Faith and Life

The Shadow of the Cross

During daily Mass, I found myself contemplating the large crucifix over the altar. I gazed at the image of Jesus, taking in the particulars of his face, his posture (limp but not sagging, head bowed slightly), and the flow of the cloth around his hips. I didn’t realize I was doing this until my gaze moved to the crucifix’s shadow and I was startled into attention. 

You see, the cloth covering Jesus has a portion of it that rises up and ripples out, like it is being lifted by a strong wind. But in the shadow crucifix, the cloth transforms into a coiled snake that is squeezing the life out of Christ. Shadow Jesus sags farther down the cross, and it appears that his head hangs lower. Even the crossbeam appears to be turning downward, as if the weight of the snake is too much for it to bear. 

… As I looked back and forth from the real crucifix to the shadow crucifix I had a profound (and profoundly “duh”) moment of clarity: sin is a shadow that warps reality and tries to weigh you down. Literally, it is the basket that wants to carry you into Hell. 

What reality is the real crucifix giving us? For one, that life is colorful and beautifully crafted by someone with great skill. Looking beyond the surface, we can also see that true love is real. True love may leave us limp, but it doesn’t drag us down. Neither will true love cause our heads to hang low in defeat; instead we will bow in acknowledgement of the greatest gift known to man. Also part of reality is the existence of suffering. Horrible and painful things will happen, but even in the midst of these times color and light need not fade. 

So what does the shadow crucifix reveal? Sin is dark, and works without precision or definition. In fact, its job is to obfuscate all definition from reality. Sin keeps us from being able to distinguish what is what. To the observer, what is straight becomes bent…

An episode in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce highlights sin’s ability to warp reality perfectly: A beautiful, saintly soul arrives and comes upon the soul of her husband. This man, Frank, is one soul split into two personas: a small dwarf and a tall, thin man. The dwarf Frank drags the tall man behind him by a heavy chain. The tall man is described as “theatrical”. During their conversation with the beautiful soul, the dwarf Frank is eventually consumed by the dramatic negativity of the tall man he has been dragging around. Before he disappears, the beautiful soul begs the dwarf to “stop”: “Stop what?” “Using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity…Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenseless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed?”

…Sin does not allow any room for joy, or peace, or even reason. The worst part is that, for most of us, it works very slowly, like air leaking out of a tiny hole in a balloon. At first, it doesn’t seem like anything is wrong. Over time the sins get bigger and/or more frequent while happiness is harder to hold on to. By the end happiness is maybe found in five minute bursts every other month. 

Thankfully a shadow is just a shadow. We have bigger and more beautiful things to gaze at; things that we can see and touch and know every detail of it’s magnificence. As long as we keep our gaze on the real crucifix, on God’s true love, we will be able to pass through the shadows just fine.

Note: This is an edited version of the original 2014 post, “Shadows and Light.” It’s one of my favorite posts, and completely appropriate for the season of Lent, but it needed some sprucing! 🙂

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