Cross Purposes

Thomas W. Jodziewicz on the Silent Witness of a Crucifix in a Classroom

It is, Lord, a rather odd situation. In modern higher education, the trajectory is always to privilege the new, whether gadgets or ways of understanding life and its inevitable challenges. To educate is to look and to move forward. Subjects like history, which can be quaint and even entertaining, are yet seen as not very useful as far as the main task goes of mastering the present and the future.

How odd, then, to commemorate something that happened a couple of thousand years ago. Yet there you are, the silent witness in this small outpost of higher education. Standing at the lectern, I have only to turn to the left to see your crucifix. My students, believers and non-believers alike, have only to look straight ahead in order to encounter you. It is summer now, and they are gone; but you and I remain in the stillness of this empty classroom.
Given the ubiquitous presence today of crosses, and even crucifixes, as personal ornamentation, perhaps the encounter with the Crucified has become commonplace. The cross dangles from rearview mirrors and swings in tandem with the steps of denizens of the modern as they consult their hand-held devices to check on their identities. So maybe the presence of such an artifact on a classroom wall is no longer startling or even noticed. It is simply part of our social furniture.

Yet your cross also can be seen around the neck or attached to the belt of a religious brother or sister, or prominently displayed on a hilltop, or keeping vigil at a roadside shrine. How can we deny that such displays can be purposeful, touched by a thoughtful charity and humility?

But also, perhaps, by ambiguity, given the narrative it celebrates: an omnipotent and loving God who responds to the intrusion of sin, not with chastisement, but with redemptive love fastened to a wooden cross. Yet the jagged edges of suffering still linger in this redeemed world—and we, too, are asked to shoulder this burden, to accept our own crosses, though lightened by the touch of the Redeemer, as we walk his way of grace to Easter through Calvary. These are hard sayings. Would not we, in our own wisdom, have designed the economy of salvation differently?

Judgment & Intolerance

And always lurking about this silent presence in a classroom is the accusation of that most dreaded of all modern indecencies, judgmentalism, with its affirmation that there is right and there is wrong, that there is sin and there is good, and so its variance with the more acceptable moral neutrality. And besides, it is so, well, sectarian.Such a traditional moral posture, even if charitably and humbly offered, is judged [!] too self-righteous within a public square that strives to smooth sharp corners, or at least sharp religious corners. Better then, perhaps, to imitate the public square and not notice what is on the wall.

Your witness is also testimony to the importance of the particular, the mundane. The Crucifixion occurred within human history in an obscure part of the world’s greatest empire, surely testifying to divine generosity. I look to my left: abuse and evil are countered by this crucified, innocent witness to the importance of each and all of us. Each day and its activities are sanctified by this witness. And we are reminded to pray always.

Now and then in this classroom a discussion might occur that nods toward Adam Smith’s world of supply and demand, a world with a proclaimed “hidden hand” that is not God’s. In such an academic and public square, emptied of the divine, live and let live is the rule. But the Way of the Cross? Another possible option, but not in itself very attractive.

What must be avoided, though, is any acknowledgement, however subtle, that this Cross (let alone the Resurrection) is true. Yes, you, Lord, in such a stark posture, are judged to suggest intolerance. How can such a spectacle be at the center of our modern, open, and bustling world? To seek you can be portrayed as stifling obedience, as a loss of heroic nerve. So, then, why are you in this room?

Isaiah remarks that God’s ways are not our ways (55:8–9), and the modern impulse is to smile in affirmation and superiority. James (1:1–4) encourages joy in one’s trials, Peter hopes the suffering will be brief (1 Pet. 1:6–7), and John (3:16) argues that your being lifted up on Golgotha (12:32) is an expression of the Father’s love for the world. All of this seems outmoded and irrelevant in a classroom where one is expected to take seriously civility and toleration and simply learning.

Division & Blessing

So why do you intrude? Historically, at least, you are divisive. Apart from your cultural (nominal? lukewarm?) supporters, and the progressives who try to make you more attractive to a modern and sophisticated audience by laughing at the “silly” idea of original sin or dismissing the Resurrection (and what else?) as simple metaphor, you are only championed by those out-of-date sorts who cling to the “old-time religion” and utter the “old creeds.” Why bring in such inapposite narratives?

Maybe this tangible image of your presence is simply a blessing, Lord, upon an important part of our communal life: education. Aristotle’s “wise man,” always seeking after first causes, is not exactly the sort of classroom presence we are used to or comfortable with. He can be tiresome. Not every class is rich in wisdom, or even knowledge. But your presence blesses even this particular, ordinary part of our journey to you. Even our glance at your crucifix can re-affirm that this part of our work, our life, is an authentic part of our response to your gift of life. Yes, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7), but Peter’s admonition that we should be able to give a reason for our hope (1 Pet. 3:15) means the hard work of educating ourselves to be articulate, to complement our expected good example.

Your presence encourages us in our duty to learn more and more about your world, which is doubly good. In a setting where intellectual and even spiritual pride lurk, and where one is encouraged to strive to excel, after all, your presence reminds us that, with John the Baptist, we must become small (John 3:30) so that you would become large in this world.

Lord, you make things so complicated, or at least it seems so from this perspective. There is so much to think and pray about, and to share, but in the end, your presence in this classroom calms even as it confronts. And surely, the graced glance at the crucifix always embraces what is in the background, the incredible joy of Easter.

Lord, it may be odd to encounter you in a modern classroom, but it would be even odder to suggest that you are not there. 

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