Gazing on the Crucified Jesus

A meditation by Fr R. Rohr

Those who “gaze upon” the crucified Jesus (John 19:37) long enough—with contemplative eyes—are always healed at deep levels of pain, unforgiveness, aggression, and victimhood. It demands no theological education at all, just an “inner exchange” by receiving the image within and offering one’s soul back in safe return.

“The crucified Jesus is no stranger” to any part of human history, as Dom Sebastian Moore so wisely put it. [1] The Crucified One offers, at a largely unconscious level, a very compassionate meaning system for history. The mystery of the rejection, suffering, passion, death, and raising up of Jesus is the interpretative key for what history means and where it is all going. Without such cosmic meaning and soul significance, the agonies and tragedies of humanity feel like Shakespeare’s “sound and fury signifying nothing.” The body can live without food easier than the soul can live without such meaning.

Theologian Serene Jones has reflected deeply on trauma and the cross. It is an event that both repels us and draws us near. We don’t fully understand it, but there’s a redeeming reason we are drawn to the image again and again:

The meaning [of the cross] that counts most on a day-to-day basis is the one nestled deep within the beholder’s heart—and hearts are too unwieldy and often unpredictable sites of meaning-making. The cross makes sense in ways that do not make sense. Imprinted on our conscious minds, it animates our unconscious compulsions and drives in ways that escape us. We live within the story but are not always sure quite how. We both know it and don’t know it. . . . Grace is grace. It comes. [2]

If all these human crucifixions are leading to some possible resurrection, and are not dead-end tragedies, this changes everything. If God is somehow participating in human suffering, instead of just passively tolerating it and observing it, that also changes everything—at least for those who are willing to “gaze” contemplatively.

This deep gazing upon the mystery of divine and human suffering is found in the prophet Zechariah in a very telling text that became a prophecy for the transformative power of the victims of history. He calls Israel to “Look upon the pierced one and to mourn over him as for an only son,” and “weep for him as for a firstborn child,” and then “from that mourning” (five times repeated) will flow “a spirit of kindness and prayer” (12:10) and “a fountain of water” (13:1, 14:8).

Today this is perhaps what we would call “grief work,” holding the mystery of pain and looking right at it and learning deeply from it, which normally leads to an uncanny and newfound compassion and understanding.

I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified to soften our hearts toward God, and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our own suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer too—in one great wave of universal mercy.

[1] Sebastian Moore, The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger (Seabury Press: 1977).

[2] Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, 2nd ed. (Westminster John Knox: 2019), 73.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 186, 192.

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