I recently read a couple of excellent articles (here and here) which brought to my attention the case of the Carrauntoohill Cross, a cross that had been on top of Ireland’s highest mountain for decades, before being sadly cut down by vandals last week. Thankfully, after calls from an atheist group in Ireland to prevent its being re-established on the mountain-top, a group of local people responded to overwhelming public support in favour of the cross being restored and re-welded it to its base. Unfortunately this is only one of a handful of acts of desecration that have taken place in Ireland in recent years, and these sorry affairs have brought many face to face with the state of the Church in Ireland and the growing antipathy towards Catholicism there.
The recent incident concerning the Carrauntoohill Cross brought to mind a poem by Thomas Blackburn (1916 – 1977). Entitled A Broken Image, it describes the finding of a broken and abandoned old crucifix by a couple walking in the Italian Alps, who then take the image of Christ, pulled away from the frame of the cross, home with them and attach it to the wall of their dining room. I know very little about the life of Thomas Blackburn, other than that he had a very troubled life, and know even less about his religious beliefs, but this poem is rich with Christian imagery and speaks powerfully of the patient suffering of Christ on His Cross, as well as the way in which that holy image continues to open up new possibilities for us despite our continual abandonment of the One who we see there:
Walking in the Alps, my wife and I
Found a broken cross, half buried under
A fall of rock and turf and red scree.
Since it came away, the figure
Of Christ, easily from its rusted
Nail, under a worm-eaten, weather
Worn image of wood we transported
From Italy without permission
We drink our wine now, eat our daily bread.
Since friends who come here often mention
The great skill of an anonymous
Carver of beech-wood, the conversation
Is enriched by his being with us
As at Cana, I’d say, if the bowed head
With any locality or surface
Chatter could be associated.
Leaning forward, as it does, from our wall
To where silence is concentrated
Outside and within the ephemeral
Constellations of energy,
Because it says nothing reasonable,
This image explains nothing away,
And just by gazing into darkness
Is able to mean more than words can say.
The opening stanzas, in which Blackburn describes the weather-worn state of the crucifix, and mentions prising out a nail to release the figure of Christ from the frame, instantly bring to the fore the Passion of Our Lord – the image that will play the central part in this poem is of one who has already suffered, and must be taken down from His Cross because He will not come down of His own accord; He stays there, bearing the suffering we lay upon Him, out of love. And despite having been removed from the cross, He will remain in the cruciform position on the couple’s wall – always with His arms spread out, in reminder of where He has been taken down from.
Blackburn then mentions that the figure of Christ is placed in the room where they eat, where ‘we drink our wine now, eat our daily bread’, which language is of course, in this context, deeply suggestive of the consecrated elements of the Holy Eucharist, and the fact that the couple eats in the presence of this image brings to mind something that is more than just a meal, in fact a sharing in the very life of Our Lord. It is as if Blackburn, by placing Christ above the table where bread and wine are shared, is trying to connect His presence in the Eucharist with his continual presence in the midst of our daily lives – a reminder that whilst this presence is very different in kind to the Presence in the elements, we are nonetheless accompanied by Him in all times and places.
The reference to Cana makes this more explicit, recalling the many times Our Lord met and mixed with people during His earthly ministry, and deepens the sense we have that God is indeed in all things. And yet His presence is always as the One who draws us away from the purely mundane and leads us out, through the darkness of the Cross into richer and brighter pastures. His presence is always as One who has suffered and continues to bear the suffering and sin of the world; who ‘explains nothing away’ but patiently continues in His one, self-consistent act of perfect Love, opening up a door to the light in even the darkest corners of our existence. He is willing to be battered and bruised for our sakes, that we might see the way He sees and turn from our sins to a path of true freedom in love.
Those nameless people who sawed down the Carrauntoohill Cross, and those who desecrated other holy images in Ireland (as well as, no doubt, in many other parts of the world that had once been so strong in the Catholic Faith) enable us, in a strange way, to see more clearly what Saint Paul talked about in his famous hymn about the humiliation of Christ in Philippians 2:5-10, and what Our Lord knew of His own fate, connecting it immediately with Saint Peter’s profession of His true identity – because He is the Son of God, therefore He must suffer many things, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (c.f.; Matthew 16:13-28).
Whilst the guilt of these nameless people is great, their cowardly acts give us cause to think once again about how central a part of Our Lord’s mission it was to become powerless, to give Himself over to a sinful world and allow Himself to be subject to suffering at the hands of evil men. Every act of desecration, every time that His image is scarred or attacked, can only serve to remind us that it was and is by humiliation and long-suffering that our redemption was achieved. This is the power of the Cross of Christ – that whatever you do to it, or to Him who reigns upon it, all you do is to draw attention to the incredible love of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Thus the events at Carrauntoohill and elsewhere, rather than scoring some kind of perverse victory against Christ and His Church, instead only serve to expose the hatred of those who commit them, and give occasion for the light of Christ to shine anew.