Original Franciscan "Third Order" -- Confraternity of Penitents
Make Every Day a Path to Holiness
Symbolism of the San Damiano Crucifix
Background of the Painting
The painting by Giotto, in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, shows the young, flamboyant merchant who will become Saint Francis of Assisi, in the process of his conversion, praying before the Crucifix in the little, dilapidated church of San Damiano in Assisi. Francis was seeking to know God's Will, when the image of the Crucified Christ spoke to him, "Francis, go and repair My House, which, as you can see, is falling into ruin." He took this as his mission and immediately set about repairing San Damiano. Little did he realize then that God was asking him to repair the entire Church through poverty, simplicity, humility, and love.
The Confraternity of Penitents has chosen this painting, painted within one hundred years of Saint Francis's life, to symbolize the charism of the Confraternity.
Why would the Confraternity select an image of Francis before his conversion rather than after?
Because this image shows Francis as a layman, and we penitents are lay people (for the most part. A few religious are also in our number).
We must, as penitents, keep ourselves in prayer before Christ, as Saint Francis did, so that we are attuned to him and receive our "marching orders." We must always act under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and not under our own volition.
As penitents at prayer in the modern world, we see the Church and the world around us in need of restoration, as the Church of San Damiano is portrayed in this painting. Our call from Christ, given to Francis so tenderly yet so urgently from the San Damiano Crucifix, was to "Repair My House which, as you can see, is falling into ruin."
As lay people, we are to rise from prayer and bring the message and the action of restoration to our Church and to our world which is now, more than ever, in need of Christ. Some of us penitents have gone on to embrace religious life, but most of us are called to remain seculars. We will always be in prayer before the Crucifix, asking God to assist us in our on going conversion in a broken world that needs whatever mending help we can give in our state of life.
Symbolism of the San Damiano Crucifix
The San Damiano Crucifix is a visual essay on the spiritual life and a tool of conversion. It was one of the primary instruments which God used to cement in St. Francis of Assisi a firmer change of heart. The rich symbolism of the crucifix speaks to anyone who gazes upon it in faith, but most especially to penitents.
No one knows the identification of the artist who, probably sometime in the twelfth century, painted this icon. Quite possibly a Syrian monk was the unknown craftsman, for the Crucifix is an icon in the Syrian vein. The anonymity of the artisan reminds us penitents that we, too, ought to go about unknown and unnoticed to the world. Instead of the world noticing and acclaiming us, others should see instead the fruit of our works and of our prayers which hopefully and humbly proclaim the goodness and glory of God.
Saint Francis and the Crucifix of San Damiano
Sometime during the summer of 1206, Francis Bernardone, a young, playboy merchant of Assisi, Italy, began to experience conversion. He had always possessed a generous heart for others and for God, but now he began to see that his father's obsession with money, his mother's concerns for his health, and his own desires for sumptuous foods, lavish clothes, and extravagant parties were but dead end streets in the city of life. He yearned for more than money, health, recognition, and a good time. Life was too short and too bitter for acquisition of these transitory goods to be its ultimate aim.
Francis had lived, although barely, through war and imprisonment. He'd been nursed back from the brink of death by his mother's loving care. He'd come through a period of physical weakness and spiritual confusion. He knew that there had to be more to life than what he'd been seeking. If he gave himself enough time, if he gave God enough emotional space, Francis sensed that he would find whatever it was he sought. Thus, just recovered from illness, Francis began to spend many hours wandering through the woods and visiting the chapels around Assisi, thinking, praying, being before the One Who could tell him all, whenever He Who is All was ready to speak.
One of the places Francis frequented was the church of San Damiano, a tumbling down, deserted chapel half way down a steep hill outside the walls of the city. In this decrepit place hung a large, almost life size painted icon of the Crucified. This summer day in 1206, Francis was walking in the vicinity of San Damiano when he felt an interior tug of the Spirit to go within to pray. Obeying the inner voice, Francis descended the worn staircase into the dark, smoke blackened vault and fell on his knees before the familiar icon, his own spirit alert to what the Lord might wish to convey.
In eager anticipation, Francis looked up into the serene face of the Crucified Lord, the icon's eyes closed in death. "Most High glorious God," he prayed, "enlighten the darkness of my heart. Give me, Lord, a correct faith, a certain hope, a perfect charity, sense and knowledge, so that I may carry out Your holy and true command." Ever more quietly he repeated the prayer until the only words spoken were the unspoken ones in his heart.
Almost imperceptibly, the eyes of the icon opened and the head nodded forward toward Francis. Somehow the movements seemed not startling but rather perfectly natural. From the Crucified spoke a tender, kind voice, a voice a parent might use in addressing an obedient but rather uncomprehending child. "Francis, don't you see that my house is being destroyed? Go, then, and rebuild it for me."
So this was his mission! God be praised! "I will do so gladly, Lord," Francis joyfully exclaimed. Oh, to finally be given direction, after all these months! To rebuild this crumbling edifice and make it fit again for worship! What a glorious task! Francis leaped to his feet and, with an exultant bow to the Crucified, whirled to leave the vault. He would begin at once.
The San Damiano Crucifix and Its Message to Penitents
Francis began his mission as a penitent, that is, a person converted to the Lord. He adopted the garb and lifestyle of the penitents of his day and went about begging stones to rebuild San Damiano. Folks thought that the playboy merchant had become a madman, but to their taunts and mud slinging, Francis simply offered his thanks and a blessing. As he lugged stones down the steep hill to San Damiano, he would sing. His singing rang out as he repaired the decaying walls. He sang as he trudged uphill, back to Assisi, to beg more rocks and to meet with more verbal and physical mockery. Nothing destroyed his joy. Francis knew that a life of penance is a life of joy or else it is not worthy of the name "conversion."
Only with the passage of time did Francis slowly come to realize that the message to rebuild God's house went beyond the three Assisian chapels which Francis repaired. God was calling Francis to rebuilt the Church itself, by becoming a unique and radical witness for Christ, in poverty, simplicity, and humility. In the same vein, Christ calls all penitents to rebuild the Catholic Church. Rebuild it by witnessing to the truth of the faith, by living lives centered on God and devoted to neighbor, by being people of prayer and selflessness. Not easy goals but the San Damiano cross portrays pictorial guideposts on how to do these very things.
When one gazes at the Crucifix of San Damiano, one is immediately captured by the wide open eyes and serene face of the Lord. The eyes seem to gaze gently into the penitent's soul, beckoning, "Come, follow Me." The face pleads but does not cajole. The invitation to become the Lord's is made with love yet freedom. Christ calls, but He does not force assent.
On the cross, Christ is both crucified and glorified, showing that the penitential life of joyful and voluntary self surrender for the sake of others is a humble self emptying that leads to our eternal glory. A small figure of a cock, alongside Christ's lower legs, recalls Peter's denial of Christ, a bitter reminder to penitents of our own sinfulness, which we offer to God as part of our own self-emptying. "Lord, have mercy on me for I am a sinner." On the opposite side, is a very faint creature almost impossible to see. The figure, intentionally nearly invisible, is that of a cat or a fox, both symbols of secretive, sly acts of treachery and deceit. The towering, glowing figure of Christ overshadows both the rooster and the fox/cat. Christ has overcome both public sins like that of Peter and private, hidden sins that lurk in the dens of our souls. We can be forgiven of all if we gaze into the eyes of that Crucified God-Man and call out, "I believe. Forgive me. I give myself to You."
Behind Christ's outstretched arms is a long, black band that represents the empty tomb. Above Him radiate the glories of heaven. The Father's Hand at the top of the icon blesses us who venerate the image as well as the Ascended Christ who enters glory, surrounded by welcoming angels and saints. The Father's two extended fingers, in granting the blessing, grant the Holy Spirit as well, coming from the Father to be with us forever. Thus we have hope that, because of our voluntary giving of self to God and to neighbor, we, too, will overcome eternal death and enter eternal life, won for us by the Sinless One Who took our sins upon Himself and Who died voluntarily for us so that we might live for Him.
Christ stands on a solid black mass which represents the Rock of the Catholic Church. On the foundation of the Church, which, in the Pope and Magisterium support Christ, we penitents can feel secure.
Below this Rock, almost obliterated by thousands of kisses placed at the foot of this cross, are haloed saints whom we cannot identify. Scholars postulate that these may be patron saints of the churches of Assisi: Saints Damian, Rufinus, Michael, John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul. However, no one is certain who these saints are. Because we cannot identify them, these saints remind us of the unknown multitudes who were washed in the Blood of Christ, who remained solidly within the Church, and who reign with Christ in heaven. They are humbly placed beneath the feet of Christ for they recognize that He is their Lord and Master. So must we realize the same.
Around the cross are clustered holy followers of Christ who are models for penitents. First stands Our Lady, the sinless Virgin whose only response to God's Will was always a "yes." To her, the Confraternity and all its members are dedicated. May we honor her daily as she intercedes for us.
Next to her, sharing a smile for they know that Our Lord lives, is St. John the Evangelist, Christ's beloved apostle who spoke so eloquently of the divinity and of the love of Christ. It's wise for penitents to read his Gospel frequently and to meditate well on it. The blood from Christ's pierced heart is spurting on John, who is representative of all humanity. We are all bathed in the living, ever flowing sacrificial love of Christ, a love so profoundly intense that it led to His incarnation, life on earth, Passion, and death.
On the opposite side of the Crucifix stands Mary Magdalene, she who loved the Lord so sincerely that she would not even abandon Him at His grave. Her hand is to her mouth, as is Our Lady's Hand. The two women, who loved Christ best, are sharing the deepest feelings of their hearts with those who listen to them. What can these two women teach us about a pure and total love of the Lord? If only we could hear what they are saying! Perhaps if we pray, the Holy Spirit will grant our hearts insights into their selfless and pure love.
Listening intently to Mary Magdalene is Mary Clopas, another woman who came to the tomb with Mary Magdalene, to anoint the dead body of the Lord. These two women typify the intense and courageous devotion which penitents ought to have for Christ, a devotion that persists no matter how difficult life may become.
Last in line, is a figure who may represent either of two men. Perhaps this red robed gentleman without a halo represents the centurion who was captured by Christ at the very hour of our Lord's death. The bearded figure is oblivious to the crowd. His gaze is fixed on Christ, just as was the gaze of that centurion whose conversion came about because he witnessed the crucifixion. The wood which he holds in his hand could be symbolic of his role in erecting the cross or in fastening the inscription over it which reads "Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews." The centurion is holding up three fingers which indicate the Trinity. He now knows, "Truly this man was the Son of God." As the circumstances of the centurion's conversion point out, the past makes no difference and the future does not count where conversion is concerned. The right time for conversion is always now.
Behind the centurion are the heads of many others. These may be those multitudes who witnessed the crucifixion. The only figure whose face is visible is the one in front and he is frowning. This figure may represent those who mocked Christ, taunting Him to come down from the cross and save Himself. The grumpy looking man and the heads behind him remind us that we have a choice--we can believe and smile as the other major figures are doing, or we can reject Christ and be devoid of spiritual happiness.
There is an alternative symbolism for the bearded, red robed man and the small figures behind him. Perhaps this man represents the centurion whose story is told in the Gospels of Luke (7:1-10) and Matthew (8:5-13). Luke's story reveals that this centurion was a supportive of the Jewish community and had built for them a synagogue, represented by the wood which this figure holds. The centurion had asked Jesus to cure his servant but did not feel it was necessary for Christ to enter his house to do so. "I am not worthy to have you come under my roof," the centurion said. "Just say the word and my servant will be healed." The words recall what Catholics profess at every Mass before the reception of the Eucharist. The man's gaze so fixed on Christ admonishes us to see Him in the Eucharistic Presence and to adore Him as this man is doing.
In this interpretation, the small head behind the centurion is the cured servant and the heads behind him the members of the centurion's household, all of who came to believe in Christ because of the miracle of the servant's cure. We are reminded that God's workings in our lives are expansive. What He does for one can bring many others to Him.
Two small Roman figures are on either side of the cross as well. One seems to signify the soldier who offered Jesus a taste of sour wine. The other could possibly be the centurion who pierced the side of Christ with a lance. These men are sad symbols of those who are just "doing their jobs," without regarding the moral nature of their work. As penitents we need to beware of engaging in any activity that is not morally sound.
In the red border around the cross are scrolls that recall tendrils of vines. They bring to mind Christ's admonition that He is the vine while we are but branches. To bear fruit, we must remain in Him. A life of penance, conversion, must be rooted in Christ.
The Crucifix is bordered with golden scallop shells, ancient symbols of baptism. In baptism, we are made new, our sins removed by the grace of the God-Man Who died for us in agony. Penitents must daily renew their baptismal promises to reject satan and embrace the fullness of the faith. This we do by twice daily praying both the Apostle's Creed and Psalm 51.
The wounds of Christ are spurting blood which pours down upon the figures of the cross and upon us. The crucifixion is not something that happened once and can be thought of as a past event. The crucifixion is timeless in the mind of God to Whom all time is now. Christ's agony is real and immediate. He suffers now for our sins and for the sins of all. His fresh and flowing wounds call us to give our life blood for the sake of others, as He did, in loving service to all.
The loincloth that girds the figure is white for purity and chastity, virtues to which all penitents are called, yet bordered in gold, the garb of a king. The cloth is tied with three knots, reflecting the purity and kingly nature of the Trinity. The cloth reminds us that pure and holy lives are the only lives worthy of penitents, and the only lives that will lead to glory.
The hair that cascades down Christ's shoulders plaits into three locks on His left shoulder and three on His right, with Christ's head in the center. The six locks of hair recall the six days of Creation, while the head of Christ indicates the Lord of that creation and the Commandment that He be honored on the seventh day. Penitents are to honor the Solemnity of the Sabbath and keep it holy for the Lord and, likewise, to keep holy all other Solemnities of the Church.
The halo behind Christ's head is radiant and huge. It portrays a cross, too, yet a glorified one, reminding us that holiness is possible only through embracing of the cross of Christ. The way of the cross leads to glory.
The primary colors of the crucifix are black, gold, and red. Black for sin and penance, red for sacrifice and love, and gold for glory. The colors alone are a sermon on conversion. May we repent of our sins, be willing to sacrifice for and love others and the Lord, and be rewarded with eternal glory.
A PRAYERFUL MEDITATION ON THE SAN DAMIANO CRUCIFIX
Reflections on the Icon of the Crucifix of San Damiano. The year, 2005-2006, marks the 800th anniversary of when Jesus spoke to Saint Francis through the Crucifix of San Damiano, "Go and rebuild My Church which, as you can see, is falling into ruin." Our reflections are the work of Mother Abbess Chiaralaura Serboli, a Poor Clare cloistered nun in Camerino, Italy. (Reprinted with permission of Saint Francis Pilgrimages Newsletter.)
THE REFLECTIONS BY SISTER CHIARALAURA, OSC
February 2006 Reflection:
Dearest brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Let us begin a journey toward the discovery of the profound significant points of the icon of the Crucifix of St. Damian. This will not be an artistic study, but rather theological and spiritual. In order that this reflection is fruitful, it is advised that you have in front of you the icon of St. Damian together with the Holy Scripture to follow the points that will be suggested to you. At the end of each meditation you will be able to pray the Prayer before the crucifix of St. Francis.
Let us begin with the outline since this orients us to the general understanding of the icon. It is formed with a multitude of shells. Among the ancient peoples, shells, for their beauty and longevity, were a symbol of beauty and eternity of Heaven. [Shells were also a symbol of pilgrimage from ancient times]. Thus this outline of shells indicates that this icon is destined, by its nature, to reveal the heavenly mystery. Moreover, the framing is not complete. It is not closed at the base, and it allows an open space that almost constitutes an entrance. Here we see some people - two are distinguishable, the others were most surely rubbed out as a result of centuries of the faithful kissing and venerating the icon.
These people, whom we only see the upper part of the body, are the faithful. With the upper part of their being, thus with their soul, they are already in the heavenly abode and in the Kingdom, in the new Earthly Paradise, while with their lower part they are anchored in the world, in the earth. This is already a first important lesson for us that indicates what is a true and healthy spiritual attitude: a fixed expression on the things of God, on Jesus Christ, but without omitting the things of every day, which find their true significance, in drawing from the reality of faith which renders its existence significant.
Jesus, with his huge stature, in the center of the icon, appears as the Tree of Life, in the Holy City (John 2, 8: Rev 22, 14-19). The people under his arms, in the light of the Lord (Rev 22, 5), are the living fruit If a grain of wheat dies, it bears much fruit (Jn 12, 24).
A Johannine icon
It is good to say from the beginning that this icon decisively follows the style of the Gospel of St. John. The halo of glory that substitutes the usual crown of thorns is an evident sign. Here suffering and death are replaced by glorification - the prayer of Jesus is now heard: Father, glorify your Son (Jn 17, 1).
The Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke reveal to us rather the human aspect of the life of Jesus, as do our Western images. Instead, this icon speaks to us the profound mystery of Christ the Word of God, in the manner of John. Even the wound to the right side of Jesus is an observation owed to the beloved Apostle.
The fourth Gospel describes to us the struggle between Light and Darkness (Jn 1, 5) and on this icon the final result of this struggle shines. The victorious body of Jesus appears much more luminous as it stands out on a black background, the symbol of the opposition to light - of doubt, of sin.
The color red, the symbol of love, highlights the entire icon, presenting it as a dramatic place of the victory of Light and Love on darkness and death.
An icon of hope
Here Jesus is Risen, victor over death and evil. All the people are joyful: Jesus, in the medal at the top, smiles to John while rising to Heaven; the Virgin Mary (on Jesus left side) smiles; the Centurion (under Jesus left arm) smiles with his healed son behind his shoulder and all of his family saved. This icon is truly capable of creating in us an attitude of joy and of becoming witnesses of the Risen Christ.
Let God speak to us through this icon!
Prayer of Francis before the Crucifix of St. Damian
Most High, glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me
true faith, certain hope, and perfect charity,
sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out
Your holy and true command.
For your Prayer...
Be silent.. And listen. (Dt 27, 9)
Keep silent around you and invoke the aid of the Spirit so that you might be purified, enlightened, and lit up interiorly.
Most High Glorious God...
Now pray with the words of Francis.
Do not hide your face from me... (Ps 27, 9)
In silence, contemplate the image of the Crucifix and stare at his face; let his gaze reach your heart.
Enlighten the darkness of my heart...
The gaze of the Crucifix asks you: What is your darkness? Who is at the center of your desires? Do you live a true faith, a certain hope and a perfect charity?
Lord, I will do it gladly!
The prayer that you have now lived becomes daily: before the Crucifix translate it and re-write in a concrete commitment for your life.
March 1, 2006 - Ash Wednesday
Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Lent, journey towards Easter, offers us an occasion to continue reflecting together on the hidden richness within the amazing icon of San Damiano. This holy liturgical season forces us to urgently return to the contemplative dimension of life because it is part of our identity as believers - it is a question of life or death. We cannot go forward and let our souls be drowned out by noise, or be driven by so many tasks to finish - otherwise we risk becoming arid like a rock-bed next to a river, dried out from the sun.
Let us learn to keep long spaces of silence and we will discover that they will not remain empty: God will fill them up with His presence. Let us protect ourselves from the tragic overdose of tasks, let us defend ourselves with ferocity from the vile aggressions of tasks. Let us, instead, yield to the pastures of prayer, contemplation, and abandon our restless spirit to God.
Let the Crucifix that spoke to Francis also interrogate our own hearts and accompany us along this pathway, during this time of grace that begins today with the wonderful Liturgy of Ashes.
In returning to the well, or if you wish, in returning to the desert, in order to seek out that authenticity which we have lost, we will entrust the task of letting ourselves share in His Passion in contemplation of the wounds of Jesus, in order to discover with wonder that Calvary is the treasure-box in which is concentrated all of His love.
1. The wounds of Jesus
The wounds on the hands, feet, and side of Jesus are marked very clearly with large black holes, from which flows the blood of Christ in great abundance: they are the fountains of salvation that pour out the blood of the Lamb of God. It is the blood of the New Covenant that obtains for us eternal redemption... He, an unblemished offering to God, was a victim. Only true love allows itself to be wounded, in this the wounds of Jesus are the most authentic sign of the depth of his giving himself completely to us.
Let us pause before the wound on His right side and observe the motion. The blood of Jesus flowing out for our redemption, as a precious fountain of life that heals the universe, pours out on the people that encircle the cross, so that they can, each in turn, enter into this vortex of love and rejoice as recipients of this gift.
Also present are angels, which have always been messengers of God, His Adorers, and faithful servants. They are present in a significant number in this representation of the Passion, a drama that cannot leave anyone indifferent because it involves Heaven and Earth, creating a turning point in history. There are three angels on each side of Christ gathered together under His arms. With their hands they indicate His crucified body and, stupefied, they look at His wounds. Their eyes are wide open and surprised at the mystery: they express wonder at the loss of blood of the Son of the Most High. Their faces are in pain but serene because they have been sustained with certainty of the Resurrection which they are already aware of.
Other angels, more numerous, are placed above the cross and form a crown around the scene of the Ascension. They communicate a sense of celebration, and their faces are illuminated with a smile and their bodies move in a vivacious and joyful manner. Also, in the Disfigurement of Calvary, they already recognize the Transfiguration of the Ascension.
2. The rooster
Near the left leg of Jesus, the artist painted a rooster, with his beak open and neck stretched out ready to crow. In this detail, the artist wished to make a clear allusion to the denial of the Apostle Peter, depicted among the characters placed at the bottom of the cross. However, it may seem to us out of place to remind us of this episode of infidelity here at the conclusion of the representation of the Passion, by now certainly forgiven through the mercy of the Redeemer. The icon shows us the Crucifix glorified with the elect: the time of renouncements has passed.
In ancient times, the rooster was symbolic of the sun that rises: it is the messenger of the morning, the first animal that welcomes the new day in song, inviting everyone to wake up from sleep, the darkness of the night gone. This Sun is Jesus, the light that spreads out in the world. St. Peter in fact says: "Let us hold onto the Word...until the day shines forth and the morning star rises in our hearts". Jesus, "from high" on the cross is the "sun that rises" who represents the first light of Easter, (soon to manifest itself in its entire splendor). It is in fact Him, "The true Light that shines on every man and woman".
The presence of the rooster at the foot of the Crucifix becomes, thus, an announcement and it here repeats to everyone the prophecy of Zachary: "the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace". Thus, this rooster announces that Jesus is the true Light, who, from age to age, rises on the world. The clouds can darken the Sun, but in fact they remain always and only clouds that pass by.
Let us walk then towards His light not to trip over the numerous obstacles along the way and, in memory of the love received, let us respond with joy to the calling to become like Christ "Light of the world, so that the world will see our good works and glorify the Father who is in Heaven".
Even we, men and women of the 21st century, are searching for God, we are longing for light and beauty, even if often we walk down the wrong paths, looking for help in false idols and satisfying ourselves with fleeing appearances and mirages.
In "Franciscan" simplicity and patient attention fix your eyes, your thoughts and your desire on this holy icon and contemplate with gratitude the wounds of Jesus which became for you the fount of true life and beauty that saves.
Ask what your wounds are, what you feel threatens you, what blocks you and does not permit you to walk. Repeat to yourself: "Through His wounds, I was healed" and let the blood that flows from His wounds cleanse your wounds, heal them and help you to embrace them, and transform them into rivers of salvation. And, while doing this, follow the invitation of St. Clare
"Look at your Bridegroom,
the most beautiful of the sons of man,
who became the vilest of men
for your salvation;
who was scorned, beaten
and repeatedly scourged throughout his entire body,
and died in intense pain on the cross.
Meditate and contemplate
and desire to imitate him."
Easter: April 16, 2006
Dearest brothers and sisters in the Lord,
‘Peace unto you” – this is the wish that Jesus granted his followers, appearing to them on the evening of Easter and it is the wish that we Poor Clares grant to you on this wonderful day. The Gospel speaks to us of an empty tomb, of a boulder rolled away from the opening of the tomb, thereby breaking chains and defeating slavery. This is why on this most solemn day of Easter eyes no longer have a reason to cry, even if many situations would cause us to feel the opposite - the Resurrection of Jesus has dried up every tear.
This Easter, then, let our sin be defeated, let our fears be shattered and let it allow us to see sadness, pain and even death in the proper perspective: that of the “third day”. From that perspective, all sufferings - ours and those of the world - will be like birth pains which allow new life to enter – that of the resurrected. Let the Lord help us to bring forward his Resurrection in the world and inside us. Let him give us the strength to throw open all the tombs in which sin, loneliness, sickness, betrayal, suffering, and indifference are buried inside us and in which we have buried the one standing beside us. Let it yield our understanding that Easter is the decisive event, because with the death and resurrection of Jesus our destiny has been turned upside down.
So - courage! Easter tells us that our story has a sense, that the road we are traveling on is not a broken pathway, that our existence is not suspended in emptiness. Let us not adapt ourselves to mediocrity and resignation. Let us not turn off the great passions. Courage! Easter gives to us the certainty that God is not only ‘totally Other’ in which we navigate, but also ‘totally Inner’ who lives within our heart. If things are truly thus, together with courage to exist, let Easter give us the desire to walk. And in this walk of ours, let us allow the crucifix of San Damiano, icon of Risen Christ, be light to us.
The Resurrected Crucifix
In this icon, the Lord Jesus, who, with his great height takes up the entire image, is represented as the defining moment of history: his Easter of Death and Resurrection. The image that he represents is that of ”Triumphant Christ". On the cross is not hung a cadaver without life, but, rather our Savior and King stands out in all his majesty - the glorious and living Jesus.
The colors used to paint the cross present this mysterious and dramatic contrast: the black background of the cross, evoker of death, is dominated by the living red, sign of life and love. And the entire icon is closed in by a golden outline, festive symbol of light and eternal glory.
The body of Jesus
The body of the Crucifix dominates the entire image with light. The figure of Jesus shows itself upright, without any sign of relaxation of his arms and legs from suffering and death. The arms wide open and slightly flexed show themselves in an act of total offering and completely open towards God and humanity. It is the supreme moment of freedom and of love. Jesus had said to his disciples and to all those who believe in him: " No one has love greater than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15, 13) and " Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest." (Mt 11,28). On the cross his prophetic words are fulfilled in a definite way.
Another detail: the torso of Jesus is slightly bent and seems to be almost dancing, as if he wanted to free himself, suspended from earth, ready to leap towards Heaven - a dance that shows him leaping beyond death, free from the
nails that cannot keep him imprisoned on the cross.
The crown of glory
Jesus’ crown of glory gives meaning to the entire icon. Here, the mystery of the Passion of Christ is not forgotten or hidden, but it finds its sense and fulfillment in glory. Jesus is now glorified. It is in light of the crown that we must read the entire icon because only in this way can we understand the true significance of this crucifix.
Inside the halo of Jesus, are embroidered the lines of the Cross, but it is a golden cross, immersed in light, making evident the inseparable tie that exists between death and life, between suffering and glory, summarizing the entire life of Jesus: his humiliation and his exaltation. Saint Paul says: " though he was in the form of God... he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him... " (Phil 2,6-11). This crown is full of consolation for us because it gives sense to every suffering: it reminds that every crown of thorns can be changed into a crown of glory. It announces the victory of life through death.
The vestments of Jesus
Jesus is naked, covered only by a loincloth tied to his hips. It is very important to point out what Jesus is wearing, because through his vestment we can know what function He exercises in this icon. It is a loincloth of linen hemmed in gold, tied with care at the waist. The linen and gold were used as typical priestly vestments by Jewish high priests of the Old Testament. Jesus then, by wearing this loincloth acts as a priest. He is the new priest but at the same time he is the victim of sacrifice: on the cross, the new altar of God, he becomes the true mediator between God and man by offering himself, Lamb without blemish, in remission for our sins.
Another detail: John chapter 13 says: " he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist ... and began to wash the disciples’ feet” Christ, Master and Pastor, on the cross fulfills what he had anticipated in the last supper by washing the feet of the 12 apostles. Christ presents himself as a servant and it is when he is on the cross that he completely fulfills his being in service of God and man!
This vestment in the color of gold, thus, announces the priesthood and the royalty of Christ where being king, for Jesus, means being a ‘servant’ and washing the feet of his brothers.
Jesus in the medallion
The medallion situated in the upper part of the icon presents Jesus in a strange position: the ascending movement of his right leg suggests his Ascension. It is the fulfillment of the Passion: The Risen Crucifix enters into the glory of the Father and prepares a place for his followers, as he had promised in the last Supper: " And If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be." (John 14, 3). A place and a joy that no one will ever be able to take away from us.
In his left hand he his holding a cross, instrument of his victory. But now this cross is gold and it becomes the ‘Royal Scepter’. If we look closely at the face of Jesus, we discern a large smile: his trial has come to an end and he emerged as victor. His face looks outward and his right hand is held up to Heaven: towards that sure place where he will soon go. In this scene everything is in movement: his legs, arms, fingers, eyes, and clothes. Everything speaks of life and victory, everything invites to an eternal feast, and everything evokes hope, courage and patient waiting of that which will come.
Under both his legs are painted door-knockers, sign of Jesus’ descent into Hell to “free his loved ones who were prisoners”, to take them with him, to resurrect them, and bring them with him into the breast of the Trinity. In this medallion it is proposed to us much more than only contemplation and the mystery of the Ascension. The Crucifix of San Damiano, while showing all this movement, offers us a synthesis of the story of salvation revealing to us the most profound of the Paschal Mystery.
Descending to the dead for Christ means to be united to every suffering, by now no sin is alienated to such a point as to limit the mercy of God and to impede the climb. Suffering is no longer a prison, but is a “pathway”! It is necessary that each of us learns to journey through this path, to enter into the mystery of each person’s identity as child of God. May the Lord give us the courage to go down to the dead to know the truth – that God freed us and how God freed us and penetrate the mystery of love and mercy that is at the origin of Easter.
FOR PERSONAL PRAYER
Hell is a place of death, sin and suffering; the place in which man is not in fullness, but contradicted, humiliated, nothing. And it is there where Christ descends for me before resurrecting and ascending. What are the Hells in which Jesus calls me to descend to celebrate Easter with him?
The Lord descends to Hell to meet with all people, with his pain and sin, to take with him death and conquer it with his tenderness and compassion. And this descent is motivated by God’s love – mad love for us. Will I allow Jesus to meet me in my Hell? Will I allow myself to touch this love?
If the Lord descended into Hell, to the point of justifying all sin in the world, we, too are called to descend into hell, and imitate what Christ did with all sinners - in love and without judgment. Am I capable of looking on with compassion on the weakest brothers and sisters, or am I scandalized
by their sin?
Every cross is illuminated by the Resurrection. Am I animated by the certainty that it is inside death, and not after, that new life is already born?
Let us fix our gaze on a love so grand and on a life-force so invincible and let us follow the teaching of Francis and Clare who, stupefied by so much love prayed in this way:
"Look, brothers and sisters, at the humility of God and open your hearts before him: humble yourselves so that you will be exalted by Him. Hold back nothing so that He will totally embrace you who offers himself to you." (Letter to the entire Order)
Oh sublime humility and humble sublimity: that the Son of God is so humble for us. (St. Clare letter to Agnes)
July, 2006 Reflection
Peace and Goodness - dear brothers and sisters!
In this summer time of vacations, let us take a break from all the things we are doing and give ourselves some time to allow the spirit to grow, because, free from all the busyness, we can stop at the foot of the cross of Christ, take off our watch and be like Mary, with Jesus. Let us take advantage of this time to try to find in Christ the true restorer of all things: He is the only one who gives peace to the heart, who makes all things new, regardless of how things seem externally. Let us let his gaze renew us on the inside.
But in order to do this, it is necessary for us to fix our gaze on him so that his light enters our life.
In learning the art of being, this time we will be helped by various characters from the icon of the San Damiano crucifix who stand under the cross. Everyone with his story, dreams, needs, can put everything there, to drink from the blood of salvation in order to be restored. Let us allow the stories of these characters to speak to our lives. Let us allow their experience to illuminate our lives so that we, too, can say My Lord and my God! In particular, let us allow Mary Magdalene, the beloved of the Lord, so dear to Francis and whose liturgy we celebrate today, to guide us, to taste, as she did, the drunkenness of the benevolent and merciful love which Jesus gave his life for us.
The Characters under the Arms of Jesus
The painter of the San Damiano cross wanted to represent various characters close to Jesus, the most important ones in the story and in the mystery of the Passion. It is easy to recognize their identity because the artist wrote their names under their feet. From the left to right there are Mary, John, Mary Magdalene, Mary (the Mother of James) and the Centurion.
Each person has his own role and precise meaning, which the author expresses through position, body gestures, facial expression, dress and colors. Seeing them so close to Jesus, we can quickly realize that His ardent prayer was fulfilled: Father, I want those whom you gave me to be with me, so that they might contemplate my glory.
Furthermore, these characters are immersed in light. The light of Easter touched their lives, it entered inside them completely filling them up and allowing them to participate in the great mystery that was fulfilled around them. They have become children of light. It is also important to note that these characters are all the same height. This detail helps us realize that it is not important to note the particular holiness of each of us, but the fact that Christ is everything in everyone and that in the eyes of God no one is more or less important, we all have the same dignity and value as a child of God.
It is also important to note that each of the characters is similar to one another. They all have the same large eyes, small mouth and oval face. If we look at Jesus, we see in him similar features, too. This resounds in the words of Paul: Those whom God always knew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. As the Son is in the image of his Father, so we are modeled in the same image of the Father. Also, it is in Christ whom we look to for our true identity, our true face. To look at him is to discover the same lineage. The only difference is that in Jesus everything by now has reached perfection and harmony, we, on the other hand, must walk until this conformity to the Son is realized concretely in our life.
To the left of Jesus, we see Mary Magdalene. Thus is fulfilled the word of Jesus: Those who are last shall be first. She is a very important woman in the Gospel: she is the sinner about whom Jesus said: Her sins are forgiven her because she loved much, and whom Francis venerated much, to the point of requesting that a small chapel be dedicated to her in every hermitage in which he retreated to pray.
She is among the women who follow Jesus in his painful Passion and on the morning of Easter she will be the first to see, with her surprised eyes of one who loves and believes against every hope, the Risen Lord. Her dress is a brilliant and vivacious red, symbol of an intense and sincere love. This color is appropriate for a woman who, after having loved much, had to re-learn to love in the proper way, to re-order that affective need that was in her so that her love that takes becomes a love that gives.
The expression on her face and the movement of her hands demonstrate the admiration and surprise for what her eyes see and for the happy privilege reserved just for her: to be forgiven for her many sins and to become the first witness of the Risen Lord. It is noteworthy also that Mary Magdalenes head is touching that of Mary, the mother of James. This particular shows us that they are not only conversing, but that they are exchanging a secret. If one considers that Mary Magdalene has her left hand to her mouth like Mary, mother of Jesus, we can deduce that she, too, is in a state of admiration and surprise. The cause of that surprise is the incredible experience that made her life beautiful - that gave her back her life to her - like the Prodigal son, the story which Luke narrates.
Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus expelled seven devils, is identified with the prostitute of whom Jesus says he loved much. What power is the love of Jesus in the person of this woman who until recently was possessed by a multitude of devils and now is very close to Him in glory! She who accompanied Jesus in his journeys and unto Calvary; who was the messenger sent to the Apostles to tell them: I saw the Lord., she was unquestionably at the Last Supper with Jesus mother and the other women and now she stays at the foot of the cross like one who can never separate herself from her beloved, even if this means following him to Calvary.
Mary, Mother of James
Next to Mary Magdalene is Mary, the mother of James. She, too, is close to Jesus, as she remained faithful to him until the end, listening while stupefied to the words of Magdalene and letting herself be taught by her. Here she represents all those who follow Christ and listen attentively to his words, desiring with the entire heart to put them in practice.
She is the mirror of so many faith-filled Christians in history, humble and forgotten in history, who God will never forget and who one day will receive their crown of glory. This woman listens with attention and confidence to the secret that Mary Magdalene reveals to her, allowing these words to warm and enlighten her heart. The gesture of her hands expresses an admiration with no limits for Jesus, who gave his life for us when we were still far away.
The Small Characters: The Two Small Men
On the far sides of the two groups of characters, in front of Mary and the Centurion, stand two small men. Both are turned towards the Crucifix and have their gazes on Him, their legs and arms are in movement: the knees raised and their hand on the hip. The one on the left has a similar uniform as the Centurion, so we must conclude that he, too, is a Roman soldier, and he has in his hand the lance with which he pierces the side of Christ and has his name, Longinus, written at his feet.
The character on the right assumes the same position as the one on the left and he has a beard and is wearing a short tunic according to Jewish custom. According to tradition his name is Stephen, assistant to Longinus.
They represent those who condemned and crucified Jesus. We must ask ourselves the meaning of their short height. It simply means that their role was little. The reduced height is evidence that the true protagonist of the entire episode of death is only Him, The Lord Jesus. It is Jesus, in fact, who freely gives himself to their hands to bring to fulfillment the divine plan of our Redemption, as he himself declares in the Gospel: I offer my life, in order to take it back. No one takes it from me, but I myself give it, because I have the power to give it and the power to take it back.
These two characters placed at the foot of the Crucifix represent the two peoples: the Jews and the pagans, different and divided, yet both called to salvation through their conversion to Jesus. Only by adhering to Jesus, can they achieve the same height and size as the others, already participating in Redemption.
But let us contemplate the Prodigy! Those who crucified Jesus now have their eyes fixed on him, as it is written: They shall turn their eyes towards him who they inflicted. By killing him, they discover that Jesus is the Son of God, their eyes open, they have faith and life. How awesome is the victory of love!
The Characters at the Foot of the Cross
At the foot of the cross are two more characters. There were most likely other figures who were erased: the result of centuries of faithful who repeatedly kissed the base of the icon. Who are these characters? Let us note first of all that they are placed within the outline of shells; they are, therefore, within the Kingdom. Also, they have haloes, but they are not in a position to see Jesus. Finally, they are within the Kingdom only with the upper part of their body, in an incomplete way. In their position they can see Jesus only in an imperfect manner, in a confused way, as in a mirror ... but soon will see him face to face, in which we will be able to see him as he is.
We Christians can, therefore, recognize ourselves in these characters, already signed with the seal of the Spirit in Baptism, called to the Kingdom and his glory, but still in exile, because we are still pilgrims in this world. However, we know as St. Clare says that we remain strangers in this world, and our real home is of the Fathers: the life for which we were created and that eternal life was promised. And, the icon seems to remind us of that. Let this be certainty for our peace.
For Personal Prayer:
I put myself in front of the Lord, I keep silence inside and I listen to the Word of truth that through this icon the Father wishes to reveal to me.
I let myself be struck by the depth of the experience of these characters and I ask myself which of these characters enlightens my personal story and my faith in Christ? Remembering my story, in which character do I see myself and why? When have I ever put on the red clothes of Mary Magdalene? Can I make sense out of faith that Mary Magdalene had, giving witness to the wonders that Christ worked in my life? When have I ever been short and mediocre like the two minor soldiers? When, like Mary, the mother of James, have I listened profoundly and intently to the experience of Christ lived as a brother or sister so that he could hear through me the word of life?
And now, with our gaze fixed on the cross, let us allow ourselves to be submerged in this great mystery of death that opens itself to life illuminating all our littleness. Let us say the prayer of Francis: Almighty, eternal, just and merciful God, grant us, in our misery [the grace] to do for you alone what we know you want us to do, and always to desire what pleases you. Thus, inwardly cleansed, interiorly enlightened, and inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit, may we be able to follow in the footsteps of your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, And by your grace alone, may we make our way to You, Most High, who live and rule in perfect Trinity and in simple Unity, and are glorified God all-powerful forever and ever. Amen.
(St. Francis Letter to the Entire Order)
Let us listen to Francis, true lover of the cross, and fix our gaze on Christ:
Oh all of you who pass along the way look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. For many dogs have surrounded me a pack of evildoers has closed in on me. They have looked and stared upon me. They have divided my garments among them and for my tunic they have cast lots. They have pierced my hands and my feet they have numbered all my bones. I have slept and have risen and my most holy Father has received me with glory.` See, see that i am God, says the Lord. I shall be exalted among the nations and I shall be exalted on the earth. All you nations clap your hands, shout to God with a voice of gladness. Give to the Lord, you families of nations, give to the Lord glory and honor, give to the Lord the glory due His name. Let the whole earth tremble before His face, and say among the nations that the Lord has ruled from a tree.
(St. Francis Office of the Passion)