“Please get my book,” requested the dying saint. The brethren eagerly sought his Bible, breviary, and the rosary – St. Philip Benizi gently shook his head to each. Finally, it dawned upon Bl. Ubald of Florence, who went in search of the “book” that was the source of St. Philip’s surpassing wisdom – his crucifix. Upon this book, St. Philip rested his eyes until at last, they closed in death.
One might ask, “How then is the crucifix a spiritual book?” After all, it’s just a silent piece of wood, perhaps some metal, or a painting. The only words one reads on it are “INRI”, that is, “Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum,” – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Yet, in one sense, the crucifix is the ultimate statement.
God Reveals Himself on The Cross
When Jesus declares from the Cross, “It is finished,” it may well be paraphrased as “I’ve now said everything.” Christ discloses all that is in His Heart from the Cross – in complete silence. What does the crucifix say?
- It describes capacious love, for on the Cross, Jesus shoulders and triumphs over all that human beings find most abhorrent – evil, suffering, guilt, and death.
- It further speaks of mercy, for as St. Paul says, it is rare that someone should die for a righteous man, but Christ died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:7).
- It explains God’s desire to quench our thirst for ultimate happiness; He opens the way to heaven through the Cross.
- It speaks simultaneously of God’s self-abasement and greatness.
- It reveals the gravity of sin but also says that God is merciful – the worst of sins are pardonable.
- It proclaims human dignity as the immortal One underwent such trouble to expiate our guilt.
- Finally, it puts our personal sufferings into perspective.
The Crucifix is a Book of Virtue
Think of any virtue – love of God and neighbor, self-denial, patience, forgiveness, humility, fortitude, generosity, trust, obedience, and perseverance – it’s all there on the Cross in summary and in silence. Indeed, how eloquently does the silent figure speak! The crucifix is a compendium for all the virtues.
For example, if you wish to understand love, see Jesus on the crucifix, for greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). If you desire a lesson in humility, observe Jesus on the crucifix, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped; rather, he emptied himself by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness (Phil 2:6-7). If you seek to understand patience, look at Jesus crucified, who was despised and rejected, yet opened not his mouth (Is 53:3, 7). If you don’t know how to forgive, learn from Jesus, who said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). Finally, if you wish to know forbearance, see Jesus as they gave me gall for my food, and in my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink (Psalm 68:21).
A Book of Com-passion
The crucifix teaches that God is no foreigner to pain – He understands it to the maximum. The deistic god of Voltaire, far removed from pain and world events has no place here; God truly understands the hurt of betrayal, the fire of humiliation, the anguish of physical and mental pain – from the inside out. Are not the trials of life thus more tolerable after seeing the exhausted body of Christ? “If God suffered so for love of me, then I can endure for love of Him.”
God therefore identifies with the one who suffers – He’s been there. He has com-passio, that is, He suffers with. However, God’s compassion is not entirely as we understand it. He doesn’t promise total happiness or alleviation from pain in this life. Rather, He gives the grace to triumph over suffering and grants eternal beatitude to those who bear their daily cross faithfully.
The Book of True Knowledge
God transported St. Paul the Apostle into the third heaven and admitted him into sublime mysteries such as the doctrine of the Mystical Body. However, it was not the sublimity of God’s light that St. Paul sought; rather, he wanted to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). Why? Because he discovered the deepest wisdom there, as it were, written on the Cross:
The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God…For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (Corinthians 1:18, 22-25)
The “word” (logos in Greek), of the cross, means the message conveyed through Christ the God-man dying such a dreadful death. How is this word the power of God? Because it is loaded with divine paradox: God uses Christ’s self-abasement, poverty, suffering, and death as the means for our glory, salvation, and life. The lives of the saints manifest this power – they suffered much yet found victory rather than defeat. Therefore, the Cross is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed (Wisdom 3:18).
A Book for the Ultimate Hour
Believers, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu, have their ultimate book. For most Christians, the Scriptures are the first choice. While I cherish the Scriptures, when the ultimate hour arrives, I will not ask for the Bible. Like St. Philip Benizi, I will request my “book”, the holy crucifix, which though wordless and silent, speaks the most eloquent affirmation needed at that critical moment.
Note – the image of the crucifix was painted by Cimabue for the Basilica of San Domenico in Arezzo around 1267-71. The Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist are on the extremities of the cross beam. Photo taken by Senet.