Reflecting on the San Damiano cross on Good Friday

"Like St Francis of Assisi, my life was changed in front of the San Damiano cross."

Like St Francis of Assisi, my life was changed in front of the San Damiano cross.

The year was 2014, and I was nearing the end of my PhD in physics. After a very successful beginning to my academic career, I had now submitted a dozen job applications with no result but a couple of rejection emails and a lot of silence. On this particular day, a personal disappointment had left me unable to concentrate. I went for a walk to clear my head, and found myself in St Francis’ Chapel.

As I prayed, I gazed up at the cross, prominently displayed above the altar. But not at the figure of Jesus. Instead, my eyes were drawn to the tiny rooster, only a few centimetres tall even on this life-sized crucifix. I cast my mind back to a mentor’s explanation that the minuteness of the rooster—which of course represents Peter’s denial of Jesus—shows how sin is dwarfed by the immensity of God’s love.

The rooster on the San Damiano cross.

It then struck me, more deeply than it ever had before, that Good Friday really is good. The gospel of Jesus really is good news. We all know that we sin, and we all experience pain in our lives, whether great or small. But the love of God is unfathomably greater than any sin or pain, and we don’t have to earn or achieve it: it has been freely and completely given to us in Jesus.

When we meditate on Jesus’ Passion, it’s easy to focus on the brutal reality of crucifixion and Jesus’ physical pain, as well as the pain of abandonment by his friends. Or, if we’ve had more experience accompanying people in suffering than suffering ourselves, we might contemplate the anguish of Mary standing beside the cross of her son. These are indeed important focuses. They tell us about humanity: the destruction that results from human sin, the trials that life inevitably includes, and the profound importance of standing beside others in their difficulties.

But I believe a far more important focus is Jesus’ enduring love. Nothing—not betrayal, or being falsely condemned, or the physical torment he undergoes—shakes his resolve to give himself completely to his mission of announcing God’s message of love. And that’s what God’s love is like: undimmed no matter how far we turn away from God, and capable of triumphing over any situation in which we might find ourselves.

This love is not distant, but sacramental: we make it present in the world by what we do. There’s always richness to be found in contemplating the intimate link between Jesus’ gift of himself on the cross and his ongoing gift of himself in the Eucharistic celebration of the Christian community. Likewise, there’s profound baptismal imagery in the blood and water that John tells us flowed from Jesus’ pierced side. But the named Sacraments don’t exhaust the sacramentality of God’s love. When we welcome the stranger, or give shelter to those who are homeless, or console those who mourn, we are making God’s victory—a victory of love over evil—present as truly as Jesus did at Golgotha. Sometimes this victory will be manifested in this world: our efforts to bring God’s vision to reality will have success. Other times, all we can do is entrust the world as it is to God’s care, trusting like Jesus that God’s love will be manifested in a way we can’t fully comprehend, even if that happens only in a life beyond this one.

I realised then that I had found what I was missing. My unsettledness had come not so much from disappointment as from not knowing where my life was heading: where I would be living and working a year from now. Kneeling before the cross, I still didn’t know where I would be next year, but I knew something more important. As much as I loved physics, it was only a piece of my life, not a foundation. Now I had found my foundation: taking this astounding, joyful news of the power of God’s love, and sharing it with others in whatever way I could. My research and teaching, my friendships and my daily choices should be ways of carrying this out.

For me, that’s what it means to “serve beneath the banner of the Cross”, in the words of the Jesuits’ founding document. It doesn’t mean an exclusive focus on Jesus’ suffering and death. Rather, it calls for a constant awareness of the limitlessness of God’s love for me and for each person I meet, and a desire to actively share in that love. If we are faithful in bringing the news of God’s love to others, we will recognise how Good Friday is good, and all of our days (even the bad ones) will be Good.

Matthew Pinson SJ


Image details: San Damiano cross in small medieval altar dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Perugia Province, Umbria Region, Italy