Why We All Need to Be More Offended by the Cross
One Monday morning at 8am, I found a message in my inbox. It was from a mother whose seven-year-old son said as they passed our church, “If God’s head was hanging like that, it means he couldn’t breathe.” This, she says, upset her and, although she understood that the crucifix is at the heart of the Catholic faith, she wondered if we could consider covering the cross (about 12 feet high, hung high on our wall) or replace it with a less graphic image. religious statue.
Indeed, she cited the rules of the Advertising Standards Authority: “Marketing communications must not cause undue fear or distress; if it can be justified, the fear or distress must not be excessive”; “Marketers should not use a shocking claim or image simply to gain attention”; and “References to a deceased person should be treated with special care to avoid causing offense or distress.”
I confess that my first reaction was to look for the logo of the National Secular Society or Humanists UK literally; my second to ask if it was a hoax. But the email was written on friendly terms, hoping I was fine at the start and sending all the best wishes at the end. I concluded it was just a concerned parent doing what any good parent would do, trying to protect their child, so I responded in mild terms. I said his son was absolutely right; that a suspended body like the character of our crucifix would indeed have trouble breathing; indeed, that was the horrible aim of the Romans; suffocation when the condemned person no longer has the strength to lean against his weight to breathe. But I added that the Christian faith is that this terrible death was not the end, so that the cross becomes for us a sign of hope.
Second, I pointed out that it was not really possible to remove large-scale public works of art, especially important works such as the figure of Ralph McFall carved in situ 57 years ago. More seriously, if we did, we would be severing our culture from its historical roots, hindering rather than encouraging efforts to build a multicultural and diverse society. Perhaps, I gently suggested, it would be wiser to use the crucifix as a medium for reflecting on the amount of suffering there is in our world, a reality that would not be diminished one iota by our suburban tendency to spray disturbing images.
Finally, of course, I invited her to bring her son to visit, saying that I would gladly answer her questions and show them around the church, so they could see that the Catholic faith is a life-affirming religion. rather than a grizzly religion. A soft grateful response came. Perhaps when he was older, his parents – “atheists but happy that he discovered all faiths and none” – would bring him to visit. And perhaps this particular bright child will be helped by his mother in an age-appropriate way to understand how we can both take suffering seriously and live a hopeful life.
The little boy saw God. He knew that was what the man was supposed to be. But this God was a suffering God who could not breathe. In fact this God was dead, just a block of stone, austere, disturbing. “Without beauty, without majesty (we have seen it), no glances to attract our glances” (Isa 53.2) The innocent child had somehow understood without understanding; understood better, in fact, than those Catholics who do not think of the cross, so accustomed are we to it. The child understood but the faith was not provoked, only upset; an upheaval which, I dare to hope, could at some point turn into moral outrage at human suffering. Perhaps he will come to call this indignation faith or perhaps its opposite.
It’s not about a little boy, is it? This mom’s well-meaning email captures something of where we are at as a society. While more than a third of the population still identify as Christian, half of them are over 50 and church attendance was down long before Covid-19 hit. “Christian” as a label and “Christian” as an indication of a sustained religious practice, of a life of discipleship, of a faith that guides our choices: these are two totally different things. Parish clergy across the country are questioning whether the decimation of congregations within the church is a pandemic-like event or a permanent feature; whether online communities can prove to be both sustainable and enduring. How many will return to church in the coming months and how many have found other things to fill their Sundays and meet their spiritual needs, from yoga and mindfulness to gardening, to walking the cooped-up puppy and other ways to reconnect with nature?
Overall, we don’t know how to interpret religious symbols in this country. Our culture no longer teaches us that iconic images are meant to look through, not look through, windows of transcendence; that they question us even as we try to interpret them. Here in leafy Surrey, a passing mum turned to a hermeneutics not to Tradition but to ASA.
It is easy to lament the inability of others to understand the richness of our Christian heritage. But wouldn’t it be healthier and more useful to ask ourselves if the God we hang on our walls can breathe? Do our buildings and, more importantly, our congregations speak of fiery youth or emphysemic old age? Are we inspired and inspiring, God-breathed individuals brought together in God-inspired communities? And are we better placed to deal with human suffering than our neighbours? Our sacred wounded in the head, bent and overwhelmed, has no justification in the profane landscape unless those who pass below on their way to mass are Cyrenians who carry the crosses of others, Veronicas who wipe their foreheads soaked in sweat others. Let us also be a little more offended by the Cross.
(Father Rob Esdaile is parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes, Thames Ditton, Surrey)