The Shadow Cast by the Cross

April 14, 1995|By WILLIAM H. KEELER

Today is a somber day for Christians, coming at the end of a somber season, but it is also a day of hope. For 40 days Christians have been on a Lenten pilgrimage of prayer, of penance and of almsgiving; a pilgrimage still incomplete because it is made in preparation for the Easter feast. The mystery of the betrayal, suffering and death of Jesus is upon us.

Today Christians turn to reflect upon the central symbol of our faith, the cross. Today is the day of the cross, the symbol of punishment that brings freedom, the symbol of affliction that brings mercy and hope, the symbol of death that opens us up to new life.

A remarkable painting by Tintoretto depicts the nativity of Jesus. Mary and Joseph and the infant are shown in a loving family embrace. The painting is full of peace and light.

But the canvas carries a discordant element -- the crossbeams in the manger's roof cast a shadow over the happy scene, the shadow of the cross.

Today, the shadow of the cross reminds us that shadows can still fall upon our lives. Shadows with names which can sometimes change, even be dressed up with the language of psychology, but shadows nonetheless.

About the year 600, St. Gregory the Great, a monk who became pope, identified seven serious shadows of the inner soul, a list worth recalling in a day when other lists tend to chart the superficial:

* Pride, the impulse and sometimes the inclination in the human heart to set too high a store on self, on one's own worth. The proud person can walk in great inner darkness because the claims of others and the claims of God go unseen.

* Envy, the shadow which comes on the spirit because of a sadness at another's success, another's joy.

* Anger: How often are homes upset or work places thrown out of joint because darkness in the heart leads to an explosive loss of temper.

* Greed, a persistent shadow which can tempt one to forget that stewardship, not ownership, best describes how one should relate to material things and indeed to creation itself. Greed brings wrong priorities in its wake, and eventually disillusion.

* Lust, a roiling of the emotions, a pull of the senses beyond the bounds of what one knows is right. It is sexuality twisted out of context, denied the rule of reason and of grace.

* Sloth, a hesitancy, an apathy and tiredness before the spiritual, making one slow to walk in ways of industry or prayer.

* Gluttony, a shadow which comes when hunger for food and thirst for drink have gone out of control, harming physical and spiritual health.

Too often all these shadows can draw nurture from the culture around us.

Beyond these seven shadows on the spirit, there are other personal shadows cast by other crosses -- problems that perplex, sorrows that burden, disappointments that stab at the heart, and tragedy that can sadden, even overwhelm a person.

Today, the shadow of the cross reminds us also that many more visible shadows are cast upon our world. On Good Friday the Gospel of Matthew reports, ''Darkness covered the earth.'' It was kind of an eclipse, an eclipse the Gospel ascribes to evil, to the total burden of human sin.

In that same darkness today huddle children in Burundi and Sudan, stomachs swollen, lips parched; in that darkness crouch senior citizens of Bosnia and Chechnya, faced with weariness, eyes heavy with mourning and loss; in that darkness move the homeless of our own city, drained of hope and energy. In that darkness walk also those who depend on drugs and turn to violence because they cannot draw the line between right and wrong in life.

But the one upon the cross, accepting suffering and desolation, shows also the high value of the worth and dignity of those for whom he dies, for our human family.

On the cross Jesus faces suffering with deep serenity. His peace was accepting the will of another for the good of all. In faith those who believe find on the cross God where he is least expected, in the midst of the results of human sin, experiencing our human suffering and our human moments of darkness.

Easter comes now as a special feast so sweeping, so uplifting, so full of joy. This joy reaches out through the ancient signs of the church's worship, through nature refreshed in the newness of spring flowers, through the quiet power of God's word. With Easter faith come alive, inner shadows fade, hope dawns, dark places yield to divine light which does not fail.

Cardinal Keeler is archbishop of Baltimore.

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