“Likewise, either on the altar or near it, there is to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, a cross clearly visible to the assembled people. It is desirable that such a cross should remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations, so as to call to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord.” General Instructions on the Roman Missal (308)
Last November at the 11:00 o’clock Mass on the Solemnity of Christ the King, I sat in the south transept of my parish church, the church of my youth, in a chair tucked away for the lector. Just over the chair is the parish’s large, antique crucifix—the kind often found in old French-Canadian parishes, impressive in its realism and its witness to death.
Having been in an elevated, central location for generations, I’m told that a pastor in the 1970s had placed the old crucifix briefly in a dumpster and then (after it was spotted by a parishioner) in its current, off-to-the-side location. For decades hence, the sanctuary’s central image has been a less dramatic statue of the Risen Christ.
From my vantage as lector that Sunday, I studied the old crucifix’s lifeless expression of Jesus Christ with an understanding only recently gained—the kind that comes after accompanying a loved one in their journey of sickness and death. Two months to the day before that Mass, my 93-year-old mother took her last breaths as complications of Parkinson’s Disease stilled a once vibrant, athletic, and loving woman.
As she died, my brother and I held her hands, which also held a rosary. She was at home, alone with two of her sons on an otherwise promising September morning. I had been her caretaker for twenty-five years—a role that began after my father’s death and that expanded year by the year, then day by day, with various complications and then the Parkinson’s diagnosis—a brutal, debilitating, mind-altering disease—and then the loss of a brother, my mom’s second son, and then, a week after that, the lockdown of COVID-19.
It was then that I truthfully became her full-time caregiver, in every meaning of that word.
The complicated realities of my mom’s final years unleashed with her death an even more complicated mix of emotions that I am still unravelling. And because of all this, I have come to see—truly see—the wisdom of paragraph 308 in the General Instruction for the Roman Missal. I have come to know—truly know—the importance of the central image of Christians from the earliest days, and why we must not hide this truth from others or hide it from ourselves.
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