Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Today is a remarkable feast for the Church, but also for our community of St. Catherine’s. We celebrate today the 3rd anniversary of the installation and blessing of the Cross of the Stigmata of St. Catherine of Siena!
The depiction in Sacred art of the Passion and Death of Our Lord has a complex history, and for our community, an interesting connection to the Dominicans. While the Cross (and crucifixes) might be the norm today, it was not so for early Christians. The first Christians chose simple symbols of Our Lord, such as the icthus sign of a fish, or a combination of the Greek letters chi and rho (what looks like a capital X and P combined). But Christians were slow to identify their faith with the moment of the brutal execution of the Lord. Crucifixion was a horrible practice of state torture and death. At the (now) Dominican head church in Rome, Santa Sabina, at the doors to the entrance of the church is a small wood panel depicting the crucifixion. This is one of the earliest depictions in existence, dated to around the 5th century. The depiction of the Cross is a development of the spirituality of Christians, and today shares a connection with the Dominicans.
Almost six centuries later, after some monks flee the East and come to Italy in the West, there comes into existence a school of painting (one of many) in the region around the Italian cities of Pisa and Lucca. One of these Crosses, painted around the late 11th-century, came to be at the church of San Cristina in Pisa during the lifetime of St. Catherine of Siena. One day, while attending Mass at San Cristina, St. Catherine experienced a vision of Our Lord and mystically received the Stigmata, the wounds of Christ Crucified. This Cross, which was the miraculous image through with St. Catherine received her vision of the Lord, became known as the Cross of the Stigmata of St. Catherine of Siena. A few centuries after her death (1375), the Cross was moved from Pisa to the sanctuary church of St. Catherine in Siena, where it stands today.
In 2019, to deepen our connection with the life and spirituality of our patroness St. Catherine, this miraculous image of the Cross of the Stigmata of St. Catherine was painted anew and brought to our chapel. As we saw with the development of the depiction of the crucifixion in art, so too our Cross has an interesting place in the development of sacred art. When we think of a crucifix, we usually think of a simple wooden cross upon which hangs the dead body of Jesus. In the Eastern of icons, Jesus cannot (normally) be depicted as suffering or dead. He is God who, triumphs on the Cross. Whereas images of Christ suffering on the Cross became normative in the development of Western religious art, the Eastern tradition shows forth God who “reigns from a tree.” In our Cross, Jesus’ eyes are open. He looks at you directly, not with the pained and tortured eyes, but with a clear and sober light. He is showing you the depths of Divine Love, the love that is not destroyed by death, but conquers it. He is inviting you to live in that Divine Love, not out of an emotional plea, but from a sober revelation of Divine Love and Mercy. In classic Eastern tradition, this depiction of Our Lord actually combines multiple mysteries of faith. Notice that Jesus’ body is not weighed down, it has a lifting lightness to it. Notice that we can subtly discern the Cross by its shape. Notice the red floral pattern of the cross shape, evoking the “cross of the Lord that stands revealed as the tree of life.” Notice that it is not Jesus’ dead body on the Cross, but the Christ who lives. Combine this together, and we have all three mysteries present at the same time: the Passion, Death, and Resurrection. What we see is Christ Crucified, Christ who died, and the Risen Christ.
Today, let us thank God for the mystery of the Cross, whereby God redeemed us all.
Please join me in praying for our mission to the University of Utah. Let us offer prayers to the Father for the good of the University and for our community of St. Catherine’s, for discernment, peace, and continued conversion.