A consistent theme which runs through the writings of G. K. Chesterton is the capacity to wonder at the world, and in particular an attempt to rediscover a wonder for ordinary and familiar things by looking at them from a new perspective. In his book, The Everlasting Man, he says that we have become familiar with matters of faith to the point that we are no longer astonished by them and even begin to hold them in contempt. He encourages the reader to look at matters of faith as “entirely unfamiliar and almost unearthly” in order to regain an appreciation for the truth we have lost sight of. To demonstrate his point, he offers an example of what might be necessary for someone to recover a sense of wonder at the fact that men are able to ride horses. He attempts to describe a horse as the first man might have seen it, as some kind of prehistoric creature lumbering out of a forest on “solid clubs of horn” with a “strangely small head” like the face of a gargoyle protruding from a neck almost wider than itself. The image he offers is monstrous, but it causes us to look at a horse with new eyes and realise what a strange creature it actually is, and how impressive it is that men are able to ride them. We might attempt a similar thing with something as commonplace as the humble pineapple. Imagine encountering one for the first time while exploring a tropical island after being shipwrecked. You would see what looks like a yellow football covered in a skin of armour, with a green crown exploding from the top. In a sense it is a very ugly thing that we would probably steer clear of if we encountered it for the first time in some foreign jungle. Yet pierce its outer shell and a soft and juicy flesh is unveiled and a refreshing sweetness that is hidden by a rigid, highly protective exterior. Suddenly it seems almost adventurously exciting that this strange plant is something we can eat, and not only eat but thoroughly enjoy.
While it is highly important not to lose sight of how amazing pineapples are, there are actually more serious things that we fail to appreciate through familiarity. For me, one of these is the crucifix. It is the most iconic image associated with Christianity, and yet because of this I find that I am exposed to it so frequently that it becomes merely a symbol made up of two intersecting lines. It becomes a standard part of Church decoration, or something people wear on a necklace. While I obviously know the significance and meaning of it, more often than not I fail to think of this when I see one.
One time during Mass earlier this year, I was looking at the impressive crucifix above the altar and was randomly struck by how it’s such a strange a symbol. It’s something I see every time I’m in a Catholic Church, or most homes, but I usually fail to see how shocking it actually is. I started to think about what it would be like to encounter one for the first time, with no knowledge of what it meant.
Imagine walking into the temple of some unknown religion, marvelling at the towering pillars, beautiful paintings, and intricate stained glass windows, only to look to the altar and see a massive sculpture of a dead man hanging from a noose. Then, imagine turning in shock to one of the worshippers and asking why there is such a terrifying image of death and execution staining their otherwise beautiful building, only to be told that it is the greatest sign of the love of the Universal Creator, and the image in which they place all their hope, and find the meaning for their lives. Surely we would see the worshipper as a madman, and the temple as a horrifying place.
Yet this is exactly what the cross is, an image of horrendous torture and death, proudly displayed in our Churches as the greatest sign of love the world has ever seen. On the surface level it is actually repulsive: a bloodied human body run through with nails, stretched out on two pieces of wood, with a tangle of thorns digging in to its lifeless head. It is probably one of the most striking images of human evil and cruelty, yet paradoxically, it is because of this that it is truly an image of hope.
If the crucifix was simply a glorified image of the victim of a Roman crucifixion, then the Churches in which it hangs would be madhouses for some sick and twisted cult of human sacrifice, but of course this is not the case. Deeper than the surface is the belief that this tortured body is actually the body of the Universal Creator, who descended from his Heavenly throne into the darkness of a world which had cut itself off from its source of life. This image of death brings hope and life, because it reminds us that no matter how much we suffer, or stray into the darkness, the Light of the world has gone there before us and is waiting with open arms, saying that there is no place He will not go to bring us back. Most importantly, it is a reminder that the horror and suffering of the cross, and of this life is only a brief moment in time before the Resurrection. A short night of darkness before an eternal dawn.