To one side of the altar in my parish church is a quiet little chapel where my meditation group meets for an hour every Saturday morning. On the chapel wall is a magnificent bronze figure of the crucified Christ suspended, as it were, in space, for there is no cross. To the right of the cross-less crucifix is a small carved icon of a very young Madonna and Child. There is something profound about the juxtaposition of these figures that, while possibly never intended by the devout person who installed them, opens the door to a magnificent truth.
It is patently paradoxical, this image, and paradox is often the hiding place of truth. Sequential logic and narrative literalism have been ignored in the placement of the figures; two iconic elements in the gospel story – the nativity and the passion – extracted from their rightful stations at opposite ends of the narrative and united in an other moment into which observers like you and me, when we sit before them in contemplation, also find ourselves invited. This other moment is now. It is both the simple now to which I am present and the eternal Now of God’s being present, which are in truth one and the same Now, and the only Now. It is the Now in which the Son eternally proceeds from the Father, the Virgin brings forth the Son and the Son gives himself back to the Father.
The deep truth here is that the Christ event – the birth, death and resurrection – is not locked into the historical past like some piece of distant family folklore that must be recited again and again by grandparents at family gatherings to be kept alive. It is not a museum piece. The Christ event is life itself, the ever-present miracle of God’s sending and receiving God’s-self in love that knows no limit. It is the continuous cosmic event into which story and symbol, sacrament and sacred silence invite us as participants.
So these anachronously related figures of the crucified one and the virgin mother invite me not merely to study them, admire them or use them as aids to prayer. They invite me deeper into lived participation. These icons invite me to take their imprint into my own consciousness and be them, to participate in the present moment as the receptive one in whom God’s Son is being born and the giving one in whom God’s love is being perfected. They invite me to participation in the birth of God and the death of self, not once but always.
The apostle expresses this when he says of the Lord’s death, ‘I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.’ And Augustine applies the same truth to the birth of God’s Son in eternity: ‘What does it avail me that this birth is always happening, if it does not happen in me? That it should happen in me is what matters.’
The invitation is there for us all. Right here. Right now. Take the moment in gratitude and give yourself to it fully in love.