When You’re Hanging on a Cross
Good Friday meditation
I read an anecdote some years ago which initially bothered me, but which has also lingered in my memory for its striking analogy. The story was of the Dalai Lama, a tireless advocate for justice, who had just finished giving a speech at a major university. Afterwards, two student attendees were overheard talking in the lobby. The first commented, “He really didn’t say much, did he?” The other replied, “When you’re ‘hanging on a cross’ you don’t have to say anything.” Once past the theological questions, I recognized this poignant nod to the power of personal sacrifice.
That phrase came rushing back into my mind during a Lenten walk last year through the Stations of the Cross with a couple of buddies. We were gazing at Station XI, where Jesus’ body, his fleshy, contoured, sinewed humanness, is being fastened onto the stiff, hard cross-beams of unforgiving wood.
Jesus didn’t have to say anything (though mercifully he did). The act itself said it all. That’s why the crucifix, discomfiting and vile, is such a powerful and enduring symbol.
Janet and I walked the stations again later that week, on Good Friday, this time at an abbey near our home. From its hilltop perch, a gorgeous pastoral vista fought for my attention, a peaceful springtime backdrop to the violent and cruel scenes of the crucifixion story.
Up ahead was Station XII… Christ on the cross. A young woman knelt there, head down, on the hilltop grass. She wore a bright red shawl and bright red lipstick. The sun glinted off her deep-auburn hair.
Here it seemed was Mary Magdalene in the flesh. I nearly expected to see a costly bottle of perfume next to her.
I’d seen her there earlier, and then she’d finished the stations and left… only to come back a few minutes later. This time she lingered, sometimes touching and nearly hugging the foot of the cross, always upon her knees on the balding hilltop.
We gave her a wide berth to do whatever business with God she needed to do, but eventually some sincere yet energetic young men came close, and she quickly got up and moved away to leave for good.
She walked past us now, but I just couldn’t let the opportunity pass to at least give her a chance to connect with someone in the flesh if she so wished. I called to her and told her how blessed I’d been in seeing her devotion at the foot of the cross, and she accepted a lingering hug. She was quiet a moment, then said “I really wanted to gain strength from the cross today; three days ago I tried to commit suicide. Coming here really helped.”
We introduced ourselves and talked for another minute, and she explained her situation a bit. Before we parted, Janet asked if we could pray for her, which was a privilege. Janet later exchanged phone numbers with her and offered to stay in touch, and by the end of the day they’d already traded text messages on some favorite verses Janet sent.
Rachel in red. I’m glad we spoke with her, yet it was her silence that spoke most to me. There she’d knelt, alone, below a simple wooden cross. All was silent but for the breeze and the swallows flitting to and fro, high above. But… she didn’t have to say anything.
Let’s face it: It’s our actions—not our words—which truly “speak” anything. Our actions tell everything about who we believe and what we put our faith in.
I heard it again during a chapel message last month in El Salvador, that “World Vision presents the gospel with a body.” Another of our spiritual leaders etched a phrase in my mind a decade ago which I’ve never forgotten: “World Vision will preach no disembodied words.”
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us powerfully, “When Jesus bids a man, he bids him come and die.” So, may something of us die on that cross this Good Friday. May we die to any notion that cheap words, not costly deeds, profess our faith and show what we stand for. Christ hung on a cross to dispel that myth.
When we’re hanging on a cross, we don’t have to say anything. And when we’re not, our words really don’t mean a thing. I think that’s part of why Good Friday is probably the most meaningful holy day of the year for me.
May Good Friday “speak” volumes to you this year.