by Abbot Joseph
[You can read this at Word Incarnate here or continue below.]
You might wish to question why I’m writing about the old rugged Cross just before Christmas. I might wish to question it myself. But something struck me (don’t worry, I’m OK) during my Advent retreat while I was walking up the mountain and praying.
Here and there we have little wayside shrines on the path up the mountain, some of which give new meaning to the term “rustic” (like the one pictured here). It’s about as poor an excuse for a “shrine” that you could find anywhere—just a couple pieces of battered and weathered wood nailed into a tree. But as I walked by I just had to stop and reflect on that for a moment.
We’re often confronted with the inescapable fact that Christianity is a religion that embraces sacrifice and suffering, poverty, chastity, and obedience, and that calls us to take up our old rugged crosses and follow Jesus. As I looked at that battered cross in the shrine, what little paint it had on it now peeling and nearly weathered away, in its stark austerity and poverty, I couldn’t help but think: “That is so Him!” St Paul says that Christ chooses the foolish, the weak, the low and despised, so that He alone can be shown to be our righteousness and our redemption. It’s just like Jesus to prefer a beat-up old wooden cross to a gold and jewel-encrusted one.
Some of us might find that maddening, since all the universe is at his disposal, and why shouldn’t we bring the richness of it to his service? Well, we can, and He will accept it, for He is worthy of the best we have to offer. But when given his choice, He chose poverty. But it’s not cheap quality in material things that attracts Him. It is people: people who are so poor that they seem to have nothing to offer to Him, who have only their hearts, their love, and perhaps only their helpless need. The poor cannot rely on wealth for security or happiness, for they have no wealth. Their treasure is in Heaven, their security is in their Savior alone. And Christ, who is love, is drawn to that emptiness which only He can fill.
There’s something else about that old rugged cross that is paradoxical. There’s something that Jesus likes to do with old rugged crosses: He likes to make his breathtaking glory shine through them. As I stood before that cross, somehow unable to look away, considering what a poor piece of junk it was, I was at the same time almost afraid that any moment a blinding light would burst forth from it. Because that’s the way He is. He delights in exalting the humble, raising up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.
So what does this have to do with Christmas? Quite a bit, actually. As the Lord of the universe, all options were open to the Son of God as to how He could make his entrance into the world. He chose poverty. He chose an old wooden manger that probably had the paint peeling off it (if there ever was paint on it in the first place). He chose the poorest of conditions, lacking all comfort and material security. But, darn it all, his glory shone through it as if the heavens had just ripped open and a multitude of shimmering angels poured through, singing. How does He do that?
This is the divine design. This is how Love manifests. He wants everyone to know that no one is a priori excluded from his Kingdom, from his favor. Therefore He restrains the blazing brilliance of his Divine Brightness so as not to intimidate the timid. He goes as low as the lowest, so no one will shrink from Him in shame. And He eventually took up that old rugged Cross to make a blood-pact with us, so we will know that He keeps his promises. He wouldn’t have it any other way, for love cannot stop giving until it has given all.
Jesus is with every poor and distressed soul who, in the utter anguish of life’s crushing burdens, takes two little sticks and nails them crosswise upon the wall, and calls upon his name in faith. In this cross He sees his own. And He will deliver them, for they put their trust in Him, in Him alone. A light will descend into their hearts, bringing tidings of joy, for their Savior is near.
That poor little shrine with the old, battered, rustic, rugged cross. How it shines!