Stan Mooneyham, former leader of World Vision International, tells a story* of Toyohiko Kagawa, a Japanese Christian who had spent his life working with and for the poor. He “was speaking at Princeton. When he finished his talk, one student said to another, ‘He didn’t say much, did he?’ A woman sitting nearby leaned over and murmured, ‘When you’re hanging on a cross, you don’t have to say anything.’” I appreciated this poignant reminder of the powerful statement we make by our actions, trumping a truckload of words.
That anecdote came rushing back into my mind during a Lenten walk last year through the Stations of the Cross with a couple of friends. 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. It was quite an apparition. Here it almost seemed was Mary Magdalene in the flesh. I nearly expected to see a costly bottle of perfume next to her.
She lingered there, sometimes touching – practically embracing – the foot of the cross, steadfastly on her knees atop the balding hillock. We gave her a wide berth to do whatever business with God she needed to do. Eventually some sincere curious young men came close, and she quickly got up and moved away to leave for good.
She walked past us then, but I 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… the image of her kneeling, alone, below a simple wooden cross. All was silent but for the breeze and the swallows flitting to and fro, high above. She didn’t have to say a thing.
Let’s face it: It’s our actions—not our words—which truly “speak” anything. Our actions tell everything about who we believe, our priorities, and what we put our faith in.
One of our spiritual leaders etched a phrase in my mind a decade ago which I’ve never forgotten: “World Vision will preach no dis-embodied words.” While in Latin America last month, I heard this same truth in different words during a staff chapel, that “World Vision presents the gospel with a body.”
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship reminds us powerfully, “When Jesus calls 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 the most meaningful holy day of the year for me.
May the silent symbols of Good Friday speak volumes to you this year.
*Traveling Hopefully – Reflections for Pilgrims in the Fast Lane