For seven years I lived and worked on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana. Four of those years I served as a pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Church at the reservation agency.
When I arrived at Sacred Heart, I was asked if there was anything I could do with the almost life size crucifix that formerly hung in the old Sacred Heart Church. Paint was peeling off it and there were gouges in the plaster. What struck me was that Jesus was pale, blue eyed and blond! Here was a figure in the midst of a Native American reservation with a Jesus who didn’t look like the people. He didn’t even look Jewish!
Thanks to my art classes at Ursuline College I knew how to repair the plaster. Then I chose paint that gave Jesus the skin of the people who gazed upon him. Same with the hair and eyes.
My next step was a transformational experience for me. I began to paint the blood. I studied the positions and planes of the hands and feet and judged which direction the blood would flow. I got very close to the figure and I felt as though I were hovering over the real Jesus. The paint was so much like real blood. That was when I wept. The impact of Jesus’ sacrifice seemed to be right in my face.
As I reflect on this experience now, it reinforces to me that Jesus was not some figure who was immune to pain and suffering. Some people use the expression: He embraced his pain. That turns his pain and experience into something vanilla. Every whiplash, every thorn pushed into his skull, every movement around nails in his hands and feet shot streaks of pain through his whole body. Jesus was one who suffered as you or I would. In the midst of waves of pain Jesus had moments of feeling forsaken. He cried out: “ Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”. There was nothing heroic or idyllic about the blood and gore.
Despite this, I recall that through his pain Jesus stayed in the present. He still had the compassion and generosity to leave his Image on Veronica’s veil, to give hope to the thief by promising him paradise that day, by arranging for John to take care of his mother and for his mother to accept John as her son, and by forgiving those who tortured, beat and crucified him with a far reaching understanding: “They know not what they do.”
I know the end of the story and Jesus did, too. He rose from the dead on Easter. But pain has a way to make everything in the Now. If I am going to learn a lesson from this it is to recognize that I can’t endure something just waiting for it to be over. If Jesus embraced something it was being in the moment. His love for humankind is evident in his very breath, words and actions that we read in the Gospels. He was living in the present.