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Those words, lovingly penned by Clare Booth Luce in her description of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, packed a quite a wallop, as did pretty much anything she ever said or wrote. I recalled Ms. Luce’s metaphorical description of St. Thérèse in the aftermath of the fire which consumed a significant portion of Notre Dame Cathedral:
Stooping a dozen times a day quietly, she picked up and carried the splinters of the Cross that strewed her path as they strew ours. And when she had gathered them all up, she had the material of a cross of no inconsiderable weight.
And what of that Cross? Writing in the Spectator, Tom Holland points out that:
Crucifixion, in the opinion of Roman intellectuals, was not a punishment just like any other. It was one peculiarly suited to slaves. To be hung naked, helpless to beat away the clamorous birds, ‘long in agony’, as the philosopher Seneca put it, ‘swelling with ugly weals on shoulder and chest’, was the very worst of fates. Yet in the exposure of the crucified to the public gaze there lurked a paradox. So foul was the carrion-reek of their disgrace that many felt tainted even by viewing a crucifixion. Certainly, few cared to think about it in any detail. Order, the order loved by the gods and upheld by magistrates vested with the full authority of the greatest power on earth, was what counted — not the elimination of such vermin as presumed to challenge it. Some deaths were so vile, so squalid, that it was best to draw a veil across them entirely.
A further paradox of the life of Christ lay in the juxtaposition of one who claimed his own divinity, yet uttered nary a word in His own defense when arrested and tried by the authorities, essentially acquiescing to an execution suitable for societal vermin. Here, after all, was a man who claimed to be the Messiah and the Son of God, yet who came neither as a conqueror nor a warrior, but rather to heal, to serve, and to save. Nevertheless, had the story of Jesus ended with his grisly death, he would register as little more than a minor footnote in history.
Then came the empty tomb, followed by stories of the resurrected Christ appearing in divine form to his followers over the course of 40 days before ascending into heaven. The idea of mortals attaining divinity was not an especially strange one during the time of Christ’s life. Such a breach, however, was thought to be the province of royalty, or of conquerors and heroes. “It’s measure,” continues Holland, “was the power to torture one’s enemies, not to suffer it oneself.” No, the idea of the resurrection and divinity of a common agitator who had suffered the most shameful of executions was difficult enough to take. That this agitator, Jesus of Nazareth, had reportedly done this not to defeat his murderers, but rather to save their mortal souls was positively breathtaking.
Bishop Robert Barron has written and spoken persuasively on the frame of mind of the early Christians’ use of the cross as a symbol. It was not, he notes, just a symbol of reverence and devotion to Christ. It was an act of defiance. By holding aloft that ghastly specter of torture and death, that Cross, against those who had used it to intimidate and silence them, they declared victory over death itself and said, “We are not afraid of you.” That, my friend, is revolutionary.
Similarly, the very image of the crucified Christ began to change over time. Earlier representations might show a Christ every bit as muscled and strong as almost any other of the ancient gods. “We are heirs,” writes Tom Holland, “to a later, much more unsettling way of portraying Christ’s crucifixion. The Jesus painted or sculpted by medieval artists, twisted, bloody, dying, was a victim of torture such as his original executioners would have recognized.” Holland continues:
Christians in the Middle Ages, when they looked upon an image of their Lord upon the cross, upon the nails smashed through the tendons and bone of his feet, upon the arms stretched so tightly as to appear torn from their sockets, upon the slump of his thorn-crowned head on to his chest, did not feel contempt, but rather compassion, and pity, and fear. That the Son of God, born of a woman, and sentenced to the death of a slave, had perished unrecognized by his judges, was a reflection fit to give pause to even the haughtiest monarch. This awareness could not help but lodge in the consciousness of medieval Christians a visceral and momentous suspicion: that God was closer to the weak than to the mighty, to the poor than to the rich. Any beggar, any criminal, might be Christ. ‘So the last will be first, and the first last.’
Among the accomplishments of Christianity, one could include the observation from one of its more renowned critics, atheist and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, that Christianity revealed, “the measure of a man’s compassion for the lowly and suffering comes to be the measure of the loftiness of his soul.” Those who deride the ostensible repressive or patriarchal nature of Western civilization generally and Christianity specifically, are themselves (perhaps unknowingly) arguing from a decidedly Christian perspective — the idea that the downtrodden, the poor, or the weak are owed compassion by the strong being something less than a self-evident truth in many quarters outside of Western civilization.
In his essay “What’s So Great About Western Civilization?” Jonah Goldberg highlights some of its accomplishments, which include: support for human rights, belief in the rule of law, dedication to democracy, free speech, property rights, and freedom of conscience, among many others. He then goes on to stipulate that the vast majority of the people who are troubled by expressions of pride in Western civilization probably believe in most of the items on the above list. Then he asks:
Where do they think most of these ideas come from? Where were they most successfully put into action? What civilization today or in some bygone era manifests these values more? Chinese civilization? Islamic civilization? Aztec? African? Indian? Persian? Turkish?
Indeed. I confess that I prefer the prayers and the sounds of Ave Maria being sung by the faithful as they watched Notre Dame burn over against the yells of Allahu Akbar as those aircraft were flown into the Twin Towers in order to slaughter the innocent.
Former Publisher at National Review, Jack Fowler, reminded Catholics that the Stations of the Cross reflect that Jesus fell three times while carrying the Cross and that each time he rose. So too must we. So too will His church. Indeed, moved by the redemptive value of Jesus’ suffering, Saint Thérèse wrote:
Living on Love is not setting up one’s tent
At the top of Tabor.
It’s climbing Calvary with Jesus,
It’s looking at the Cross as a treasure!
That Cross — the eternal reminder that, “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong,” is the place where we find, in the gnarled and broken body of the condemned, God himself, the creator of the universe, whose eternal and infinite love we need, and against which the gates of hell will not prevail. Happy Easter.