In Rome there is an unbelievable church called Santa Maria della Concezione. The church itself is interesting. But what really sets Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception apart is its basement, its crypt.
This crypt is decorated. On walls, monuments, altars, over doors, there are elaborate designs. There are crosses and shapes. Texture, tone, and contrast. In one place the Franciscan coat of arms has been fashioned. In another, there the shapes of flowers.
And it’s all made of bones. Yes, bones.
In 1631, a Cardinal who was also a Capuchin friar, ordered the remains of thousands of Capuchin friars exhumed and transferred from another friary to this crypt. For whatever reason and with whatever motivation, a few of the friars decided to get creative. The bones of their brother friars were arranged along the walls. As prayers were said in the crypt chapels, one would contemplate life and death, one’s own life and one’s own death.
Before long, the friars began to bury their own dead here, as well as the bodies of poor Romans, who couldn’t afford another burial place. Between 1500 and 1870, some 4,000 bodies found their eternal rest at the Church of St. Mary. Today, there’s a fine museum at the church that explains (to the extent it can be explained) the crypt and guides one through a few hundred years of Capuchin history.
People sometimes respond to death in strange ways. The way you approach death may seem very strange to me. But the way I think of death may seem strange to you.
We approach death differently. And that is also to say, we approach the Cross of Christ differently.
We can see different people’s reactions to the cross in the Passion according to St. John. Poor Simon Peter gets beat up by the Church for his enthusiasm and for his denial. It’s just like Peter to pull a sword in the garden and slice off the ear of a soldier—the same Peter who later denies knowing Jesus or having anything to do with him.
But I wonder if Peter’s denial of Jesus is partly made out of shock. Certainly Peter would have been afraid, but I wonder, too, if the trial and the then the crucifixion, all just seemed unbelievable to Peter. Yes, he denied Jesus. But he was also probably denying that this was really happening. If we’ve ever been through a trial—legal, economic, physical, medical, or relational—then we know how it can be like living in a fog. We do and say things that sound crazy to other people. Later, on hindsight, they may even seem crazy to us. But living through the ordeal, one does the best one can do.
In the events leading up to the death of Jesus, Pontius Pilate sees what’s happening and is afraid. He’s afraid because he wonders if perhaps there is something special about Jesus. But Pilate is also afraid because of the messy political situation he has found himself in. The death of Jesus is a complication for him. It’s a troubling and difficult item on the agenda. It has to be dealt with so that things can move on; so that he can move own.
The religious leaders view the death of Jesus as necessary for the purity and holiness of what they understand religion to be. He is a danger to right belief.
The soldiers see the death of Jesus as business as usual. Underpaid and poor themselves, the soldiers look for what they can get out of it, and divide his clothes.
Mary Magdalene, other women and friends are there and they are like faithful mothers and spouses and friends who understand and experience death as simply a part of life. There are things to do: prayers to be said, loved ones to be comforted, grieving people to be fed and taken care of. They are like the mothers and grandmothers and friends we see on the news whenever there is a shooting of young person—they are so used to the violence, they simply get out the clothes, cook the casserole, and go to church.
And then, there is Mary the mother of Jesus and John, the disciple who was Jesus’s best friend. They somehow approach the cross with an openness and vulnerability that allows them to help each other. They form a new community, a community in which we follow.
And so, what about us? How do we approach the Cross of Christ?
There may be hesitation, as we wonder what to do or say or think.
There may be doubt as we can’t quite believe what we’re hearing or seeing.
There may be relief, relief that we’re embarrassed about, but relief just the same that the ordeal is over. The long Way of the Cross, the trail of tears, has ended. It’s horrible, but it’s over.
And there may be confusion. What does this all mean? What will tomorrow be like? How do we live beyond this?
Good Friday can be a difficult day because we not only confront the death of Jesus Christ, but in drawing close to the cross, we also confront the issue of death itself: the death of loved ones and our own death. But the major message of this day is that death is not what it appears to be—not the death of Christ, and not our own.
Evelyn Underhill writes about how first appearances can be deceiving. She talks about how a friend might suggest you check out a particular church—it has beautiful stained glass windows, for instance. And so, you approach this church, but from the outside, all you can see are windows that look pretty much alike—they’re all sort of dull and dark, thick, and grubby. But then, as she describes it,
“Then we open the door and go inside—leave the outer world, enter the inner world—and the universal light floods through the windows and bathes us in their colour and beauty and significance, shows us things of which we had never dreamed, a loveliness that lies beyond the fringe of speech.” (Light of Christ, p. 36-37)
She goes on to say that this is a little like our understanding of God. We cannot understand God from the outside, but understanding comes when we enter in.
In order to understand the cross of Christ and his death for us, we need to enter in. The cross is not as it first appears. The tomb will not be as it first appears. Death is not as it first appears. But on Good Friday, through prayer, through our pain, through hope, and through tears, we enter in. We go with him into the tomb, together and in hope.