sweetest wood, sweetest iron

One of my earliest memories of church is the Good Friday liturgy at St. Thomas the Apostle, where I grew up. I was about eight. The sanctuary was cool and dark, the light filtered gently through the stained glass windows. I heard a shuffle at the back, as the doors to the sanctuary opened to admit the altar party. Four men processed in, carrying a wooden crucifix. To my child’s eyes, that cross seemed enormous, more than life-sized.

The cross and the body nailed to it were solid wood, a warm, rich brown. It must have been heavy, perhaps even heavier than a real human body. But the four men carrying it held it gently. There was something tender in their grasp. They walked with the cross to the front of the sanctuary, their eyes cast down. When they reached the step up to the dais where the altar stood, they slowly lowered their charge to the floor, the horizontal bar of the arms laid parallel to the step to support the weight of body and cross.

I watched, rapt, while the other congregants made their way forward as we did for communion on Sunday. There were no ushers guiding them; everyone seemed to know what to do. My heart beat more quickly in my chest. I could see that as the other parishioners made their forward to the cross, they bent down and kissed or touched it. Some pressed their foreheads against Jesus’ forehead; some kissed his feet; some barely grazed the wood of his cross with their fingertips.

Desire flushed my skin as fear tightened my stomach. I both wanted to touch Jesus’ carved and crucified body and was scared of what might happen when I did. That Good Friday is the first time I remember feeling the curious mixture of fear and desire that I have come to recognize as a sign of proximity to the holy. I felt that same combination–skin tingling, heart beating faster, the urge to run–at each step of my monastic discernment. I often feel it today when I write or preach something true. It is, for me, one way my body’s knowledge of its origin soaks into my consciousness.

My turn came to walk toward the cross. As I moved down the center aisle of the church, the velvet quiet of the room bore down on me, urging me forward. I reached out and touched Jesus’ feet, surprised by the smoothness of the wood and also its hardness. I knelt down, the stone floor hard and cold beneath my knees. For the briefest moment my lips brushed the hard soft wood of Jesus’ feet. As I rose to return to my seat, I could still feel the sharp angularity of the nail against my lower lip.

Kneeling on the pillowed kneeler at my seat, I closed my eyes, breathing hard, blood flushing my warm skin. I was aware, even then, that something in the world had changed. An intuition of the unity of pain and beauty, death and salvation had wedged its way into my heart like the nail in Jesus’ feet. It was as if some great force of love, something so much bigger than I and, at the same time so much closer than I could imagine, was gazing on me, saw me fully. I wanted to relax into that presence. I also wanted to flee. My body knew years before my mind caught up: God had got hold of me, and he wasn’t going to let me go.

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4 Replies to “sweetest wood, sweetest iron”

  1. “… the curious mixture of fear and desire that I have come to recognize as a sign of proximity to the holy.” That is beautifully and succinctly said, and so close to my own experience of God. Thank you for giving me some words to describe those wondrous moments.


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