Excuse Me? How Do I Know You?

About the photo: Crucifix in San Damiano Church, courtesy of Dan Frachey.

Have you ever been embarrassed by needing to ask this question? Yeah, me too. That's the phrase that tumbled through my head recently as I looked up from contemplation and saw the crucifix on my wall.

Excuse me? How do I know you? My question to Jesus, not his to me.

I'd just read a portion of scripture given for that day from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians: "I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."

Well, how do I know Christ Jesus? I asked, more or less rhetorically. Then I looked up. There in front of me was the crucifix, a facsimile of one in the Umbrian church of San Damiano where young Giovanni Bernardone—aka Saint Francis—heard Jesus' mandate "rebuild my church."

Great. The rich kid from Assisi hears God’s call to rebuild his church. I get "Excuse me? How do I know you?" Not a question to be rushed away from.

It is so much easier to think of the triumph to come than let ourselves sit with the vulnerability of our God.

The crucifix provided a key to my reflection that morning. Beneath Jesus' outstretched arms are five figures. Jesus' mother Mary and John the Evangelist on one side, and on the other Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Clopas, and the centurion—a Roman soldier who befriended the Jewish people. These were they—scripture tells us—who stood by Jesus at the moment of his execution. These were they who risked their lives standing beside a criminal.

But something turned inside out as I saw them that morning. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling!"

Instead of perceiving these five courageous people as those who offered comfort to Jesus in his darkest moment, they appeared as those who allowed the vulnerable Christ Jesus to shelter them like a mother hen her chicks. It took my breath away. What possible protection is the shelter of a vilified, crucified subject of the Roman empire? Not much at all, it turns out. Those who associate with such a one are subject to the same vulnerability as he—a truth that is too conveniently missed.

In his letter to the Christian community at Ephesus St. Paul urged them to "Put on the armor of God." That sounds great, until we discover this "armor" provides precious little physical protection. This is the armor, Paul says: Truth. Justice. Peace. Faith. Salvation. See the battering this armor has taken in our nation and world, of late? See how this armor protected Jesus, the Son of God?

Yes. There is the resurrection to come. But sometimes we try to move too quickly into that space. It is so much easier to think of the triumph to come than let ourselves sit with the vulnerability of our God.

Next Sunday is the Feast of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to remind rising totalitarian leaders of Europe of the true source of authority. In my experience, the feast too often lends itself to preaching that verges on a kind of ecclesial authoritarianism, though. There is no call for that, when we remember our God hangs between heaven and earth, shielding us not with a sword, but with his very self.

So, when the feast comes next Sunday, I want to be attentive to the question that arose in my prayer several weeks ago: Excuse me. How do I know you? Everything we know about our donkey-riding monarch impacts how we relate to one another and to the structures of power that govern our world. I want to know Christ Jesus as the most vulnerable King in the Universe. The one who shelters us with his body, and with his blood.

Sister Beth Murphy, OP, is the communication director for the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois.

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