Why Make the Heart of Christianity Something So Grotesque?

Why I'm Catholic

If you come with me into our local cathedral, you’ll see a large, beautiful interior with stained-glassed windows depicting saints and different biblical scenes. A Cathedral is like a regular Catholic church but on steroids. It is truly enormous inside, and the one near me is painted to look like something out of Medieval Europe. It’s not as authentically gorgeous as your 500-year-old European counterpart. We can’t all be the Sistine Chapel, but it’s still a sight to see.

I have no doubt, though, that despite all that beauty, your eyes will be drawn to the centerpiece of the whole place. It’s a crucifix hanging in midair by wires, like it’s floating there above the altar. A gaunt, mostly naked, bloodied man hangs there pinned against two pieces of wood.

That’s always the most strange thing about Cathedrals. They are made to look like the pinnacle of architecture and art, while at their core is the depiction of a tortured man.

People accuse the Catholic faith of being inordinately obsessed with suffering. I get that. Every Catholic church you walk into has a crucifix at it’s heart. It’s disturbing to think that God would save us by sacrificing his child. It should shock us.

So why make this the focal point? Is it not grotesque?

Maybe it is, but it’s also terribly important. Here are a few reasons why.

Suffering is a Part of Life

Our society doesn’t know what to do with suffering and death. We pretend it does not exist as much as possible.

It used to be the custom that someone’s body, after they died, would be laid out in the home for a couple days. It allowed for the long goodbye and the difficult process of accepting the person’s passing. Now, we whisk it away immediately. I’m sure there are good reasons for doing that, but it’s also a picture of what we do with the ugly realities of life.

The ethos of American culture seems to be, “Life is for pleasure.” Do what you want when you want as much as you can. But like in the story of the Buddha, nobody can keep themselves in a walled, palatial Garden of Eden forever.

We will get old. Our friends will die. Our relationships will get rocky and sometimes fall apart. We will lose jobs. Enlightenment comes when we realize that suffering is a part of life.

The crucifixion is a road sign of sorts: “Bumps ahead.” Even the Son of God couldn’t escape it. We need to embrace the fact that suffering is normal in this life. It will come. We should try to alleviate it where we can, but pretending we can live a pain-free life is to live in a fantasy.

Suffering Brings its Own Gifts

If I go to the gym and start lifting heavy weights, however tiring it is, I will grow stronger. If I start running every day in the cold and the heat, I will grow healthier.

The same principle applies to life in general. If I fast on Friday, it will be that much easier for me to refrain from eating that extra donut on Monday. If I submit myself to six years of med school, I will come out the other end with a high-paying job (hopefully).

After the crucifixion comes the resurrection and salvation of the world. It did not happen because it was good in and of itself. It was a means to an end. It was the key that unlocked the door to Heaven for everyone. This teaches us that suffering is the door through which we enter into a better life.

God Suffers with Us

If all you see when you see a Crucifix is a poor man dying, you’ve missed the point. We believe as Catholics that the man suffering on the Cross was God. When Jesus died on the Cross, God was dying on the Cross for us.

To say that God the Father sent Jesus to do the dirty of work of suffering and dying for humanity is not right. Jesus chose to die. He didn’t have to. And when Jesus died, in a way, the Father died with him. Who could watch their own son suffer and not wish a thousand times over that it was them and not their child taking the hit?

Jesus walking the dirty streets of Jerusalem, taking the ridicule of the religious leaders, being poor and hungry, staying up all night praying for the world, being beaten, tortured, and killed on a cross was God sharing in our suffering. No one can tell God, “You don’t understand what I’m going through.” He’s probably the only person who completely understands.

An Orthodox monk once said that even if Jesus didn’t have to die for the sins of humanity, he would have still become human and come down to earth. He loves us that much. This is a vital distinction between Christianity and every other religion. We worship a God who became like us in every way except in sinning because he loves us.

It’s for these reasons and more that I readily accept the Cross sitting at the heart of the Christian faith. We don’t love it because we love pain. We love it because it shows us how deeply God loves us. It shows us that our suffering has meaning as well, no matter how big or small it is.

More than that, it teaches us what it means to love one another. To love is to suffer at times. To care is to open yourself up to the risk of pain. It is that love that gives the Catholic faith it’s real beauty.

So step back with me into the Cathedral and see that hanging crucifix first. Then look at all the beautiful windows, paintings, and architecture around it. The beauty you see is because of the crucifix at its center.

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