My first two years of teaching were at a Christian middle school in Indianapolis. As we wrapped up Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, one of the White 13-year old students was broken open as he realized the lynching towards the end of the book. Seeing a teachable moment, I made the mistake of showing a lynching postcard out of Without Sanctuary taken in Marion Indiana. I showed the date stamp (1930’s) and told students that it had been sold as a commemorative postcard for the picnicking witnesses proud to have witnessed the torture of Black man. To be clear, I told students they didn’t have to look at it, offering to let them leave the room. I didn’t account for the peer pressure I created. Nor did I think about how I might create either further suffering or more apathy, depending on how students grappled with what they saw. I wanted to these kids to know what a lynching looked like, that it happened here, and that like crucifixions in the Roman empire, it was a spectacle. I wasn’t being explicit about the kindredness of the Cross and a lynching tree, as theologian James Cone has written, but it had seeped into my conscience.
Aside from passion plays, loaded with bathos to evoke a feeling for what Christ sacrificed, I haven’t experienced such suffering. The Cross requires a lot of imagination for me. I sometimes have to work to feel the suffering.
April 4, 2021 was mid-point of Great Lent for Orthodox Christians and Easter for Western Christendom. The Orthodox Church has a special commemoration each Sunday and the Sunday of the Cross falls smackdab in the middle. I’ve often thought that it falls here in the middle of our desert journey of forty days as a call to gaze upon it when we may be despairing at the length of Lent. I don’t enjoy Lent. It dredges up fights I don’t want to have, like not drinking wine, the obligation to go to church constantly, and resentment about my lack of enough time. The Cross in the middle seemed to be like the staff with the snake that God told Moses to put up to save the Israelites while they sojourned for forty years in the desert. They were being bitten by poisonous snakes and dying. It prefigures the Cross because we are to gaze upon and contemplate the Cross as the image of death that turns to life. But I forget about real suffering.
I have lost loved ones, but not to torture or to hateful evil nor to willful apathy of crowds. Yet plenty of American Christians know the Cross intimately. They’ve come to the tree, to the rood, to the wood, to the cross. They stood like the Mother of God and the women, witnessing their hearts being tortured with Christ’s body. They looked upon Him, not as one they crucified, not as a picnic or a spectacle, but as their very suffering.
In my poetry unit for Lit 206, I teach motifs in Black experience- the body, the oak, strange fruit- which Black Americans have long written songs, poems, and essays about. I play Nina Simone and Billie Holiday’s renditions of “Strange Fruit” in which you can hear their throats swell with the pain. Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “The Oak” is told from the voice of the tree bearing that fruit. It’s nothing like the medieval “Dream of the Rood” (Caedman), flowery and hopeful. It’s like the Cross, a story of sorrow and shame foisted upon innocent people.
It’s far too easy for us to talk about the Cross as a symbol, to speak about suffering and martyrdom carelessly. Dare I say, if we don’t bear witness and come as Simon of Cyrene to help carry the Cross for those who know it, then our use of “bearing our crosses,” talk of our suffering, discussion of martyrdom is as careless and offensive as those who talk about having OCD or being bi-polar or other serious illnesses. If you’ve never washed your hands till they crack or gotten up in the middle of the night to drive back to places you’ve cleaned to check if the doors or locked, or driven over and over one spot on a road thinking you hit something, or been diagnosed with OCD, then you shouldn’t be casual about “your OCD kicking in.” So too we shouldn’t be too cavalier about bearing our crosses. The Cross is serious as death.
We can bejewel it, bear witness, and be honest. Our lenten grapplings are ours, meatless, sober, (masked up when we can see the promised land of the end of the pandemic but aren’t there yet), these are more like many of our crosses. Not the same as dying on one. What we do when we recognize the deep centuries endemic suffering of others is bring ourselves to what Anthony Barr says is “the profound solidarity of the Gospel.” First, we have to enter into that solidarity and look upon the suffering: the broken bodies of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears, of migrant workers brutalized because they lack legal recourse, or the controlled bodies of Black Americans. Their bodies don’t offer the Resurrection, but with their suffering in solidarity with Christ’s, we can be reconciled.
“…the world-altering reality that when we say “body, broken for you,” we mean a literal broken body, and that this literal broken body is given for him, and you, and me. Jesus has placed his body between our bodies and the world. It is the nexus where suffering meets grace, where oppression gives way to radical self-emptying. The table at which he offers us his body is a place of egalitarianism where one’s race and social station have no weight or meaning. It is also a place of inescapable solidarity, for it is here that we are united to Christ’s cross, here that we are empowered to bear our crosses and so fill up in our own flesh the redemptive suffering of Christ, as Paul writes to the Colossians.”
The Sunday of the Cross in the middle of Lent now means more than looking up at the Cross to bear my own suffering. It is the GOOD NEWS which our bleak period of penitence and self-restraint may obscure. It’s why I can say, Christ is Risen to my Western Christians family on the middle day of Lent.