I never paid attention to the crucifix or the ritual of signing the cross. In March 1970, that changed after Sgt. Wolfgram signed the cross, praying, “God hide us from a superior enemy force hunting us.”
I was a doubting Thomas, rationalizing our fortuitous luck to serendipity. In war, you look for something to believe in. In the midst of peril we turned to God. It’s the way a soldier holds his crucifix when he's praying in a foxhole.
At St. Bede Church’s 61st birthday party this fall, I met Monsignor Antonio Cacciapouti. I was curious why people were drawn to him. After we were introduced, I understood Joseph Campbell’s assertion, “A person with vitality vitalizes others.”
Monsignor was excited to show me St. Bede’s new crucifix. Why did the crucifix, its symbolism, and liturgy fill him with euphoria? What did he see that I couldn’t? I had a million questions and I would ask them all.
Initially I believed the image of a lifeless, pale body glimmering on a dark night carried a whisper of defeat. I didn’t understand why Christ didn’t summon angels to rescue him. But he chose not to because of us. I never heard God crying out to humanity, “I love you.” At Calvary, God accepted his own unbreakable terms of justice.
The crucifix at St. Bede, sculpted by Otello Scatolini, is a replica of the original crafted by an unknown artist in the 14th century. On Nov. 24, Archbishop Gomez will bless Saint Bede’s crucifix at the 5:30 Mass.
The original hangs in the Sistine Chapel. When Monsignor was in Rome he was drawn to this crucifix; it reminded him of God’s love.
“As a child I was captivated by the Crucifix, the idea that Jesus died on the cross for me,” he told me. “I wanted to be priest to give back in his name.”
I was curious about the liturgy of the crucifix. The secret to its significance would lie in that realm. Monsignor explained, “It is symbolic of joy and suffering. It gives us purpose.”
I marveled how he intricately weaved metaphors, mythology, symbolism, doctrine, philosophy and history to explain that the crucifix is foundational to the church.
My thoughts are an analysis of Monsignor’s explanation of this liturgy. He was insistent that I be accurate. I read my notes and then I read them again.
Love was assured for all posterity in that lonely figure that hung on the cross. Monsignor explained, “Christ’s death tells us, life is not fair. Things happen that we have no control of.”
However, suffering invites us to place our hurts in larger hands. The crucifix is symbolic of Christ suffering for us. We are called to share in God’s suffering. Our pain is intimately connected with the greater pains of Christ. Subsequently, our sorrows are anchored in a greater sorrow and therefore a larger hope.
Jesus’ last word was “Tetelestai!” It meant, “Paid in full.” He declared the debt of sin canceled. Jesus paid our debt in full by giving his life so that we might live forever.
I finally understood Monsignor’s words: “Jesus’ death is our salvation; his death on the cross is symbolic of when life begins.”
Take a close look at the crucifix hanging above the altar at Saint Bede’s. If you see its significance, you’ll understand your faith.
Maybe Sergeant Wolfgram was right. Maybe those North Vietnamese soldiers walking right past us without seeing us was nothing short of a miracle.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.