Today is Good Thursday. For me, at least.
A few weeks ago we commissioned an elderly saint in our fellowship to build us a cross. We wanted it so big that he was forced to make it hollow so we could still raise it twenty feet in the air to display at the front of our sanctuary. He did a marvellous job, capping the stray ends this morning before turning it over to me. My job? To distress the wood. I’d envisioned an “old rugged cross” vs. a pop star heirloom, so I came to work this morning armed with the merciless tools I planned to inflict on the unsuspecting wood. As it turns out, the wood knew the truth all along; it was I who walked into these moments unsuspecting.
I began with a simple hammer and chisel, working from the bottom upward. It was exhausting. Twenty minutes in, I realized this project might very well take me all day. My second realization rendered the first one irrelevant: I was not just “making a cross.” This was art, a sacred invitation to express my faith visually in a way that just might impact others for generations.
My heart burst into flame.
I hammered, I chiselled, I pounded and I scraped and gouged and dragged, until my back was wet and my swelling arms quivered with intensity. A vine-like tangle of markings climbed the shank of the cross as I worked. Forty five minutes later my third realization hit: This was not just a cross, not even just art. This was a labour of love for my Saviour. It was deeply, deeply spiritual.
The bright coals of my heart, already burning fiercely, crumbled then in deference to the spiking heat.
I stood back, admiring my work, catching my breath. It was lunch time. The phone in my back pocket warbled. I didn’t care. I wanted to abide in the moment. I dove back in with new eyes. I traced the savage contours more gently, scarring the wood with passion torn in two directions. Deeper. Deeper. My pounding reminds me of the crucifixion. It’s as if I’m doing it to Jesus himself—yet I must finish this, must bring out the ugliness before the beauty can burst forth. Running my fingers along the wounds, I let the wood bite my own flesh. Jesus was a carpenter by trade, before he began his ministry. Surely the wood must have spoken to him before that day.
It spoke to me. The splinters hurt, but I relished the painful message. I noticed blood on my palm and I welcomed it, as if working on a cross without blood on my hands to show for it might be a kind of sacrilege. And then, suddenly, I’d finished the distressing. The scars I inflicted in the proud beams will remain as long as the wood remains, just as Christ bears his scars for me.
It was time to stain the piece outside.
I grunted the cross onto my back, assuming the classic pose, and it tore into my shoulder. I winced, then dragged it across the floor toward the door. I almost stumbled under the awkward weight, this hollow symbol carved from wood that used to be a living thing. Christ’s cross wasn’t hollow. But it wasn’t just full of wood, either. It was soaked in darkness, death, and damnation.
Outside, I plunged an old cloth into the gallon of stain and remembered my own stains, the psychic ink that made the cross inevitable for Jesus. The wood drank in the stain like it had been waiting for this day, and the richness of the gnarled beam began to emerge through the scars. I’d begun the staining carefully, but then moved more quickly as I gained confidence. It splashed my arm, covered the beam, painted the asphalt beneath it. It felt like Christ’s spattered love and life on that day of days.
I had a moment of weakness then as I considered what to do with the backside of the cross. No one will see it once it’s mounted, so I considered not staining it or perhaps just giving it one coat. Somehow, though, the idea of cutting corners with the cross of Jesus Christ put me to shame and I remembered my labor of love. Every square inch, no matter how invisible, received the same attention. But what was the back of the cross? What primordial love and strategy lies in its shadow, now hidden to us but one day waiting to be explored and relished in heaven?
Again I stood back, watching the greedy stain doing its work. Was I finished? No. I popped the lid on a can of crimson paint. I didn’t have a brush, so I stuck my fingers into the cool liquid, this pooling elixir that for today served as the blood of Christ. Jesus’ blood, on my hands. Stepping toward the cross to lay out the finishing touches, I paused, letting my heart sink. I would be marking the cross with Christ’s blood. It was a holy moment.
As my fingers ran across the wood, I owned the awful truth that I made Jesus bleed two thousand years ago. I did that. When all was said and done my hands were a sticky mess, slathered with guilty stains and priceless blood. When it came off with Goo-Gone and soap, I thanked God…