told him with a sad sigh, “helpless.”
Jim listened, paused, and then made a simple, wise suggestion. “Sounds like you should spend more time in church looking at Christ nailed to the Cross.”
The moment he said it, I knew he was right, and the crucifix in my parish church lent itself well to Jim’s proposal. The corpus is outsized, those holy hands clearly visible from the pews, and the black tacks pinning the divine wrists jut out in clear relief. The nails defy, they taunt, they dismiss all entreaties. One can readily imagine the bound Messiah feebly commending his mother to St. John and vice versa – what else could he do? No gesture of affection, no caress of his mother’s brow, none of that. The extremities of the Lord were held fast.
Yet it needn’t have been so – by Jesus’ own admission. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father,” he told his disciples, “and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” And yet he acquiesced and stayed on the Cross, allowing the nails to pin him fast. I’m reminded of the scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the lordly Aslan, a Christlike servant-king, submits to a humiliating, tortuous spectacle:
The Hags made a dart at him and shrieked with triumph when they found that he made no resistance at all. Then others…rushed in to help them, and between them they rolled the huge Lion over on his back and tied all his four paws together, shouting and cheering as if they had done something brave, though, had the Lion chosen, one of those paws could have been the death of them all. But he made no noise, even when the enemies, straining and tugging, pulled the cords so tight that they cut into his flesh.
As I gaze in silence at the nails on my parish’s imposing crucifix, and I contemplate how they briefly and mysteriously confined the Word made flesh, the principle of God’s creative force in the universe, I realize a peace with regards to my own intractable situation. I can do nothing, nothing – just like the One who bowed to a cross and its bondage. There’s only endurance and waiting, abandonment and hope, and I take comfort in the knowledge that he knows every dimension of my human pain, including the pain of limitation.
His immobility beckons me to imitate his acceptance and perseverance. He beckons; I hesitate. He beckons; I pray. He beckons….