During this season of Lent many will gaze upon the Crucifix. Have you ever wondered what it must be like to gaze back from the Cross? And, if so, what those eyes might behold? And, furthermore, what thoughts and emotions such sights might provoke?
In 1923, a French Dominican priest, A.G. Sertillanges, arrived in Jerusalem. He had come for a year long sabbatical. In his free time, whilst walking around the ancient lanes of that city, understandably his mind wandered to how it must have looked 2000 years earlier. Coming upon the site traditionally believed to be Calvary, his imagination shifted to the scene of the execution that had taken place there. In the days that were to follow, he found himself returning time and again to that exact spot. Gradually, the inner gaze of his mind began to look outward as it began to identify with the eyes of the Saviour, and, as he did so, an inspiration came…
Seven years later, Ce que Jesus voyait du haut de la croix was published in Paris. In 1948 an English translation appeared in Dublin and was titled: What Jesus Saw from the Cross. It has re-appeared in our own times, now re-published by Sophia Institute Press. We should be grateful that this book, with its curious power, is once more so easily accessible.
If there is one book to read this Holy Week then this is it. Just as with that important week, this book has many facets. It is a devotional text. It also combines history, archaeology, topography and Scared Scripture in a seamless and at times thought provoking manner. It is the work of a gifted writer, skilled in the use of simile and metaphor. It is a work that takes hold of the reader’s imagination – gripping it, propelling it on. But, this is not simply a well-written text; more than anything else, it is the fruit of prayer, a life of prayer. Using the power of the imagination suffused with the meditations from that life, it takes the reader on a journey back to a time and place that proves to be the pivot upon which the world, and, indeed, the very universe itself turns.
To begin with, the writer leads us to the terrace of the Greeks overlooking the atrium of the Holy Sepulchre and a small cross therein. Here is the site held by Tradition to be that of the Crucifixion. And, then we find ourselves travelling back in time to when that place was a small mound known as Calvary just outside Roman occupied Jerusalem.
Now, on that mound, we turn; and, as we do so, we watch a sorry procession approaching. We see the bearer of the wood, like a hunted animal, before the baying mob; so cruel are the soldiers, so heartless those who, by virtue of their religious knowledge, should have known what was really happening. Through the Gate of Ephraim the procession comes, and, as it does, the prisoner is brought face to face with what will be his tomb. There it is: right in front of him, waiting. He turns to make the final ascent to where we await. It is little more than a knoll in a field just outside the walls of the city – the place known as that of ‘The Skull’, and fittingly so, as today upon its crest is a gibbet. Here is the setting for death’s final and desperate assault upon the Author of life Himself.
The structure upon which the Cross will hang stands about ten feet high upon a mound not more than sixteen feet in height. It is enough. From that throne the Lord of Life shall see before Him the whole panorama. Directly opposite is the Gate of Ephraim; then little more than eight yards further away is Pilate’s palace, the Tower of Antonia; a mere 400 yards more brings us to the Temple itself. Beyond there, another 400 yards or so, is the Pinnacle, traditionally held to be the place where Satan had offered all the kingdoms of the world if only…
On all sides surrounding the city is countryside. There is the sorrowful Mount of Olives to the east, and, to its right the brook of Kidron. In the distance beyond there the mountains of Moab leading to the Dead Sea and the scene of God’s anger at man’s sinfulness: Sodom and Gomorrah. Nevertheless, those mountains also tell of another story for within that range is Mount Nebo from whence, at last, Moses saw the Promised Land. Centuries later, on that same desert plain would be heard a voice calling in the wilderness – proclaiming to all that this was the time of the Messiah. This was also the place of the outcast; it is where the ‘scapegoat’, that animal upon which the crimes of all Israel would rest, was cast out to die for the sins of others…
By the city walls, we see those who come for the Passover pilgrimage to offer holocaust. As they do, however, it appears none realise the import of the gibbet by which they pass, or who it is being stripped and made ready to die.
Further to the east can be seen Mount Moriah, where a son, Isaac, was to be sacrificed by his father, Abraham. Behind that, the forlorn Mount of Scandals, a reminder that it is in Jerusalem that a prophet must die. And it is to fulfil that prophecy that we now see blood falling upon the soil of Judah: the Son of David is nailed to wooden beams in plain sight of Mount Zion, the hill of David, where the Cenacle lay, now the place of new Bread, a second Bethlehem. Beneath this lies Gehenna, burning bright in the midday heat – where the fires never cease and where centuries earlier in its flames children were sacrificed to the false gods of Baal and Moloch. All this is visible from the small mound upon which we stand and where once more gathered are those same false gods, now revealed as demons, to watch with interest as this latest sacrifice takes place.
Eventually, the Cross is raised high. Through the haze of the midday heat, in the distance, not more than a quarter of a mile away, is by far the most important and imposing structure of all: the Temple. It directly faces where the crucifixion is now taking place. This day, at 3 pm, in the precincts of the Temple, a lamb will be sacrificed. At that hour, if the shadow cast by the Cross were to be extended it would reach to the spot where the sacrifice was to be made.
Sertillanges asks us now to look at the figure upon the Cross. To look at the head bowed, the bloodied wood upon which is fastened the battered body. He will also ask us something else, something unusual: to ‘change places’, in our imaginations at least, with that crucified figure. We are to put on Christ. ‘So it may be that the invisible world in which His soul moves will appear more vividly to us, and perhaps we may be granted the grace of a more intimate union with Him.’
We stare at the nails that fasten him. We see that he is stripped save for the crown of mockery he still wears. We watch as blood continues to flow in thin streams from those broken hands and feet. We peer at this constrained, condemned body, with little movement now except for shudders of pain. ‘And through it all [we await] that glance which sees beyond all things, that glance which we shall follow as far as our sight can reach… [and] goes infinitely beyond our vision… passing through the visible and invisible worlds… penetrating to their source, to the very depths of God.’
All around there continues the noise of the herdsmen travelling into the city, of camels laden heading to Jaffa or Damascus as never-ending winds raise dusts in the far distant desert; there is the scent of blossoms from nearby fig trees and the blood red anemone all around Calvary; and, then, there is the ceaseless roars of blasphemers at the foot of the Cross; standing there too is one who silently ponders all, her own soul now fully pierced.
And, as we turn back to fix our gaze upon Him, it is then that the Master opens his eyes…