Last week it was a poem. Today, I’ll continue to trod unfamiliar ground with musings (some will say ramblings) about a symbol often seen here in New Mexico.
THE PENITENTE CROSS
A small cross stands at the apex of a stubby, barren hill. Local legend maintains it is a Penitente Cross from which once hung the body of a man. One of the Secret Brotherhood, presumably. A martyr who chose to be crucified like his Eternal Master, Jesus of Nazareth.
Somehow, I doubt that. The last time I climbed the hill – when I was but eleven – the cross was five feet at its tallest point. Heck, even I could have stood on solid ground if my arms were nailed to the cross bar. Of course, the people back then were smaller, they say. Nonetheless, the story is likely nothing but myth.
So what is the meaning of the cross? Why did someone go to the trouble of cutting heavy six-by-six timbers into shape, slotting them just so to make the cross piece fit perfectly? Some unknown individual then had to fight the weighty wood up the stubby hill and dig a pit so that the cross has stood against gravity and nature for as long as anyone can remember.
I long ago ceased to puzzle over the origin of the cross – Penitente or not. I recognize it as a religious symbol, but somehow it doesn’t seem grand enough to be either cherished or a down payment on a crown. Only once in my life have I seen someone praying before it. A startling sight, I must admit, upon spotting a lone man kneeling at its base, head bowed, hands poised in supplication. Was he was praying in gratitude or from desperation? On the other hand, local boys and young men use it for target practice with pellet guns and twenty-two rifles. It serves as a convenient roost for birds who leave droppings to smear the wood until rain squalls wash them away.
Even though I have passed this spot for years and observed the cross in all its incarnations, I have only recently come to consider what it means to me.
· On the way to work in the morning, it stands tall as if greeting a new day and all who populate it.
· At high noon, with the sun beating down to expose tortured, peeling cracks in the weathered wood, it is a symbol of suffering and endurance.
· On the way home in the afternoon, it is remote and says little to me. Perhaps it seems a bit worn down – as do I – by the events of the day just ending.
· With the coming of sunset, it stands tall on the skyline as if in awe of God’s glorious abstract painting of the western sky.
· In the darkest night with a waning gibbous moon hazed by ghostly clouds, it looms ominous … threatening. At times like this, I can almost imagine a Penitente hanging forgotten and forlorn from its timbers.
So what does this mute sentinel convey to me? Permanence, steadfastness. A mysterious force with the ability to stand against gales, blistering heat, freezing cold, lashing winds, abuse by unthinking humans … against time itself. A symbol of enduring all life can throw at you and remaining on your feet.
Nonsense, many would say. The unknown creators of the cross clearly intended it as a symbol of worship of the Crucified Christ who died for all of our sins.
Think about it. Is not the message I discerned an extension of that very meaning?
As I said, this is unusual ground for me. Let me know what you think. As always, thanks for reading.
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