Last night the children and I attended one of the many Orthodox Holy Week services: The Twelve Passion Gospels. During the service, twelve different sections of the gospels are read, mostly about the last few hours of Jesus’ life. And Jesus gets nailed to the cross. (Yep – just keep reading.)
This year the verse that stood out to me was: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (from somewhere in the book of John.) I wonder what words Christ would have for me? What message would I be unable to bear? A judgment of my sins? Something about my future? A command to do something I don’t want to do? Or the piercing pure love that He has for me (like C.S. Lewis’ spirits walking on grass as hard as diamonds)?
After the fifth gospel, the priest carried the cross on his shoulders around the church, just as Christ did. Let me say this is not an Easter pageant. It’s not a show. It’s not theatrical. It’s a visual reminder of Christ’s suffering, magnified by the fact that it is the priest, of all people, who labors under the cross.
My son watched our priest heave the cross onto its pedestal, then retrieve a large icon of Christ from behind the iconostasis. As the deacons held the icon, Fr. Stephen hit the hammer three times: once for each of Jesus’ hands and once for his feet. The piercing sound shattered the air. My son quickly fell into my lap, shielding himself from the awful sight.
I whispered, “What are you thinking?” He mumbled, seemed too shocked for words. “You don’t like that, do you?” I said. He shook his head and his mouth turned down a little like he might cry. I was torn between wanting to comfort my son and wanting him to experience the raw truth of Jesus’ death. I said, “That is not a real person; it’s an icon. But Jesus really did get nailed to the cross. And it makes me sad to see that, too. But since He’s God and He’s powerful, he rose from the dead and was alive again. And now we get to live in heaven with Jesus forever.”
He stood up again to get another look. My almost-four-year-old was in the midst of a spiritual crisis. In his own way, he reflected on the sacrifice Christ made for us. His little heart was almost breaking with confusion and pain. Yes, it was more than he could bear, more than a mother could bear, more than the disciples could bear.
This morning we returned to church for the Royal Hours service and sat on the front row, literally four feet from Jesus on the cross. This is an icon of Him in the crucified state: arms outstretched, legs together, naked except for a loincloth, face burdened with sorrow. There are real nails holding Him to the cross, and the iconographer has painted small patches of red where each nail is.
As I looked at Jesus, I thought: I am Mary Magdalene weeping at His feet. I am His Mother, in agony at the sight of her son. I am Peter, proud enough to say I’m faithful, but so often betraying Him. I am John, wishing He would jump off of that cross.
This year my children didn’t want to kiss the feet of the icon. In past years, they have, but they are more disturbed by the crucified Christ now. But I quietly moved close to the icon, kissing the feet of He who bore all that I cannot.