Should we talk about Christ Crucified as we enter the Easter Season? Absolutely! Without Christ dying on the Cross, we would still be locked in our sins. Without Christ’s Crucifixion, there would be no Resurrection!
Why the San Damiano Crucifix? Well, why not? The same Crucifix that spoke to Saint Francis can still speak to his followers if only we will look and listen.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before Him He endured the Cross, despising its shame and has taken His seat at the right of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2 NAB rev).
Was the San Damiano Crucifix painted with these words in mind? Let us start as we should always start by “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus,” as the writer to the Hebrews wisely advises, because this Crucified Jesus has His eyes open and fixed on us, not angrily or with pain, but rather curiously watching to see what we will do with the graces His death has purchased for us. He is aware of all that is going on, and He is enduring this Cross, “despising its shame” all for “the joy that lay before Him.”
This is not a Crucifixion of the Dead, but a Crucifixion of the Living. The Crucified Christ on this Crucifix bleeds, but is not dead; bleeds, but is not dead. Jesus lives. Yes, He has been “lifted up,” “hypsoun” in Greek, which the scholars tell us can be both “lifted up” for the Crucifixion and “lifted up” for the Ascension AND we see both depicted as Jesus ascends into heaven at the top of the Cross to take “His seat at the right of the throne of God.” “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (John 12:32 NAB rev).
Thus, this Crucifixion teaches the Incarnation. Jesus bleeds: Jesus is truly human. Jesus lives; Jesus cannot be killed; Jesus ascends into Heaven to sit at the right hand of God: Jesus is truly God.
Further, this is no Crucifixion of a Solitary Christ: no, Jesus hangs in solidarity with many. Have you ever seen Christ Crucified “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”? This Crucifixion shows us Community, Fraternity. Jesus is literally surrounded on His Cross by witnesses: at His feet, by His sides, at his outstretched arms and above His head.
Scholars tell us that the San Damiano Crucifix contains 33 figures, including the Hand of God at the very top and even a small rooster at the Lord’s left shin. It’s not necessary to examine all the figures because the same scholars cannot agree on the identity of all of them, but some have been identified standing by the Cross.
We must give pride of place to His Mother Mary and His Apostle John to Christ’s right where the lance has pierced His side, and to His left, Mary of Magdala, Mary the wife of Clopas and the Centurion.
None of these figures looks particularly sad. Again, this is a Christ living; a Christ Who has defeated death. His arms stretch over the empty black tomb, and his blood gives life to all “the crowd of witnesses” around Him. Indeed, these figures, human and angelic, seem to be marveling over and discussing about the great Mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection.
Perhaps this is where we should be in this Easter Season: focused on this great Mystery and its influence on our lives. Do we keep our eyes fixed only on Christ or are we easily distracted? Christ can never die, but do we kill Christ in our own hearts when we sin mortally? How can we draw closer to Christ this Easter Season as we meditate upon and pray to the same Christ on the same Crucifix that spoke to our Spiritual Father St. Francis?
Let us pray for one another in words similar to those St. Francis prayed:
Our Father, all-powerful and all-loving, cast Your light into the darkness of all our hearts. Grant to all of us right faith, firm hope, and perfect charity with unfailing gentleness and generosity, and above all, with profound humility, wisdom and perception, so that we may accomplish what is truly Your Holy Will. Amen.
- Why might it be appropriate to talk about the San Damiano Crucifix even during the Easter Season?
- Why might the San Damiano Crucifix in particular still speak to Secular Franciscans?
- In meditating upon such a “busy” Crucifix with so many figures, where is the best place to start?
- Is the San Damiano Crucifix more a Crucifixion of the Dead or of the Living? Why?
- In what ways does this Crucifix show us Fraternity? In fact, how many figures do scholars say are actually part of this Crucifixion?
- Specifically, who are the two large figures talking on Christ’s right side? Who are the three large figures talking on Christ’s left side?
- About what topics does the article speculate that these larger figures might be talking?
This is an excerpt from a series of articles by the late Deacon Tom Bello, OFS, former Minister of the National Secular Franciscan Order – USA. “Many of these essays were originally published in TAU-USA, our national newsletter,” said Jan Parker, OFS, current National Minister. “They are excellent for reflection and ongoing formation.” Jan helped Tom publish these essays in book form. It is called For All The Saints: St. Francis’s Five-Point Plan for Salvation and is available from Tau Publishing. These excerpts will appear several times a week on the Secular Franciscans website.