Turning and turning
Isaiah 65:17-25 & Canticle 9
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
At the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton lived and worked for 27 years, in the gorgeous, undulating hills of western Kentucky, there is a small sculpture of three crosses.
It is one of the most arresting images of this story of the crucifixion that I have ever seen.1
The crosses contain no figures…no human form is gruesomely attached to any of them. Instead the crosses themselves have been given subtle human attributes, so that looking at it one way, you might simply see three stylized, silhouetted human figures in different postures.
Looking at it another way, you might see three crosses…but not static, immobile instruments of torture, but lithe and graceful, curved and twisted icons of both the internal and the external attitudes of each player in this holy drama.
The central cross stands with its arms outstretched, head held high, as if willing itself toward God. It is the gesture of a beloved child seeking the comfort of a strong and loving parent. A gesture of request…maybe even a plea…but also a gesture of embrace…of courageous acceptance… It is the gesture and the posture you see Anoma and I use whenever we pray on your behalf the prayer that asks God to consecrate us and our gifts of bread and wine…making them for us—and making us for the world—the body and blood of Christ. It is a gesture of profound openness and vulnerability. Open and vulnerable to God’s love and judgement, and open and vulnerable to the gifts and terrors of the world.
The one on the left stands with its arms down, curved in on itself, turned away from the central cross…away from Christ. It is a gesture of shame. A gesture of rejection…a gesture of isolation…of hopelessness…
It is the position one has to be in to mock Christ… echoing the taunts of the soldiers—”Save yourself”…as if such a thing were possible. There is no salvation in any real or meaningful sense that does not include everyone…that does not include the whole of creation. “Save yourself” is a theological impossibility—but the mocking is not only simply impossible “Save yourself…it is also demonic, “save yourself AND US.” Never mind about anyone else, just save us…which is really “just save me.” And that’s why it’s unholy, it’s the cry of sin….the cry of broken and breaking relationships…It is the voice that denies our common humanity…and mocks everything. The individual in this position—despairing of the possibility of human contact—turns away from and rejects that very thing that can save it. Choosing instead to loudly lash out at everything around it; turning on others, and turning ever inward spiraling into an ever more constricted, shadowed existence.
The one on the right is the opposite. It stands bent slightly, but more upright. Its arms open and outstretched. It is turned as well, but toward the central figure. It is turned toward Christ. Toward that which really does have ultimate authority, and ultimate power, but which looks to all the world like just another broken, criminal on a cross…deserving of the justice meted out to it. The one on the right gestures in a appeal, not, “save me,” but “remember me.” I’m willing to walk your path, to give up my self to your service, but be with me, remember me.
It was years ago that I spent a week in silent retreat at Gethsemani, but this image of those three crosses continues to haunt me. It reappeared this week as I was doing a lot of listening…to people from all sides of the political spectrum…people in this community and from other communities in my life…listening to their hurts, listening to their resilience. And as I was praying one morning, and holding this image and their words in my mind, another startling revelation about it rushed in at me.
The figure on the right…the one turned toward the central Christ figure…the one making a conciliatory gesture…the one leaning in…the one turning toward instead of turning away…was not just turning toward Christ. It was also turning toward the other. The one on the left. While the one on the left, turned away from both.
Think about that for just a moment. The figure on the right is reaching out to Christ, yes…but also reaching out to the figure on the left through Christ.
We all know the phrase…whenever two or three are gathered together, Christ will be in the midst of them. Here it is cast in a way that reilluminated this whole passage for me. Whenever two or three are gathered, Christ is in the midst and it doesn’t matter whether in that gathering Christ is mocked or embraced…Christ is there, really and fully present. What matters is how we respond to that reality, and how we respond to one another.
With the image of these three crosses in my mind, it’s clear to me that the only way we can truly reach out to others is through Christ. We can only truly see others through Christ…through the image of God that is their truest self, no matter how our sinful, broken world has distorted it. When we fail to see through Christ, what we see in others is simply the twisted contorted image of our own isolation…our own shadow. This is what we mean when we make those sacred vows at baptism to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” It means that Christ crucified and risen is the lens through which we see everyone and everything else…Christ in them, and Christ through them.
When we fail at this…and we fail a lot…we become the figure on the left. The shadow side of the one on the right. Sometimes we’re the ones reaching out through Christ. And sometimes we’re the ones lashing out with our backs to Christ. And sometimes it’s hard for us to tell the difference.
Our woundedness means that can’t truly see what we are like…we can’t always tell when we’re shadow and when we’re light. Because we cannot know ourselves by ourselves. We need others to see us through Christ as well. We need others to point out our weaknesses, our defects, our shadows. This is what the one on the right does for the one on the left. “What are you talking about? We have been justly condemned.” We all need this. We need others to show us where we are in error. To reveal when we have hurt them so that we can change, make amends, and recommit standing alongside of them a little less broken and a little more whole.
Thomas Merton, writing from Gethsemani over fifty years ago, said, “If we really sought truth we would begin slowly and laboriously to divest ourselves one by one of all our coverings of fiction and delusion,” and he points out, “the one who can best point out our error, and help us to see it, is [our] adversary.”
However, we first have to see our adversary through Christ. “In the long run,” he says, “no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right. And we can never accept his judgment on our errors until he gives evidence that he really appreciates our own peculiar truth.”
What we have been seeing at loose in the world, what for years has continued to be emboldened in the world, are the painful, cumulative effects of this. The barely restrained lashing out of our shadow side. And the path to taming it, to resisting it, is a to turn toward Christ…and turn toward each other…the alternative is to continue to turn on each other.
We need to continue reaching out through Christ to any who are hurting, to any who are frightened, to any who are reluctant to speak for fear of backlash and repercussions. We need to listen to their fears, listen to their hopes, listen to their lives through Christ. We need others who will listen to our fears, our hopes, our lives. We all need to speak and hear the truth in love. Because we will either turn toward each other, or we turn on each other.
“Love,” says Merton, “love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth. As long as we do not have this love, as long as this love is not active and effective in our lives (for words and good wishes will never suffice) we have no real access to the truth.” [Merton, Thomas (2009-11-04). Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Image Classics) (p. 63). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]
In a “post-truth” world, it seems to me, that this is our deep spiritual work in this moment. Turning toward Christ and toward each other and seeking, with humility, honesty, courage, and love, the truth of our communities, the truth of our families, the truth of our selves, the truth of Christ in each and all.
- I remember seeing it when I was there in 2010. I also remember thinking I should take a picture of it, but not being able to take one that did it justice. I have since scoured the internet for a photo of it, but have never found one. It is possible that the piece has taken on new and different dimensions in my memory that it actually contained. But that is often how both God and art works on us. If anyone else has seen it, or can find a photo of it, let me know.