That Cross

That cross. It never was something I could turn away from. Those two wooden beams and the man up on it. That is terrifying to a child. What they could do to a man, and that man among them all. Who they said he was. I didn’t know at the time what was true. But the wounds. The nails. The lolling head, and that gash below the ribs. Those ribs. His ribcage. What a word that is. How could they do a man that way? I didn’t know what he was back then when I was small but I knew that it was wrong. The whole thing. The idea of one person killing another and the image of that man in his agony on that cross. Of course I grew up in a time of seven channels and a phone connected to a wall by a wire. It was not easy for a boy to stumble upon a visage of horror. But stumble I did. I found a book of Holocaust photos hidden in a room I was forbidden to enter. I discovered Matthew Brady’s Civil War. And then there was Vietnam. It came in through the pipes, through the heating ducts. It seeped and curled low to the ground like Mustard gas. You think I can’t still hear the chopper blades? You think I was too young to recognize what was inside the body bags? It didn’t matter because it was too late. I already left the garden. The first thing I ever saw to clue me into to the kind of place this could be was that cross. Those feet. Those hands. A crown of thorns.

You know how when you’re listening the world does speak. You start hearing things, seeing things, from all kinds of sources. When you finally wake up and start paying attention it’s like some sort of conspiracy of wisdom reveals itself, this broad spectrum of stories that feed into your own. You realize you’re like some kind of switchyard, with trains coming and going all the time. Tracks running right through you, with freight trains arriving all hours of the night from who-knows-where and heading off to destinations equally mysterious. Music and words scrawled on walls. Birds come down and light upon a certain rock where below you find a hollow bone. You start bumping into people, whose own stories seem written on your letterhead. Stories, true stories, are threads that find the fabric where they belong; and I am woven. Into the fabric of you and you.

That cross carries its own stories. Two thousand years of dead weight and the crazy half of the world’s greatest book. You believe what you want to believe. This is no sermon, and no man can convert another to that which he himself is not equipped to understand. There is suffering and death and unspeakable horror here, and there is life miraculous and love that will heal.  I carried the former version for a long, long time before I came to understand. That cross is no a destination, it’s an embarkation point. No end, but a beginning. I am the resurrection and the life. It is here we make our stand. When I look at that cross and see there a dead man, a body, a mutilation, I am choosing to see that world, a world resolved to doom.

*

There’s this new HBO series, True Detective. The best writing since Deadwood. The best acting since The Wire. It is a dark and tragic portrayal of man as a species of life and offers up a bleak world view.  And it sees that cross as proof that we are not loving creatures by nature. It portrays mankind as doomed. Matthew McConaughey is brilliant as a homicide detective on the trail of something far greater than a serial killer with a fetish for pagan symbols and an obscure collection of 19th century short stories. He is searching for a reason to go on living himself, in a world he sees as poisoned and utterly corrupted by the visceral crucifixion. In the first episode, in the scene that hooked me, Woody Harrelson, who plays his partner, asks him if he’s a Christian and McConaughey answers flatly, no. Then why the cross on your wall? Harrelson asks.

“Its a form of meditation.” McConaughey says. “I contemplate the moment in the garden. The idea of allowing your own crucifixion.”

Now this is a point of view. I wonder if he read his bible. He must have. But what the world did to him, what he perceived the world having done to him, and thus God having done to him, rendered him incapable of seeing beyond the trees. Blinded by violence and death, violence and death, the loss of his infant daughter, the distance that alcohol and drugs placed between himself and even the notion of a loving God, deadened his soul and blackened his heart.

Father, take this cup from me. Nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.

McConaughey, in this role, sees the cross as a mechanism of death, not a portal of resurrection. But even if you’re not Christian, even if you don’t believe in God, even if you’ve come to despise the church and organized religion, hear this, see this, know this – one must die to be reborn.

*

That cross. It no longer terrifies this child. I see it as a promise. But could I maintain the promise of a promise if I, too, was subjected to what a homicide detective sees over the course of his career? Or a soldier sees in hers? Or a nurse in an inner city emergency room? The truth is that I don’t suffer, and I don’t bear witness to true suffering. I have not sustained the tragic loss of life that others have. You could say that it’s easy to sit here and believe in God, believe in Jesus, when your legs still work, when you’ve not been gang raped or tortured. Maybe. But those are acts of men, not God, and when my faith falters, when the black fingernails of doubt begin to scratch, it’s man I question. And I ask myself, do I believe in him?

I do. I’ve got Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and Mother Theresa and Malala Yousafzai as proof that we can and do rise above our lower nature. We were given the gift of freedom. All those horrors we can cite now by rote? Those were choices made by men. And that cross, that is a chance, that is a turning point, that is an opportunity to exercise a shift in perspective. I choose not to celebrate the image of a ruined and broken man dying at the hands of cruel animals. I look now at that symbol and remember that there is no death there on those crossbeams, there is life eternal, through forgiveness and love.

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