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The sky was overcast, steel-gray clouds admitting only a few rays of light as I ascended the hill. It looked like rain, but none had yet broken loose. I walked slowly, uncertain of my destination, but somehow compelled to move forward.
It was then that I saw them: three crosses, aligned in silhouette at the crest of my path. As I approached, my focus narrowed to the center of the spectacle, the crucifix of Christ. His sacred body hung there, limp, apparently already dead. There was nobody else in sight. There wasn’t a breeze or the sound of a bird. Total stillness. Death hung heavy on that place.
As I drew close to the foot of the cross, looking up at my Lord, He pitched forward somehow, coming loose from the nails that bound Him there. As He fell, I rushed to catch Him, thinking only of preserving His precious body from touching the ground. I made it in time, and as I held Him cradled in my arms, He awoke, looking up into my eyes.
“You have to put me back.” He said.
And then I woke up.
I had this dream twenty-one years ago. I was just a teenager then, but I still remember it in fairly vivid detail, and even now while committing it to writing, I find that my eyes have filled with tears. It was a profound and moving experience. And it was the only dream I’ve ever had of its kind. I’ve always suspected that it was more than just a normal dream. That it was a prompting. I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to understand what it means, and the only thing I can tell you for certain is this:
Christ without the cross is meaningless. So is the cross without Christ. Only together do they signify the true meaning — and cost — of our salvation.
As we processed around the parish yesterday, palms in hand, I realized I should make an explanation to my eight-year-old son why we have Palm Sunday. I whispered to him about Christ entering Jerusalem while the people threw down palms like a red carpet, welcoming Him to the city as a king. And how, less than a week later, they all called for Him to be crucified.
“But why?” He asked, a look of puzzlement on his face.
“I don’t know. Why do we commit the same sins right after we leave confession?” I asked him. People are sinful. Fickle. Ungrateful. Undeserving. All of us are Palm Sunday Catholics. We praise and welcome our Divine King. We celebrate Him and tell others of His glory.
And then we betray Him. Again. And again. And again.
We like being Palm Sunday Catholics. We like being Easter Catholics. We have, in many of our churches, replaced Christ on the cross with something strange and unnerving: the “resurrectifix” – an idol — for it is a graven image of something other than the true God — of a risen Christ coming forth from the wood of the cross as though we can skip through His Passion and Death on Good Friday and fast forward to Easter Sunday.
But Easter without Good Friday is a non sequitur. A God who did not suffer torments and endure a cruel execution has not conquered sin and death and has no reason to emerge, victorious, from the tomb. So we, too, cannot expect the glorious resurrection of our own bodies and our entry into eternal beatitude if we do not first embrace the painful wood of the cross. To conquer death, we must first endure it. First, death to self and to sin. Then, death to the world and even many of its legitimate pleasures. Finally, physical death, with all of its pains, temptations, and griefs. This tri-fold immersion in death is easy to write about, but far more difficult to bear. For those who take on suffering willingly, however, there is available a consolation – a deep and profound joy.
I enter Holy Week looking back on my Lent with shame. I have failed to keep my commitments. I have failed to accomplish the spiritual growth I set out to achieve. I had grand ideas of what I would do and how it would benefit me and please God, and instead I have nothing to offer Him but a handful of broken promises, like so much ash slipping through my fingers. The stresses and difficulties of every day life broke me down. The ideals of virtue and fasting and spiritual reading and prayer gave way instead to vices and hunger and distraction and acedia. Even in the disciplines of Lent, I have failed my Lord. In the preparation of His resurrection, I have balked at the carrying of my cross. It was too hard. I had other things to do. Life was difficult enough – why should I have to take on more?
In my excuses and failings, I have demonstrated an even greater need for His death and resurrection. In my aborted attempts to be a good Christian, I have demonstrated my need for the true goodness of Christ. In my exercise of Palm Sunday Catholicism, I have displayed my need to be a Good Friday Catholic.
I believe that the dream I had when I was sixteen was a divine imperative of some kind. I’ve long believed that it was a calling, a mission, to help the world remember that Christ without the cross is meaningless. But it’s possible, I must now concede, that it was meant mostly for me. It’s conceivable that it wasn’t a command to go out and teach others to remember the crucified Christ.
Maybe it was something else. Maybe it was a warning for the sake of my own salvation: “You – YOU! – have to put me back. In your own heart. In your own life. In your own difficulties. Do not run from the cross.”
Christ knew what He had to do to fulfill His mission and accomplish our salvation. Do we? Do we believe in Good Friday Catholicism?
If Christ without the cross is meaningless, we have no choice but to say the same about a crossless Christianity.
Originally published on March 30, 2015.