Standing “un-haloed” at the foot of the Cross with our eyes fixed on Jesus

Fr Paolo Consonni, MCCJ

O’Clarim Palm Sunday Year B

You may be familiar with the Cross of “San Damiano”. While still in his early 20s and still unclear about his future, St. Francis of Assisi was praying before this cross when he heard the voice of God commanding him to ‘rebuild my church’.  An unknown artist painted this crucifix in the 12th century, then it was left abandoned in the church of St. Damian near Assisi until the young Francis recovered it.

I particularly like this cross because there are so many figures and symbols on it. Also, Jesus on this cross does not have the body of a man in agony.  Instead, he stands tall with His eyes wide open radiating the hope of the Resurrection.  His hands are no longer cramped but open in a welcoming gesture. As Jesus said in last Sunday’s Gospel: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself”.  (Jn 12:32).

During this Palm Sunday, after the proclamation of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, we will hear the Narration of the Passion according to Mark (Mark 14:1-15:47). Mark describes Jesus’ sufferings in great detail. Jesus’ only words on the cross are a desperate question, quoted from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. After that, Jesus dies on the cross emitting a great inarticulate cry. Jesus’ moment of death seems obscure and incomprehensible, very different from the serenity shown on the cross of “San Damiano”.

But one particular of that cross is definitely in tune with the Marcan narration of Christ’s death: the presence of the centurion: “Then the centurion standing before him, seeing him expire like that, said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!'” (Mk 15:39).

This hardened soldier, responsible for Jesus’ execution, appears to be deeply touched by the way Jesus died. He plays a crucial role in the Gospel of Mark, which starts with the words: “the beginning of the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mk 1). During the narration of Jesus’ life, we are invited step by step by Mark to discover the mystery of Jesus’ identity and the meaning of His mission. Jesus is very careful not to disclose it too soon, to avoid misinterpretations, especially to avoid assuming a role as a political leader or a miracle maker. Mark describes Jesus sternly ordering people not to tell anyone the healings he performed. He commanded exorcised demons to be quiet and not to reveal his divine status to others. He even rebuked Peter, after his confession of faith, because he refused to accept Jesus’ prediction of his death (Mk 8:31-32).

Only this pagan centurion is able to solve the secret of Jesus’ true identity and recognize His divinity while he is on the cross. By doing so, he is implicitly recognizing the possibility of finding God’s presence even in the darkest corner of the human experience: the solitude of death. He, a man who was used to seeing violence and injustice, saw in the dying Jesus a power stronger than the evil he daily experienced in his profession and, probably, in his own heart too.

At the foot of the cross of “San Damiano” there are five major figures. On the left is the Virgin Mary and John, the beloved disciples.  On the right there is Mary Magdalene and Mary, the wife of Clopas. All of them are adorned with halos. Only the pagan centurion does not have a halo. 

The un-haloed soldier is however the only one among them who looks intently at Jesus. As Pope Francis once wrote” “God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises. We are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of that encounter are not up to us. Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to control God’s transcendence.  Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life” (Gaudete et Exsultate 41-42).

During Holy Week, we too, far from being holy, want to stand at the foot of the Cross with the un-haloed centurion and fix our eyes on Jesus. We too, like him, desire to discover God’s presence and mercy in the darkest corners of our hearts and of our world. And by doing so, step-by-step, as Mark taught us and as the catechumens have done in their journey toward baptism, we will enter Christ’s Resurrection.