I had a love-hate relationship with my mother’s tweezers and sewing needles growing up. I always ran to my mom when I so often would get wood slivers in my fingers as I spent summer days outside on our Northeastern Colorado farm. Back then I was found climbing fences, running in and out of sheds, racing down the cornfield jungles, and darting in and out of woodpiles. During those adventures I too often acquired those tiny, hard-to-see slivers that became embedded in my fingertips, little more than a particle to the naked eye. They were, nevertheless, painful, especially for a small child. I was also the youngest and only boy in the family, so I could cast a dramatic caper over any situation. I could never bear to watch as my mother always successfully removed them with those needles and tweezers.
Recalling the pain of slivers in my fingers as a child also reminded me of the relics of the True Cross, so many of them little more than a sliver of wood. I have encountered a few of these slivers in churches and even some that are claimed to be owned by individuals. I will confess that I have felt a powerful presence around most of them, even if some of them may be difficult to verify. How precious they are if authentic! It seems paradoxical that most all of the slivers of suffering in my life I want the Lord to take away from me and yet I desire to spend time praying with these all important wood slivers.
Our Sliver of Suffering
From our earliest years we experienced pain and suffering to varying degrees. We all know this quite personally. Christ Jesus, who goes before us in all things, did not seek to utterly shield us from pain in this life. He actually emphasized our own need to suffer: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). It must not be forgotten that we are members of the body of Christ and all suffering of ours offered up in love, our own crosses united to the cross of Christ, become redemptive in union with him.
In Salvific Dolorsi (On The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering), Pope St. John Paul II spoke of the poignant reality that our own sufferings then bear a sliver of Christ’s once-for-all passion that was completely sufficient to save each and every human person that ever lived, lives, or shall live. In each of us, in each of our hearts, is found a priceless splinter of the Passion of Christ that is ours to bear, ours to unite to the his once-for-all sacrifice: “Those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world’s Redemption, and can share this treasure with others” (SD 7).
Inasmuch as we open our hearts, accept his Passion, and unite our sufferings to Christ, we therefore make up for what is lacking in Christ’s sacrifice; that is, our acceptance and embrace of his salvation sufficient for all mankind that nonetheless to be effective individually requires our own experience and loving acceptance of suffering drawn up into his passion and death. If we are to follow Jesus we must pick up our own crosses. In so doing, we know that Christ’s own passion, accomplished by the greatest love that ever shall be, lives in us, this particle of our redemption that St. John Paul spoke of really contained in our hearts.
Sharing in Christ’s Cross
I was reminded of this same particle by Saint Paul who said that we are “…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:10-11). The wood of the crucifix was an instrument of the greatest Roman torture.
But we know the rest of the story. We know that it became the instrument of life-giving love when the Word-made-flesh laid down his life and was lifted up. When the eternal God enters human history as a man, when he enters into time, every moment of human life is redeemed, and when God-made-man suffers, this universal reality of human suffering, which every individual knows, which seemed so senseless, takes on infinite value. Every moment of man’s life is raised to divine dignity, every moment of human existence becomes sanctified by God who by taking on a human nature really and truly experiences them firsthand. This is no clock-maker God that creates and then tosses his handiwork aside, leaving his creatures to their own devices. No, this is a God who saves, and who not only saves but yearns to make us co-workers in all that he does, including the redemption of the human race.
Yes, his sacrifice was all sufficient, but as the Body of Christ, our own suffering thus becomes transformed into an occasion of limitless potential for joy, transformation, and the redemption of others, because our own suffering becomes an intimate encounter, an intimate communion with our Lord on the Cross. The timeless God has entered time and all times are contained in him! Christ is really present in our lives, and as Christ’s Paschal Mystery, historically having occurred, is really made present at Mass in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, our own experience of suffering really becomes an occasion of our being present with Christ at his Passion. He knew us each intimately before he had created us and long before we were even a twinkle in our parents’ eyes. We were each deeply in mind as he hung on the Cross. We know him now, and tenderly so, in our encounters with him in our own agonies.
The History of the True Cross
In the late Middle Ages and Enlightenment period, the multitude of relics of the true cross that many churches and individuals prided themselves in possessing came under intense scrutiny. Erasmus of Rotterdam claimed that an entire cargo ship couldn’t hold all the purported true cross relics, and Martin Luther in turn claimed that one could build a house out of alleged true cross relics. The point of both of these critics was that all of the alleged true cross relics found across the world could not possibly be authentic.
When this claim was examined more closely by a French architect named Charles Rohault de Fleury in the 1800s, his research concluded that all validly recognized and known relics of the true cross the world over only added up to approximately one-ninth of the volume of the expected total volume of the true cross in its original condition on Calvary.
The Slivers in Our Hearts
While there is strong evidence to point to the authenticity of the discovery of the true cross which is now splintered and spread across the globe, a fact even shared by the Church which commemorates Saint Helena’s discovery of the true cross with the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross each year on September 14th, I do wonder about the other eight-ninths of the cross that seem to be unaccounted for. Call it a fanciful theory if you must, but perhaps the rest of the true cross, having decayed and disintegrated over time, is distributed and dwelling, one precious particle at a time in each of us, like a seed waiting to sprout into new life when we open our hearts to picking up our own crosses and following Christ in his mission of redemptive suffering.
Christ’s birth came about in the cold and poverty of the stable cave of Bethlehem , wrapped in swaddling clothes, the Holy Family rejected by all those who could have taken them in. Christ’s death came about in the impoverished surroundings of the bleak Calvary Hill amidst cold hearts that rejected him, his sacrifice ending with his being swaddled in burial cloths and laid to rest in yet another cave. Here in this transitional season between Christmas and Lent, let us allow the wood of the manger and the wood of the Cross both in turn to captivate us with amazement at the intensity of Christ Jesus’ love for us in the face of hate, despair, indifference, tepidity, and darkness.
(Note: this information came from Witness to Mystery: Investigations into Christ’s Relics by Grzegorz Gorny and Janusz Rosikon.)