|Icon Crucifix based on the San Damiano Cross |
by Deacon Charles Rohrbacher.
Currently on display at the Alaska State Museum.
It’s Good Friday morning in Juneau, Alaska. The sky is a clear baby blue with sun that glints off the piles of old snow heaped at the edges of parking lots and clinging to the grasses of the wetlands in front of my parents’ house. Today we’ll go to the Shrine of St. Therese for Stations of the Cross, out where it’s not uncommon to see whales breaching or hear the bellows of sea lions in the distance. It’s good to be home.
If I was in Boise, and it wasn’t Spring Break, I would be making my way down to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist to meet with a small group of 3, 4 and 5 year-olds in their atrium. This is the first year for St. John’s to host an atrium, and it’s the first year since beginning Juneau’s Cathedral atrium in 2010 that I’ve had the opportunity to be part of building an atrium and to see it grow from the smallest seed to a thriving community of work and prayer.
It hasn’t all been smooth, but the bumps have been beautiful, too, in their own way. Most of the children entered into this new space with quiet curiosity. When we first made our way around the room, hands clasped behind our backs to make sure that we would “look only with our eyes,” I asked the children, “Did anyone see something particularly beautiful in our atrium?” One little girl silently walked over to the prayer table and pointed to the small, ceramic San Damiano Crucifix lying there. Since this moment, the cross has been the focal point of our atrium. At prayer time the children take turns silently holding it before passing it on to the next child. Sometimes the children will wander over and stroke it on their way from one work to another.
Of the children within the Friday morning group, one was not so certain about spending time in the atrium. For the first few weeks, Robert would only remain within the room if one of his parents stayed by his side. Gradually they moved farther and farther away, first sitting just outside the door, and then slowly taking places farther down the hall. Robert would choose a work rug and then one of the many practical life activities and position himself in the doorway, sometimes halfway in and halfway out, to work on sponging, cutting up small pieces of paper, or matching keys with locks where he could see his parents out of the corner of his eye.
Then one day in early February, Robert looked up from his place in the doorway and told me, “I want to go to the prayer table.” Kneeling together in front of the table, I lit the candle for him. “How would you like to pray?” I asked. Robert began listing the things he was thankful for: people, mom and dad, the church, the atrium . . . Then he paused and picked up the San Damiano cross, closed his eyes and clutched it tightly to his chest. After several seconds he passed it to me and gestured for me to do the same. Closing my eyes I pressed the cross over my own heart, holding it for a few moments before passing it back to Robert. We established a rhythm of prayer. Robert would take the cross, hug it tightly to himself, scrunch his eyes and smile and then pass it back to me. Each time his smile seemed to grow bigger. His arms wrapped tighter as if he was embracing the cross with all his strength. Finally, he let out a big sigh placed the cross back on the table and snuffed the prayer candle.
Every Friday since, Robert will at some point stop his work in the doorway and announce in a loud whisper, “I want to go to the prayer table!” My co-catechist, Emily, or I will accompany him to light the candle and pray with Robert. He leads the way, telling us what he is thankful for, letting us know which songs he wants to sing, and then, when the moment is just right, taking up the cross in his hands, embracing it and passing it to us. This last Friday, Robert kept his eyes closed as we reverenced the cross. He held it out to me and waited for my hands to take it from his, and then when I gently touched it to his shoulder when I was done, he would take it carefully back. His smile again growing wider and wider.
Today, during the Good Friday service we are all invited to reverence the cross of Christ. The gesture itself is left up to the believer, whether we touch the wood with our fingers, kneel before it or even bend to kiss this symbol of love conquering hate and life stronger than death. And I know that when it is my turn I will think of Robert, and if I dared I would wrap up the cross in a bear hug, eyes scrunched tight, smile growing wider and wider, amazed at the God of transformation who can take a vehicle of torture, pain and hatred, and turn it into pure love.
Yesterday, my teen daughters sat with a good friend and talked about the problems of the world. They are manifold, it’s true, but I wanted to show them what Robert’s shown me, love is greater, we just need to hang on tightly.