I found myself sitting alone in an old church in Evanston a few days back while my wife was working on altar cloths and vestments. It was the first chance I had to actually sit there since last summer, when a heart problem killed me for eight minutes and left me sidelined during recovery.
I am fine and getting finer.
But I am changed.
Things I once took for granted I no longer accept. Things I overlooked, like familial love and the role it plays in these kinds of incidents, have taken a much larger place in my heart.
As part of this process during recovery, I have started what I hope will be a long examination of what I still believe, mainly so I can revive some feelings that were very important to me in my youth. I am finding that one way to locate what is still inside is to travel backwards, back to the point at which your thoughts and emotions about God were shaped by a small collection of good nuns, priests, and of course my own family.
Even as a child, I was intense about it. Before I entered a seminary I drew a poster that asked whether I would drink from the “his” cup. It was quite dramatic. It upset my father, who thought I stole the idea, and scared my mother, because who knew what was in my head?
What happened to that faith?
I’m not sure.
Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention to the right things, or perhaps paid way too much attention to the wrong things. I was always eager to misbehave, from my childhood onward. I now look back on it all as Tom Sawyer-ish shenanigans, not as genuinely bad behavior. I never wanted to hurt anyone, always wanted to help where I could and, even though I didn’t always know how, I tried to be as kind a person as I could be.
Sometimes I let my anger get in the way. That was wrong. But like I said, I have changed.
Now I am left with these questions about belief that I am trying to answer. I am digging deeply into bible studies and where those stories may have come from. I have taken to meditating on one of two crucifixes that came to me when my father and mother died. They are always close at hand.
I was continuing that process in church when I noticed something I had not noticed before. Almost every depiction of Jesus, even the ones in which he was on the cross, showed a handsome man with long brown hair and a beard, clean even in his agony.
Where did that come from?
I got kind of upset about it, because no matter what anyone thinks about Jesus as son of God or Messiah, crucifixion was never a benign thing. The Romans wanted to make it as bad and as humiliating as they could. The thought that his followers could ask the authorities for his body for burial was and remains preposterous. People who were crucified were reviled by the Romans and viewed as the worst of criminals. “Jesus of Nazarus, King of the Jews,” which it says on top of most crucifixion models, could never have happened, either, even as a satire.
From what I have learned about crucifixion, the object was to let the victim hang by his arms until he could no longer breathe. He was suffocated. Then his remains were kept on the cross until nature took its course. Birds would pick at him and dogs and other animals would feast as rotting parts fell to the ground.
So how did we end up with this much more humane image, one in which a man who was undeniably divine, kind of rests up on his crucifix and expires, head tilted to the side, as though it were a natural passing? And who made him so white?
I think the Europeans gave us that image hundreds of years after his death, working to pull art from tragedy and pain, and in the process painting over what the real sacrifice meant.
And of course, they wanted him to look like them.
I’m not saying you should believe. The more you read the gospels and the Old Testament the weaker the story becomes to the point at which you risk no libel by concluding we just don’t know who the hell built this record, why it has existed for so long in the face of historical reality, what it all really meant.
But this single image, reimagined to think about how it really was, gives us such a powerful measure of sacrifice.
I know that is a leap of faith and I know a lot of people will disagree. The thought of God allowing his son to be so brutally murdered just doesn’t ring true. What kind of divinity would allow that?
I don’t know, really.
But I remain a Catholic and I believe I am obliged to ask questions. That leaves me trapped inside this image of a man nailed to a cross, dead, surrounded these days by a whole universe full of symbols and images that attach him to divinity.
Maybe we were never expected to understand it.
The concept has been abused and misunderstood for as long as it has been around. People have made loads of money off of Jesus, and that is surely wrong, but that is just what people do. We crucified him, after all, without knowing who he really was and why he was here.
Maybe the big challenge of faith, anyone’s faith, is not the concrete parts of the story about Jesus, as spare and flawed as they are, but the part where you just believe.