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Rocky Figueroa was the coolest guy in my junior high. He had long, shiny black hair. His body was developed and muscular when most of us were still very geeky. He was suave and confident.
But his secret weapon was there between the shimmering polyester of his disco shirt unbuttoned to his sternum: about four or five curly chest hairs (back when chest hair was considered desirable and the rest of us had none) and an ornate crucifix that hung right in that sweet spot.
I really don’t know if Rocky was “religious”—whatever that meant in seventh grade. He didn’t feel religious.
Then one day in the boys’ locker room I had my eureka moment. There on floor was an ornate gold and silver crucifix. It had to be Rocky’s. I would deliver it to him and momentarily mingle with the upper social strata of junior high.
But lo and behold, the crucifix was not Rocky’s. His, in all its glory, still adorned his chest. This one could be mine. My life was getting better by the second.
I brought my crucifix home and began strategizing. No doubt it would do for me what Rocky’s did for him. I went to the local discount store to buy a cheap chain. I came out for breakfast the next morning proudly wearing my crucifix.
I could immediately sense my parents’ consternation.
“Where did you get it?
They tried to ask open-ended, non-anxious questions. But soon I was receiving a theology lesson that most of you have also heard. We as Protestants focus on Jesus’s resurrection and so the cross is empty. The crucifix is a Roman Catholic thing. I suppose I had some awareness of this as a 13 year old, but it had never been fully articulated to me before.
I remember my father, trying to be understanding and supportive, suggesting that perhaps I could appropriately wear my crucifix during Lent. “Lent-schment! Screw Lent!” I didn’t want to wait for some odd religious season to become irresistible to girls. I wanted my chick-magnet now.
At my parents-in-law’s home stood a wonderful grandfather clock. I stared at the clock for many hours over many years. It had an unusual feature, unusual to me, at least. Perhaps it is more typically French or European? I don’t know.
I’m familiar with grandfather clocks where the tall portion (where the pendulum and weights are) is glass—the better to see the swinging pendulum. On this clock, however, that portion was wood—beautifully grained—except for a small, oval, “porthole.” Through that porthole, the moving pendulum was always visible, but most of the time, only partially. When, however, it was at exact bottom-dead-center, the shiny disc on the end of the pendulum lined up perfectly with the porthole and was fully visible.
I must have looked at that clock too long. It began to take on theological meaning for me. The shiny disc on the end of the pendulum was “God” and the porthole was “revelation” or perhaps our encounter with the divine. Most of the time, the pendulum is partially obscured. But at bottom-dead-center, we catch our fullest, clearest, momentary glimpse.
That moment, bottom-dead-center, is the crucifixion. On the cross, we see and understand God most clearly.
I often hear people saying that they see God in the sunset, ocean breakers, a newborn, a wonderful family reunion, a sumptuous meal, even oppossums. That’s all good and wonderful.
But what if a Galilean prophet being executed, about 2,000 years ago, is our most complete and clear view of God? This is ugly, awesome, and I think, true.
What sort of God do we meet, if indeed the cross is the best view, the clearest revelation of God? What does it tell us about this God if the crucifixion is the moment when that bright, brassy pendulum is most visible?
I wore my ornate crucifix for one entire breakfast. I wish I could remember whatever happened to it.
Several years ago, however, I bought a crucifix from a street vendor in Haiti. It now hangs on my study wall. I like that it reminds me of Haiti. I like that it is crudely made from a piece of scrap wood by someone more amateur than artist.
But what I like most of all is that there is a corpus on the cross. It reminds me of who God is, and that moment when we receive our clearest glimpse of that God. I like that the body is stylized rather than detailed. The body is there but not macabre.
I mostly have empty “Protestant” crosses, although I have a couple other crucifixes. My parents’ theology lesson over breakfast to a seventh grader still holds—more or less. Yes, Christ is risen. Yes, the cross is empty. But when I want to know what sort of God loves me, I look at a crucifix.