Sunday, March 04, 2007

On Crucifixes

I had a rather unhealthy fear of crucifixes as a child.

Growing up in the Philippines, one of the very few predominantly Catholic nations in Asia, I was naturally exposed to and reared in a Catholic environment. Seeing that we were once a former colony of Spain, an unabashedly Hispanic Catholicism-- with its multitude of flowers, candles, grotesquely bloody images and exuberance-- took root. In particular, as I have mentioned in my previous post, I took delight in looking at badly-carved, folksy-looking santos, clothed in their excessively-embroidered brocade mantles, bedecked in their 'baroque bling': gold encrusted crowns, aureoles, 'resplendors', and a host of other unnameable miscellany.

However, I always cringed at the sight of crucifixes. I was haunted by the image of a Man hanging from his palms ( it's always the palms ) from a cruel-looking cross. His arms and legs were blackened by bruises and by the constant flow of blood. His wounds gaped at you and exposed raw muscle and even bone in some cases. A crown of thorns, shoved onto His head, pierced His skull and caused even more blood to weep down His face. His entire body was blackened by a bevy of beatings, and wept from a thousand ( according to lore, the wounds numbered some 6,666 all in all ) orifices. It was a sight that made or broke one's faith.

It did not help that, when I was nine years old, I dreamt that I was alone in an abandoned church, with nothing and no one save a crucifix as my companion. In my dream, I remembered looking at that crucifix, and it, in turn, looked back at me. Like some surreal re-telling of St. Gregory's Mass, the Corpus went down from the cross, and slowly came toward me. I panicked, and ran as fast I could, but everywhere I went, the bloody Corpus always managed to catch up.

Why do we love to see Him suffer? Why are we Catholics hopelessly fixated on this image of a dying Man, His bones sticking out and His blood oozing in obscene amounts? Why is something so revoltingly shocking the most common fixture of our Faith?

This is the ultimate paradox of Catholicism. It has never been a 'sanitized' religion. Case in point: the peace ceremony in the Old Rite involved a pious image being passed around to the congregation, who then take turns kissing it. Have you ever wondered how much bacteria is in there? Or what if Ol' Toothless took a whole minute kissing it? It's a bit unsettling to think of, especially in this day and age. But that is how it was done for centuries. Tradition is not so much as an endless reverting to how we think it was always done; rather, it is humbling ourselves and submitting to the way it has always been.

This is the main difference between Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics. Whereas the Anglos might have a superior appreciation of the aesthetics of liturgy, have better taste in music and are much more reverent, there is almost nothing behind it. It is a religion based on theory, and there is no sense of fallback whatsoever. Catholics have come into criticism for being distracted at Mass; we go to our favorite shrines to light a candle during the sermon, we scold our children for being too noisy at the Credo, and even crossing oneself looks like an exercise at, oh say, removing a stray booger from one's face.

The beauty of Catholicism is that it is a very human thing. Unlike Protestantism, we Catholics understand that to be perfect does not have to mean giving up being a human. Perfection is not some overnight infusion of grace; it is a process that has its ups and downs which may take years before we can achieve. Sometimes, the greatest sinners turn out to be the greatest saints: St. Augustine's story is familiar to us all, as well as St. Dismas'. It was St. Josemaria Escriva in point 675 of his book 'The Way' who said:

"It's true that he was a sinner. But don't pass so final a judgment on him. Have pity in your heart, and don't forget that he may yet be an Augustine, while you remain just another mediocrity."

It is no secret that we have had many heresiarchs for priests and bishops and that we've had scoundrels for popes. It is precisely because we have had so many sinners in the fold that Catholicism comes off as an objectively real thing. The Church is not some abstraction based on paper; it is the screaming multitude of men and women, saints and sinners, priests and laymen. It is very much a visible thing.

And we are all under the banner of the crucifix. That bloody, beaten, bruised Corpus is a powerful reminder of the love of God for us. I once read a quote that went something like this: 'Sucking your stomach in at the weighing scale-- that is the ultimate self-delusion'. The Crucifix is the visual symbol of the Christian life. It is a life that faces up to the challenges ahead with the knowledge that we will ultimately get something beautiful and profound in the end.

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