People flock to Sedona, Arizona from all over the world to watch the sun rise, and set, and to see its reflection off the region's famed red rocks. The Chapel of the Holy Cross is built high into the side of a mountain and is easily identifiable by its most prominent feature—a giant, narrow stone cross that seems to support its foundation.
The rest of the façade is glass, giving the pilgrim who enters the chapel a spectacular view of the surrounding red-rock hills and valleys. The height and breadth of the cross that looks over the valley also dominates the interior of the chapel. Until the end of the 1980s, coming in to the cool and dim interior from the intense, blinding sun of the Arizona desert, a pilgrim's eyes were at once and almost uncontrollably drawn to that cross. The size of the cross and the incredible beauty visible through the windows would certainly have been enough to touch one's soul; but on the cross was a most astonishing representation of the body of the crucified Jesus.
The corpus was made of blackened metal, twisted and jagged and severe. It was a very modern interpretation and there were no discernible features. It was very disturbing, very hard to look at, and yet powerfully compelling. This mangled, emptied Jesus held your gaze and forced you to contemplate the consequence of evil.
There is a scene from an old black-and-white movie that relates the importance of feet to the meaning of the cross. At first, all you see on the television screen are feet—old feet, middle aged feet, children’s feet—feet caked with mud and marked by oozing sores from a long forced march. There are other feet in the scene—the barefoot feet of people standing on the sidelines, as if they are watching the spectacle of this pitiful parade passing before them. For several minutes all you see on the screen are feet. Pounding rain adds to the misery of the scene and the whole image is as stark and emotionally charged as only a glum black-and-white film can be.
In a few minutes the, scene changes and the identity of these people is revealed. They are five Franciscan friars and 20 other men, women, and children. It is their feet we see struggling through the mud and rain. They are carrying crossbeams—much too heavy for an adult to carry for several miles, let alone a child. They are being force-marched as an example to the people who watch along the sidelines of the Japanese countryside. They are on their way to a field where they will all be crucified. The year is 1597 and they will be among the first people martyred in Japan for refusing to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ.
It’s somehow a less disturbing phenomenon when we keep the cross, and all it symbolizes, way, way in the past—on a hill in first century Jerusalem. It’s not so easy to look at it when we are forced to understand it as a part of our twenty-first century life. But the Passion Story is no fairy tale. Nor is it a thing of the past. The cross is still raised. God’s daughters and sons are still nailed to it. Christ’s blood is still shed in any number of tragic situations everyday. We need only to look at the image we find on our television or computer screens, more recently the suffering of the people of the Ukraine.
Jesus continues to die in the plight of our sisters and brothers all over the world. We know that is true because he told us: “Whatever is done to the least of my brethren is done to me.”
In the late 1980s a controversy began around the image of Jesus on that cross in the Arizona desert—the twisted and jagged Jesus. Some were offended because it was so powerful, so visceral that you could not ignore it. There is an ugliness to the effects of evil that we just may not want to face, so that it's hard to stay and watch and pray. They took that disfigured, disturbing Jesus down. They took Jesus off that cross, cleaned it, patched the holes in the cross where nails had supported his body. Visitors eyes are no longer drawn to that unthinkable gift of love.
As we rejoice in the coming of Easter morning, perhaps it is a better thing that the pilgrim's eyes can be drawn more easily past the cross into the exquisite emptiness of the desert—perhaps, but I’m not absolutely convinced of that. Do we not still need to look on him, to remain at the foot of the cross for a while, to watch and to pray?
Some years ago, I read a reflection by a priest who recalled a Good Friday service at her home church when she was a teenager. When the cross was brought into the church and placed in its stand, the priest invited everyone to gather around it and write their names on small slips of paper. He then brought out a hammer and nails, and one by one, they each nailed their own name to the cross. It was a powerful reminder that Jesus hung there for each one of us. But more than that, it is a reminder that each of us carries the cross and, from time to time, may be asked to climb on to it.
When we leave tonight, and hear the carillon toll mournfully, we need not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for all of the crucified—for Jesus, for you, for me, for every innocent being committed to suffering and injustice and death and for the countless times when the world, and its institutions, nail goodness to some cross or another.