During the last month two friends of mine who do not know each other told me the story of their early life. Both stories involved some kind of horrific abuse endured when they were small or very young. I included both of them in my prayers and meditation. I will try to explain the unusually rich results of that meditation here.
A few years ago a priest I met told me: “To those He loves the most, Jesus gives the choicest splinters of the Cross.” I found that to be a very profound statement. We accept without any doubt that the Cross is evidence of God’s love for mankind. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16) but we often do not realize the importance of that verse.
During his moments of agony in Gethsemane Christ looked at the cup filled with our sins, a chalice of death so different from his Eucharistic Chalice of Life as it can possibly be. He had to drink it to the dredges. The Passion of Christ starts with him begging not to drink from the dreaded cup but also with his expression of submission to God’s will. The Passion also ends when he drinks the vinaccio in his last moment on the Cross. Then he says “it is accomplished” and dies but the phrase belongs to the liturgy of the Paschal meal of the Jews when the older man of the house drinks the last of the cups of wine. Here a cycle opens and closes fraught with deep meaning. In that cycle Jesus suffers but it is logically impossible for Him to complete in one human life the long catalog of mankind’s suffering. The rest will have to be completed by the Church – St Paul says that much: “I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the Church.” (Colossians 1:24)
Consider the specific suffering of those who had unnaturally deviant, sadistic, indifferent, or cruel parents. Jesus could not have redeemed that kind of pain when he was small – his hour to suffer was yet to come – and even if that was possible, he had a perfect set of parents, a perfect Mother and Father, and the loving protection of his putative father St Joseph to guide him through his early human life. How could that particular suffering of the abused children be redeemed? That is where the Church comes in, a subtly different meaning for the old dictum: Ecclesia supplet. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
If we are part of the Church we will have a share on Christ’s Cross. That is our privilege. “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descended from David, as preached in my gospel, the gospel for which I am suffering and wearing fetters like a criminal. But the word of God is not fettered. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus with its eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.” (2 Timothy 2:8-13)
The apse of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC depicts Christ the Pantokrator in majesty, ready to judge the world. All the attributes of his Divinity are there: the eyes that penetrate to the depths of every soul, the royal vestments, the Throne of Glory, His archangels surrounding Him. And yet what Christ is showing to the Church are not those attributes but the stigmata, the five wounds of the Cross. He wears them as an old soldier that shows his medals courageously earned in the battlefield.
That never fails to remind me of the words of King Henry in Shakespeare’s play:
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Battle wounds eventually turn into scars, the silent witnesses of former violence and pain. No medal can really compare to those. One day in Heaven when all the souls of the saints gather at Mount Zion’s assembly of the Sons of God … some will show unique scars that the others won’t have. Just like Christ’s Stigmata, those are wounds here on earth, and yet in Heaven they are turned into medals of great honor, precious marks of the ultimate fidelity and courage. Now imagine God explaining those special medals to the other saints and teaching them what they represent:
“These, my beloved, are marks of the highest honor. For these children of mine earned them when they knew not my mercy, nor my glory. Then they suffered alone and bore the brunt of the Cross not even having a fully developed body or soul to assist them in their ordeal. Let them approach my Throne to enjoy the choicest fruits of my mercy and wisdom with their fully grown souls, those who – alone and small – faced the forces of darkness and prevailed.”
If there is merit in accepting one’s cross having some knowledge of the Gospel, how much more merit there is in enduring the brutality of abortion, infanticide, and child abuse without the soothing hope of Christ. Those have to be perhaps the “choicest splinters of the Cross” the ones possessing the full weight of glory.
King Henry seems to think the same way. Those suffering together are bound forever with the strongest bond.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.